RJ Barrett of the New York Knicks (292819)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

By any measure, the Knicks’ first half of this season was a success. They finished 19-18, a surprise—shocking may be a more apt characterization—to almost everyone with exception of those within the team, and have at last established a promising semblance of stability and direction. The Knicks haven’t ended a regular season with a winning record since finishing 54-28 in 2013.

Team president Leon Rose, current head coach Tom Thibodeau, and the lesser known members of their respective staffs have shaped a roster that has been competitive, resilient and adaptive. Their strength is on the defensive end of the floor, where they lead the NBA in almost every major category, including opponents points per game allowing just 104.4.

Julius Randle earned the Knicks’ first All-Star selection since Kristaps Porzingis in 2018, and the 26-year-old forward has emerged as a respected and trusted figure among his teammates. While Randle doesn’t officially hold the designation of captain, he is undoubtedly the Alpha dog in the locker room and on the court, where his averages of 23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds, 5.5 assists are all best on the squad.

“I definitely think I’ve grown as a leader,” Randle related to the media on a Zoom call on Sunday from Atlanta, where the All-Star Game was held. “I definitely think I’m a person on our team that leads by example with how I approach how I work. I care about my teammates. I definitely think it’s something that guys look to me every night to bring my game a certain way. I try to the best of my ability to do that.

“Absolutely I embrace it,” Randle said of his prominent role. “I work for it. I challenge myself and push myself to be able to do it on a nightly basis. I know I still have a long way to go and I can get a lot better.”

He’ll have to be at minimum as productive and efficient over the Knicks’ next 35 games as he was in their first 37. On paper, the Knicks’ schedule for the remainder of the regular season will be much more challenging. Variables such as player injuries and COVID-19 protocols, which considerably affected the NBA’s opening two and a half months, will continue to be factors.

However, assuming teams will get healthier with impact players such as the Los Angeles Lakers’ Anthony Davis, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ D’Angelo Russell and the Memphis Grizzlies’ Jaren Jackson Jr., all set to return to their teams’ lineup over the next 10 days, the Knicks will encounter formidable opponents seemingly on a nightly basis.

They begin their post All-Star Game break with four straight road games, starting with the Milwaukee Bucks tonight, Oklahoma City Thunder (Saturday, March 13), Brooklyn Nets (Monday, March 15) and Philadelphia 76ers (Tuesday) before returning home next Thursday to host the Orlando Magic.

Of the Knicks’ 35 games to be played, 22 are versus teams that as of today are in the top eight of their respective conferences. They have a combined record of 270-194. The Knicks have two games each against the Bucks, 76ers, Nets, Boston Celtics, Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Hornets, Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans and Washington Wizards.

Additionally, the Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat, Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs and Timberwolves with Russell are also ahead. It’s inevitable the Knicks will experience adversity in the coming months. How they manage it will determine whether the franchise makes its first playoff appearance in eight years or ends the season in disappointment.