These tricks prove that you don’t need a megastar, just good vibes, to win

Somewhere in the back of my mind is a rusted, creaking filing cabinet. Open one of the overstuffed drawers and you’ll see it’s full of ex-New York Knicks: totally forgettable failed prospects, failed draft picks, bored and surly free agent signings, journeymen nobodies.

There are also the truly remarkable failures. But these strange spreadsheets are mainly littered with people like Chris McNealy, Lou Amundson, Randolph Morris, Quincy Acy, Jerrod Mustaf, Lee Nailon, Sergio Rodriguez, things like that.

Fans of a crumpled and misguided franchise probably have a similarly threadbare mental inventory tucked away somewhere. It is, in a sense, an act of self-preservation. Or at least, it is for me. During the truly awful Knicks seasons — and there have been so many — I flipped through them many times, perhaps stuck in a two-week period where I thought Alexey Shved could be a rotation-quality NBA player. The present may seem hopeless, sure, and the past just as nightmarish, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe, I would tell myself, the time you spend on something that doesn’t love you, that never really seemed to care whether you were paying attention or not, is in its own way not only admirable, but beautiful .

Except now, all those misspent hours are paid back – with interest. The Knicks are a frighteningly good team.

What’s more, they’re a smart, well-constructed side, with a clear path to improvement and, perhaps most shockingly, a fully competent front office capable of executing their best laid plans. And yet they are still owned by James Dolan. James Dolan!

As the final seconds ticked off the clock of the New York Knicks’ 118-115 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night, I could barely muster the energy to move. It was a truly crazy series, with every game coming down to the wire. The Knicks won four games to two, and by a total of three points. As a long-time Knicks fan, every second I watched a terrified, sweat-drenched fetal crouch and cry with joy alternately at decibel levels that angered the neighbors.

The best part of all this is that it shouldn’t have worked, or at least not that well, and not that quickly. Instead, the Knicks, a team defined by its insular, self-defeating paranoia and short-sightedness for most of the 21st century, now have an incredibly fun, likable roster – and here’s the most unlikely part of this entire story – one that has been built on the power of friendship.

A quick primer for the uninitiated: the Knicks were good in the 1990s. Goonish, brutal and ugly, but pretty good. The only way to beat Michael Jordan, they assumed, was to play basketball with a hammer in one hand and a burlap bag filled with doorknobs in the other. They failed. For the next twenty years they searched desperately and thirstily for stars. These stars chose functional teams or ignored the Knicks altogether. They failed again. The product on the field was terrible.

Photo of Donte DiVincenzo, Jalen Brunson, Miles McBride and Josh Hart

Donte DiVincenzo reacts with Jalen Brunson, Miles McBride and Josh Hart after the Knicks defeated the 76ers in game two.

Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty

As calls for Dolan to sell the team became more and more persistent – ​​and the owner banned the team and/or got into petty and sometimes litigious fights with famous and non-famous fans calling for his ouster – they decided to reverse the practices that had dug this hole in the first place: cronyism and nepotism. For most of the 2000s, the Knicks were dismissed as a strangely unsuccessful (but highly profitable) arm of the ur-agency CAA. That is, when they didn’t outsource their business strategy to McKinsey & Company.

So who did they put in charge in 2019? Leon Rose, formerly CAA’s co-head of basketball (who had never worked in an NBA front office). Rose’s first front-page transaction was signing his godson, Jalen Brunson, who also happened to be the son of a former Knicks player and current Knicks assistant coach. Brunson’s current agent is Leon’s son, who still works for CAA. Coaching the team is Tom Thibodeau, who has been a close confidant of the Brunsons for decades. They then imported other CAA prospects as free agents and brought in a few of Brunson’s old college friends for good measure. From afar, it looked less like a standard roster setup than getting fun, well-paying gigs in front of friends and relatives. They weren’t shy about laying it out explicitly. “Family is how we build this team,” is how William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley, himself a former shadowy NBA power broker turned Knicks front office member, put it in 2022. Brunson said the same thing that year when explaining why he chose New York: “It’s family.”

Shockingly, this particular family is anything but dysfunctional. Watch this team for a while and you can’t help but feel like they really care about each other. You know, like a family, one with, again, according to Brunson, an impeccable atmosphere.

You can see it in the podcast he co-hosts with Josh Hart, a 6-foot-2 wrecking ball with no position whose job is to “run around like an idiot and ruin everything,” he said. You can see it in the Brunson choked back tears on the night he made his first All-Star team, or even in the way every man on the roster has embraced Thibodeaus’ grinding, growling maxim: “The magic is in the work.”

They scratch and claw at every loose ball and attack the offensive glass like it owes them money. Up and down the roster, previously discarded thoughts lie on defense with shocking alacrity, draining the opponent’s sheer willpower. At the same time, they’re not hockey guys without skates. Somehow, for the first time since the Clyde Frazier heyday, they’re playing beautiful, unselfish ball, a constant buzz of picks, backdoors and deft passing. At the center of it all is Brunson, the real-life star that Knicks fans have dreamed of seemingly forever. Of course, he looks nothing like the role.

At 6-foot-4, he is, at his best, the alpha and omega of the Knicks’ offense. Every scoring possession revolves around his uncanny ability to break free from defenders. Unlike other NBA stars who can overwhelm or overwhelm an opponent with sheer athleticism or physical superiority, Brunson reaches into an endless bag of feints, speed changes, pivots and downright ballsy footwork to create inches of space in the paint. When that doesn’t work, he relies on his surprising strength to beat down a defender until he’s broken. And his shot is something else. It’s somehow the most delicate, gentle part of his game, a pillowy heave that exerts just enough force to hang gently in the basket rather than snapping the nets. The question of whether Brunson could function as a true ‘1A’ star became prime fodder for shouty basketball talking heads in December. Asked and answered.

Knicks fans have embraced Brunson like no player since, well, Jeremy Lin, an equally unlikely but unfortunately short-lived star. Just watch this gang of frenzied New Yorkers storm Philadelphia’s home arena after Brunson painted a 47-point, 10-assist masterpiece to seal Game 3, despite Philly moving heaven and earth to take the ball out of Brunson’s mitts and take it away to push from his favorite places. For an encore, he dropped 40 and 41 in the next two, including a crazy final quarter.

Losing your mind is a perfectly reasonable response to all these blessings. Of course, they burn jerseys in the streets and at home, and the rafters of MSG rattle and buzz with orgiastic glee when Brunson shakes Embiid off his size 17 Under Armor Ones. And of course Knicks (flawed) legend John Starks was on the court every game, rallying the troops with as much enthusiasm as any fan.

It’s only one round, but the Knicks have already gotten at least one moment of magic, with a pair of botched calls and unexpected bounces allowing them to overcome a five-point deficit in the final seconds of the game.

This, I’ve always been told, is the great bargain of the sport: you suffer and in return you are left with miracles that are honest to goodness. The real dopamine hit in the heart of fandom isn’t in the thrill of victory; it is the illusion of a moral and just (or at least functioning) world. That heart can overcome a lack of talent; that the perceived good guys can occasionally get the upper hand. Personally, I have had a difficult year, largely due to things beyond my control. And so I’ve come to care about this Knicks team more than anything, in ways I haven’t since I was a kid. I never saw it coming, but it has been a balm, a distraction in the best sense of the word.

No matter what happens the rest of the playoffs, the atmosphere will remain impeccable. Maybe then I can finally get rid of that filing cabinet.