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Knicks’ Leon Rose faces tricky next step after successful year

A year ago at this time, the NBA was gathered in Chicago for All-Star weekend and the Knicks, no surprise, were invisible. None of the players had come anywhere close to being named to the game. There was nobody in the slam-dunk contest, nobody in the 3-point contest.

The one bright light? RJ Barrett played for the World Team in the Rising Stars Challenge and scored a game-high 27 points. The flip side? His team lost 151-131 to Team USA. One more scoreboard-humbling in a season stuffed with them for the rookie.

The newspaper offered no solace. The Knicks were 17-38, the fifth-worst record in the 30-team league. They’d already fired a coach (David Fizdale), fired a president (Steve Mills), were days away from officially turning the keys to the castle over to a player agent (Leon Rose) who’d never spent a day in an NBA front office.

Villanova’s Jay Wright, thought to be a certain Rose target, had sent back a message through intermediaries seeking his thoughts on the job: “Not interested.”

Marc Berman’s report card in The Post was damning but also hard to argue with: Not one Knicks player earned a grade higher than a C-plus after the team’s focal point, Marcus Morris, had been shuttled out west. Julius Randle was given a C, and the Knicks fans who’d lately taken to booing him lustily at the Garden certainly weren’t going to argue.

An anonymous quote that, honestly, could have been attributed to any of a thousand different people, surfaced on Feb. 17, 2020, and seemed to serve as a valedictory for the state of affairs at Penn Plaza: “Dead-end franchise, dead-end job.”

And now it is Feb. 17, 2021.

And look, the Knicks have a game with the Magic on Wednesday night in Orlando, Fla., with a chance to get to .500, and that suddenly feels like the most important game the Knicks have played since Carmelo Anthony was fixing to slam one home in Indianapolis, before Roy Hibbert got his hand in the way (mostly because it is, truth be told; and that game happened almost eight years ago).

It has been a year that has felt like five — and only partly because most of us have been frozen in place since March. For the Knicks, the first year under Rose has gone about as well as anyone could expect. He brought on his wing man, William Wesley, and he started bulking up his front-office staff right away.

Knicks Leon Rose
Knicks president Leon Rose on March 2, 2020.
Corey Sipkin

He took his time hiring a coach, but when he did, he made the most universally acclaimed hire around the Knicks since Pat Riley 29 years earlier. There is little mystery to what Tom Thibodeau and a first-rate staff (notably Kenny Payne) have done — lighting fires under the players, elevating expectations among worn-down and beaten-up fans, demanding effort, demanding defense, demanding real victories, not moral ones.

The roster is still thin, certainly compared to the sport’s elite, but it works well together, especially in a year when the NBA’s middle class has never been so swollen. Randle, of course, is the fulcrum, having spent the extended offseason recommitting to his game then buying into Thibodeau’s system with the fervor of a religious convert. Barrett is improved. So is Elfrid Payton. Mitchell Robinson was blossoming before breaking his hand.

Rose’s additions haven’t all worked out — notably Austin Rivers — but he has more wins than losses. Immanuel Quickley may have been the steal of draft night (and for now helps mitigate the fact that choosing Obi Toppin over Tyrese Halburton looks like a short-sample whiff). Nerlens Noel has been a defensive revelation, Alec Burks a useful asset. The early returns on Derrick Rose are almost all favorable.

So far, so good.

The next step, whatever that step is, will be trickier. Rose was wise to avoid the offseason temptations of Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul, was lucky to be blown out of the water by the Hornets for Gordon Hayward, but there will have to be a next step. There are preliminary rumblings about Washington’s Bradley Beal and Chicago’s Zach LaVine, and it’ll take a haul to lure them — costing not only draft capital (of which there’s plenty, and which will eventually have to be used to lure a big fish) but also someone like Barrett, too.

That’s when Leon Rose’s job will really get interesting. Barrett has become a lightning-rod player, mostly because of where he was drafted (third) and who was picked before him (Zion Williamson and Ja Morant) — which is neither fair nor reflective of the fact that he is still but 20 years old, and has already proven to be a quick learner and eager to be coached. But there will be a cost for taking the next leap. It won’t come at any discount.

As Gordon Gekko once said: Rose has done good. But he has to keep doing good. For now, .500 is something of a holy land for the Knicks, but it won’t be that way forever. His instincts have been good. But they have to keep being good. It’s been a good year. The Knicks are winning some. Fans are embracing the Knicks again. Soon, they’ll want more.

How do you get them more, Leon?


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