MEMPHIS — Year 1 of the Tom Thibodeau experience was rainbows and unicorns.
Year 2 was like the Saturday Night Fever sequel.
Year 3 is the inflection point of this particular Knicks chapter.
As their season opens Wednesday night in Memphis, the answers as to where the Knicks stand — or where they should hope to finish — remain very much in flux.
Forks will hit the road.
The players are contracted for too long and they’re too good to either tank or dismiss this as a gap year. Yet the Knicks’ path to the playoffs, let alone serious contention, is daunting, at best.
The East, after years of deserving its Leastern Conference label, is stacked at the top and middle.
Assuming Milwaukee, Boston, Miami, Philadelphia and Brooklyn secure playoff bids, the Knicks and six others — Chicago, Toronto, Cleveland, Atlanta, Washington and Charlotte — will jostle for one guaranteed spot and four play-in opportunities.
It’s hardly the most exciting scenario, but there are reasons for optimism beyond a race to avoid the play-in. At the very least, the Knicks are interesting. They’re always interesting.
The intrigue starts with Julius Randle, who went from hero to hated at MSG last season. Now conversations and expectations about his role have shifted dramatically.
Instead of being the go-to playmaker, Randle’s asked to give the ball up quickly and move without it. Instead of being the team’s emotional leader and public voice — a role he handled poorly last season — he’s taken a backseat to the other veterans.
Much of this is about Randle’s deterioration last season and need for reevaluation. But it’s also the arrival of a point guard, Jalen Brunson, who is better equipped for directing the offense.
A fair concern is whether Randle’s ego will allow him to cede the ball and accept a lesser role. To that end, the preseason was encouraging.
Randle not only played efficiently without many isolations, the starting lineup also dominated its minutes and validated the strategy.
“Julius has always been a good passer, but now he’s also moving without the ball,” Thibodeau said. “I think that component has helped him and helped us. And that’s the most important thing. We want him to do that. And when we play like that, the game is easier for everyone… No one wants to see him attacking the paint off of movement. When he does that, it brings us to a different level.”
The Knicks should accept middle ground between All-NBA Randle and Self-Destructive Randle. It’s a reasonable expectation.
But there are other significant pieces determining success or failure: Brunson’s adjustment to lead guard; RJ Barrett’s progression; Mitchell Robinson’s durability; the perimeter defense of a Brunson/Evan Fournier backcourt; Derrick Rose’s health; the streakiness of Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley.
The Knicks, despite what they might portray, enter this season under pressure. The results have to justify a starting lineup with over $400 million remaining in contracts and the team’s failure to acquire Donovan Mitchell.
If it backfires, the trade deadline looms as a hard pivot while axes rise. Typically, those axes fall first on the coach.
Although Leon Rose is the figurehead, it’s difficult to know where to assign responsibility in a front office with more voices than a Pawnee Town Hall. According to sources, team consultant Gersson Rosas, the former GM of the Timberwolves, and VP of Strategy Brock Aller, a noted draft-pick hoarder, were both negotiators for the Knicks in the Mitchell talks. That’s not even mentioning GM Scott Perry, Executive VP William Wesley and owner James Dolan.
Thibodeau, meanwhile, is the clear voice and decision-maker of the coaching staff. He’s coming into Year 3 with plans of playing faster and shooting more 3-pointers. He has a new point guard, an evolving power forward, a signature defense to recover and the NBA’s best division to grapple.
Right now, entering Game 1, the path is murky with many potential directions. Get ready for the journey.