There’s a saying coined by the legendary former Giants coach Bill Parcells: “You are what your record says you are.”
Except maybe not in a pandemic season with lots of variables.
The conditions suited Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks perfectly in the regular season, but the talent level got exposed during a playoffs that felt like normal times with near-full buildings louder than ever.
Wednesday’s late-night post-game Knicks Zoom press conference was a lovefest in saluting their gritty 41-31 regular season. It sounded as if the Knicks had been taken out in a deciding seventh game and not having lost the final three games by a combined 41 points.
Fact is, the Knicks weren’t competitive. The Knicks didn’t look like they belonged on the same court as the Hawks, who weaved the same 41-31 record.
That’s a concern going into an offseason that has promised further riches with their $60 million in cap space and two first-round draft picks.
But being routed in three straight playoffs games by the Hawks changes the lens, raises more questions about the validity of 41-31.
Is Julius Randle really a “1a?” Is RJ Barrett even close to being a “1b?” What will Derrick Rose, turning 33, look like if he returns in a similar role playing 30-plus minutes a night? Rose was burnt as toast in the final two playoff games, his knee acting up.
For all the nice talk about “building a foundation,” it was a sobering reality these past 10 days in the way they got pummeled.
The Knicks got their doors blown off and Randle didn’t look close to being able to lead a playoff run, though it was his inaugural try. And Thibodeau made no adjustments the last three blowout losses. He mysteriously kept Elfrid Payton and Frank Ntilikina fastened to the bench in each passing rout following his backfiring starting-lineup shakeup with Rose.
It brings to mind a comment once made by Warriors president Bob Myers, a former agent like Knicks leader Leon Rose. Myers is comfortable talking to the press, while Rose has had the mute button on since last July’s Thibodeau press conference.
“The playoffs are nothing like the regular season,” Myers said. “They are two completely different sports.”
Myers went on for more chilling remarks considering the depth of Randle’s struggles in the playoffs when he shot 29.8 percent (33.3 percent from 3).
“Whatever they know (a star) does well, is gone,” Myers said. “Even shooters. … That two feet of space in the regular season is two inches. Watch how many players cannot make a shot in the playoffs and shoot 42 percent (Randle’s percentage) in the regular season. It’s not the same thing. Why does that matter? The more dimensions you have to your game the harder you are to take away. You watch the playoffs you know who can play basketball. That’s when you evaluate players.”
The Knicks still hope to extend Randle’s contract this August if he’s willing. They can offer him a four-year extension, but not at max money under CBA rules. The Knicks can offer, tops, a 120 percentage bump from his $19.8 million final season. That means it can “only” start at $23.8 million in 2022-23.
The good news is after Randle’s humbling playoffs, he may be eager to lock it up instead of testing unrestricted free agency in 2022 and vie for the max.
Knowing the depths of the player’s despair, Thibodeau never sounded more positive than after Game 5’s season-ending clunker. No more motivational riffs that they need to be better. It was over, and many of the fringe players are moving on in free agency.
“Just building a foundation, building the right habits,” Thibodeau said. “Everyone getting better, learning, growing, being together. Getting knocked down, getting back up. Coming back in the next day, attitude and approach was outstanding from last summer to the end. I couldn’t ask for anymore from the team.”
Indeed, the Knicks played with a warrior spirit in the regular season that thrilled their fans but wasn’t nearly enough in the playoffs. The roster wasn’t built for this. Thibodeau squeezed blood from a stone all season.
As Jeff Van Gundy has attested, his buddy is a master at logging regular-season victories, playing his top guns max minutes with nobody taking nights off.
His two best players, Randle and Barrett, were 1-2 in total minutes played in the NBA. Other NBA teams don’t function that way, but Thibodeau needed to this season to establish the Knicks as credible to free agents.
Next season, the coach can be more about pacing. Maybe Randle gets a couple of load-management off days next season because he looked mentally and physically exhausted in Game 5 – like Rose.
The Knicks, as has been reported, benefitted from pandemic rules, not having the usual distractions playing in New York. No personal appearances, no media around except for the club-controlled Zoom calls. They thrived in mostly empty arenas all season when the pressure wasn’t as high. When the buildings got filled, the Knicks were running on empty.
Before the playoffs, it was clear they needed a starting point guard. Portland’s Damian Lillard could demand a trade, or they could sign Lonzo Ball, Kyle Lowry or Dennis Schroder.
But in the wreckage of the Hawks’ five-game domination, the Knicks may need a lot more, especially with higher expectations next season. Under closer inspection, that 41-31 record can look more mirage than real.