The idea of competition for playing time can be a very slippery slope, especially if incumbents with higher salaries feel threatened and cause locker room friction. But the sense so far is that players, top to bottom, are pushing themselves for minutes, resulting in the Knicks outplaying opponents -- especially at home -- more often than not.
When the Knicks signed Mindaugas Kuzminskas from Unicaja, a Spanish team in the Euroleague, I texted a scout friend of mine who was familiar with his game.
"Best player on the team and doesn't even start. Tells you how unselfish he is."
When I watched him play in the Olympic games for Lithuania I thought to myself that he's a player who plays the same way regardless of the score: Fearless, smart, competitive, and always moving.
In studying Willy Hernangomez, especially at the national level while playing for Team Spain, I said to myself that, mentally, he's a player who takes advantage of his opportunities but understands that they may be limited based on experience. Not afraid to compete.
When you factor in both European signings -- along with the one-year deals given to Derrick Rose, Justin Holiday, and Brandon Jennings -- Phil Jackson and Steve Mills, along with Jeff Hornacek, have built a roster for the Knicks that's based on one word that is a common trait among almost every single player on the team.
The first example starts at the top. Hornacek has not been afraid to sit Carmelo Anthony during stretches early in the fourth quarter, allowing for Kristaps Porzingis to be the team's primary scoring option. In the case of Joakim Noah, who the Knicks paid $72 million over four years for, Hornacek has relied on the combination of Kyle O'Quinn and Hernangomez to be the interior presence Noah is paid to be, telling Noah that he needs to step his game in order to win back minutes.
We are seeing the same thing happening with Holiday, an essential throw-in of the Rose trade, pushing Courtney Lee for big minutes at the SG spot. Holiday has simply outplayed Lee and has been deserving of more minutes, while Lee figures out his poor shooting and his nagging injuries work themselves out.
At the small forward position, as Lance Thomas deals with foot problems, Kuzminskas has quickly become a fan favorite with his fiery offensive game and a grin made for the bright lights of Madison Avenue.
But there is no bigger example of competition getting the best out of a position than at the point guard spot, where Rose and Jennings are orchestrating the team in a way that has the Knicks' offense quickly becoming one of the top 10 (12th) in the entire NBA based on offensive rating.
The Knicks are 13th in assists per possession (.221) and 12th in assists-to-turnover ratio (1.586) as Rose and Jennings are pushing the pace in allowing the Knicks to put up 89 field goals per game, which is seventh best in the NBA. Hornacek has often rewarded his point guard play by playing Rose and Jennings together, something we hoped to see heading into the season.
As the Knicks continue to build what they hope is a solid, playoff-contending team, the core elements and pillars are built during the first quarter of the season. What we've seen thus far is that the team, behind Hornacek's leadership, is a resilient group that is trending in the right direction while establishing an identity at home.
They also understand that by competing internally, the rewards come through trust from their coach and extra minutes, or nights off depending on what's needed. All you can ask for as a coach from players is consistency in terms of effort, and all you can ask for as a player is minutes based on such effort.
Hornacek has been able to balance both, and the results are a strong start to the season for this year's Knicks.