At the start of all of this, remember, Thursday wasn’t supposed to mark the end of anything. Back in December — before we knew what the Knicks were, before we understood what they could be, before we marveled at what they became — Thursday was assumed to be Day 18 of the most important part of the Knicks’ season.
The Critical Offseason of 2021.
The season interrupted that. By Thursday morning there was still some residual sadness, some lingering anger, some loitering frustration at how the Knicks’ season had come tumbling down in five games against the Hawks in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Losing four out of five feels horrifying. And yet the Knicks have twice in the past seven years lost at a similar clip — .207 as opposed to .200 — across entire regular seasons, with their matching 17-65 records in both 2018 and 2015. Most recent years haven’t been much better than that. This year wasn’t supposed to be much better than that.
And then it was.
So, yes, it was easy to forget that the third of June was supposed to be the 18th day of the Knicks’ next step toward relevance. But that task resumes again now. All along, even the most ardent Knicks acolyte understood that the winning this year was a bonus, an unexpected (and sometimes inexplicable) add-on to the real task at hand:
That part of the narrative was always going to be the most important one, and it remains so. Leon Rose is the one who takes over the lion’s share of the spotlight now, having ceded most of it the past five months to his coach and his players.
Rose has, to date, made two spectacular choices: hiring Tom Thibodeau and acquiring Derrick Rose for pennies on the dollar. Both of those maneuvers help to explain why 2020-21 wasn’t simply another lost year, and why there was such an infusion of life and energy at Madison Square Garden this season.
Rose has made two other decisions that, right now, look like positives: his two first-round picks last year, Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley. Quickley is a fair bet to make the all-rookie team. Toppin had a decidedly uneven season but showed enough flashes in the playoffs to remind why he was such a uniquely intriguing pick at No. 8.
Right now this grade is incomplete — Toppin must improve along a pace similar to last year’s first-round pick, RJ Barrett, or else he (and, by association, Rose) will forever be unfavorably compared to Tyrese Haliburton, especially if the Knicks’ search for a point guard continues without satisfaction.
There was one clear swing-and-miss by Rose: You have to believe, knowing what we know now, that the Knicks would’ve been better off keeping Austin Rivers in favor of Elfrid Payton, who became an unplayable mess in the season’s endgame.
And Rose also chose not to make a crazy impulse buy in the preseason (no Chris Paul, no Russell Westbrook) and to essentially stay put at the trade deadline. The wisdom of those decisions seems sound now; it will soon be tested in full. Because the Knicks that we grew to know and enjoy will — must — have a different look by the time the regular season resumes.
There will be time aplenty to break down, specifically, what is gettable and what is essential. Here is what we know: They have youth. They have assets. And they have cash.
They have a core of Julius Randle (26), Barrett (20), Mitchell Robinson (23), Toppin (23) and Quickley (21). They have close to $60 million in available salary-cap space. They have five first-round picks the next three years. They have options and, for the first time in forever, they have possibilities.
Now it is time for Rose to convert those possibilities into players.
Time to turn spec into special.
As Gordon Gekko told Bud Fox: You’ve done good. But you’ve got to keep doing good. There is no way to grade Rose’s first year in the job as anything other than an unqualified success. Somehow, he has to figure a way for Year 2 to be even better. He has to keep doing good.