rj barrett
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a long time since the Knicks were in the NBA Finals. Climbing the mountaintop won’t be easy, but there are a few key takeaways from Warriors-Celtics after Golden State wrapped up its fourth title in the Steph Curry era.

Defense still wins championships. Anyone who has ever uttered this phrase should be shouting this from the rooftops this year. The Celtics (106.2) and Warriors (106.6) were first and second in defensive rating, respectively. Nine of the top 10 defenses in the league made the playoffs.

There are two good signs for the Knicks here though. Despite the rollercoaster season, New York finished 11th in defensive rating. They were fourth during Tom Thibodeau’s debut season. In other words, the Knicks have one piece to a winning puzzle already in place.

The Knicks need an agitator. It’s not a prerequisite for winning a championship, but it sure helps. Having a guy who agitates and frustrates the other team is a major plus. Draymond Green and Marcus Smart are extreme examples of this because they are elite defenders on top of being prototypical agitators. Those two traits often go hand in hand.

Even guys like Grant Williams and Gary Payton II fit this mold as pesky flies the opposing team is constantly swatting away. Examples from past championship teams include names like P.J. Tucker, Jae Crowder, Ron Artest, Bruce Bowen, Udonis Haslem, and the list goes on.

Is the next great agitator already on the roster? We’ll have to wait and see.

Rome wasn’t built in a day (and it wasn’t cheap). This isn’t the NFL. Going from the basement to a championship game — see the Cincinnati Bengals — doesn’t happen in the NBA. It takes years to build a championship contender in the NBA.

It takes years to build a true contender and all we need to do is look to Brooklyn to see what happens when teams skip steps. No doubt, the Nets are a legitimate championship contender with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but the whole thing feels like a house of cards that could collapse at any moment. The Warriors and Celtics have a much stronger foundation to build from.

ESPN reporter Brian Windhorst is rightfully getting clowned for his “checkbook win” comment about the Warriors after Game 5. When we look past the condescending tone of his comments, he has a point.

It takes money and an owner willing to spend it to build a sustainable contender. Although James Dolan is a constant target of criticism, no one can say he’s cheap. Dolan is willing to spend money to produce a winner.

Building from within works. This is piggybacking off of my recent column on random Knicks offseason thoughts. The superteam model can work, but building from within is the sustainable model.

And for what it’s worth, “building from within” does not mean tanking for draft picks. Here’s a look at the homegrown talent in the NBA Finals and where they were drafted:

Warriors: Stephen Curry (No. 7), Klay Thompson (11), Jordan Pool (28), Kevon Looney (30) and Draymond Green (35).

Celtics: Jaylen Brown (3), Jayson Tatum (3), Marcus Smart (6), Grant Williams (22) and Robert Williams III (27).

Sure, it helps to have lottery picks, but there are ways to win on the margins with picks in the teens, 20s, and even second round.

The NBA would kill to have the Knicks in the Finals. The league office will be doing backflips the next time the Knicks make the NBA Finals. Television ratings are down despite what the ESPN PR machine is spinning. While numbers are up over the last two years, it’s important to remember that those were both pandemic-altered playoffs.

Excluding those two years, Game 1 drew the lowest numbers of any debut game since Cavaliers-Spurs in 2007. This NBA Finals features two large media markets in Boston and the Bay Area and superstars like Steph Curry and Jayson Tatum. It’s a recipe for ratings success, but it’s not delivering.

The numbers for the Knicks would be through the roof. New York is the largest media market in the NBA and the novelty of the Knicks making the Finals for the first time since 1999 would bring in casual hoops fans too.

Diehard Knicks fans aren’t the only ones praying for a trip back to the biggest stage. There are plenty of folks in the league office and at ESPN who would kill for that too.

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.