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Toppin and Poppin’: What should be done about Tom Thibodeau?

Jay and Abe take on the Thibs dilemma.

NBA: New York Knicks at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Toppin & Poppin’ will be a recurring conversation series between Abe Beame, and our newest team member at Posting & Toasting: the great Jayson Buford. For tonight’s installment, we’ll be discussing what may prove to be the only relevant topic of conversation throughout the rest of a potentially very disappointing season: Whether or not to retain the services of our head coach, Tom Thibodeau.

Abe: I’m reporting live from my apartment just minutes after the Knicks got fucking walked on national television by a Miami Heat team that was down Kyle Lowry. You could argue it was a game no basketball coach on Earth would have won against a hard-defending and sweet-shooting Miami squad that could easily be competing for a championship this summer, and yet it would be impossible to say Thibs coached the best possible version of the team tonight. Our “star” and linchpin Julius Randle was, even for him this season, laughably disinterested in the proceedings. Thibs’ lifelong friend and mentor Jeff Van Gundy was calling the game, and the fanatically pro-coach announcer made the conscious decision to take his old buddy to the woodshed over his rotations and the starters’ complete incompetence compared to their teammates coming off the bench. Even for New York, even for the Knicks, things have felt increasingly severe over the past few weeks and could be coming to a head. Jay, what are you seeing, what are you feeling, and where should we go from here?

Jay: Hearing Van Gundy do that should have come with the music they play on Law & Order when Jack McCoy is about to fry a defendant on the stand. This is a man who used to employ Thibs on the same bench that Thibs runs now. That wasn’t an accident. As you said, it was conscious and absolutely pertinent. Thibs is not the right coach for this Knicks team. Tonight is a poor example because Miami’s basketball team is excellent and not a team we can beat on our best night. With that being said, it’s frustrating when you have a coach that seemingly would rather lose doing what he wants to do than attempt to do something different during the game. He refuses to take advantage of mismatches when even the blindest of Knicks fans could see them. The Heat are an athletic and skillful team so play Julius Randle and Obi Toppin together and see if their respective skill and athletic ability can match up. This isn’t something that is hard to figure out and yet he can’t do it. This is supposed to be a coach who is the ultimate gym rat. Why can’t he make basic changes?

Abe: Jay, I love a timely reference as much as the next guy and I’m relieved within a sentence of your debut here you worked in the L&O binge you’ve been on. You hit on something that I think has been the main point of contention amongst the Thibs critics this season: He has the quality of a cello player on the deck of the Titanic, a stoic doctrinaire who refuses to pack up his bow before he gets through his specific and anal rendition of “Nearer, My God, To Thee” as all we Irish Knicks faithful sink into the abyss in the icy, gated off lower bowels of the ship. What is the point of dogma, and a system, if it’s not working? I spoke to Chris Herring last week about the 90s Knicks, and I just can’t help seeing parallels between Thibs and Riley at his worst, refusing to try Rolando Blackman as a title slips away. I think we can all agree the most electric minutes of any Knicks game come with Obi on the floor. Both offense and defense are charged with unpredictability and surprise, our transition game is lethal, fucking Walter Mitty himself is Tweeting for the thing we all know to be true, and yet tonight, in a fucking blowout, Obi Toppin played a mere 21 minutes, a wild improvement over his average 9-12, scored 18 points on 7-9 shooting, was +20 on the floor, and we got fucking blown out.

Something I think every coach in every league in every sport could learn from is how the 49ers have employed Deebo Samuel this season. The wide receiver has become a one man offensive machine, a super conductor for the team that has found itself injury-riddled and shorthanded much of the season, but is currently a game away from the Super Bowl. This is a product of innovative, dynamic design. Coach Shanahan is not letting positional definitions tie his hands behind his back. If you don’t want to step on Randle’s minutes, play Obi at the 3, play him at the 5, make him a fucking Knicks City Dancer, just make sure he’s on the fucking court! It’s not complicated! Good things happen for us when he’s out there.

Jay: It’s interesting that you bring up Samuel because I agree and the one thing that football strategy has over hoops is that their coaches are more willing to forget about conventional thinking when they have talented players that are quirky. I don’t think that Randle is at fault here. He’s struggled with his body language and motor this season but he is frustrated. If the coach would put his head to where his “work hard” ethos is, then Randle would look better out there. Good things do seem to happen when Toppin is on the court. He’s an athletic marvel, one who plays above the rim when everyone else is playing CYO below the rim basketball. The system doesn’t even seem to be the problem. Thibs’ plays are fine. I’m sure if John Wooden reviewed the game tape for every game, he would say that Thibs is running sets that he might also run. For me, it is the fact that he refuses to mix and match. We have a unique team. There isn’t one player that is better than the other players. Randle is good but he isn’t that much better than RJ Barrett — if he is at all — nor is Alec Burks much *better* than someone like Immanuel Quickley on a good day. That means that Thibs ought to distribute the minutes based on matchups, effort, and whoever has the hot hand. Burks is playing more minutes as a starter than he would if he was coming off the bench and it is making his play putrid. I’d blame him but I am concerned for his physical health.

Abe: I take issue with you describing whatever is going on with Randle as him “struggling” with his body language, like his eyes and lips are injured and that’s why he always looks like he got done eating a steaming piece of shit that just fell out of a horse in Central Park regardless of whether he or the team is doing good or bad. I really think something significant is going on with him we don’t know about.

You hit on a good point with trying to run the offense through Barrett, something I’ve been dying to see for some time, but there are a million ideas. The other day while watching the matinee with the Clippers I came to an epiphany: We’ve misused Fournier from the jump. He’s the streakiest shooter I’ve seen since John Starks, so why not employ him in the way we best used Starks, as a microwave off the bench the year he won Sixth Man? We look promising when we run the offense through RJ, a bull who will never stop charging the rim, instead of this lazy, ball-stuck version of Randle we’ve been shackled to this season. Grimes has become an instant staple, which I’m thrilled about, but there’s no room for Deuce, who looks like the second coming of Gary Payton with increased bounce in the G-League every time we send him down and he raises hell. Kemba’s off the team till he bounces back for a few good games and then regains his cemented position. Is it “One Mic” or “Oochie Wally”? What the fuck is good with this guy? It all feels so arbitrary and stuck in the mud. Taj over Sims? Yeah, all these ideas might be the products of a moron in his mom’s basement who has no clue what he’s talking about, but is that any better than a coach who refuses to experiment in any way shape or form with lineups and positions and matchups regardless of how poorly what he’s committed himself to is working? We just got this potential Ferrari in Cam Reddish. Maybe he sucks, but let’s find out! Can’t imagine a better opportunity than a blowout in Miami, and yet we got nearly nothing besides the dregs of garbage time. Why?

Jay: Well, look, Randle is not as good as he was last season. We should have known that. He got a better handle and passing skills but the shooting was an anomaly. He practically shot like Dirk Nowitzki last season. This year, he is back to normal but he would still be better than usual if Thibs would make life easier on him. I’m not yet ready to ship Randle away. I wish his body language would be better. Nobody wants to watch their star player look like a kid at Toys R’ Us when he is not getting his way. Calling Deuce the second coming of Gary Payton is the biggest Knicks fan reach of all-time, but I definitely hear you. Fournier isn’t a bad player and he’d be better if he was just a chucker with Baguette by his side. Reddish will play once Burks is traded — if he is traded — so I am not as worried about that. However, he should definitely be in there now. Let’s see what we have or why did he make this trade? It makes me think that either Mr. Leon Rose is delusional about who Thibs fundamentally is, or he has something else up his sleeve. Let’s hope that it is the latter.

One of the things that I still can’t get my head around is the Quickley thing. Quick is not perfect. Sometimes he plays like the basketball is a hot potato that he can’t get a hold of, and sometimes he’ll pass up an open layup for a wild pass that rarely works out well. He doesn’t finish as well as you hope for a guard his size. He is, at best, a specialist, but Thibs treats him like he is a player that can only help the team in spurts. He is a specialist on a team that doesn’t have any. He needs to start. If he shoots well, then the team will improve. He constantly looks the best when he plays with Obi and/or Randle. A player who knows how to get people involved and put the pressure on the defense should play more. Kemba Walker is from The Bronx and was a hero for kids in Bronx Catholic High Schools like me, but his knees are made of peanut brittle.

Abe: Standing by the Deuce take until proven otherwise. You bring up Leon and how important it is that we trade AB at some point, and I think we are underselling how crushing that is as a concept. It’s a common sentiment I’ve seen around Knicks Twitter in the last week or two, that we need to make a trade or send Taj off on an ice floe to save Thibs from himself. A lot of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s paunch folded over a pair of baseball pants, and it fits! We want to manage this coach by making adjustments to the roster, it’s the exact Carlos Pena scenario from Moneyball! And here’s the thing: I fucking love AB! He’s an incredibly likable, useful player any team would be fortunate to have, and the idea we have to move him because our coach is leaning on him so hard is depressing and borderline absurd.

I have a lot to say about your IQ take, and the entire “IQ is not a point guard” movement (I’d point detractors to the counting assist stats and whatever inscrutable assist ratio numbers IQ has been racking the nerds much smarter than Jay and I have been screaming about the last few weeks), but we’ll ideally be writing a few, if not a bunch of these before the end of the season, so let’s keep some of our powder dry. Let’s keep the focus on Thibs. YouTube diss tracks aside, do we think he absolutely has to go, and if so, who takes his place, what direction would you like to see the team take for the rest of the season, if not the playoffs and a championship?

Jay: First of all, the nerds are not smarter than us. They just have fancy statistics. I don’t know if he absolutely has to go. This team is not a championship contender. It is more like this: I will be apathetic about the team’s chances to improve beyond a low-seed playoff spot if he is still the coach. The team still plays hard. Effort was not the problem tonight and outside two back-to-back games, is never the problem. He’s just not the coach for a team that needs creativity to be successful. With that being said, there isn’t a coach out currently that we can sign and will improve the team. Younger Knicks fans, like the ones who used to stan for Ntilikina, have wanted us to hire Kenny Atkinson but Atkinson hasn’t been hired by anyone else and it has been two years since he got fired by the Nets. There is something to that. The NBA is a league of no secrets. It can’t be an accident that Atkinson isn’t the coach anywhere. Thibs is a solid coach who can get players to play hard for him. He has coached teams that have won games with sheer grit. At one point, his defensive scheme was revolutionary. There is a plan every time that the Knicks play. It just isn’t a plan that this team currently needs. He is a coach who believes in structure but couldn’t find an adjustment if it was staring him right in the face. Structure would work better for an older team with superstars on it, not for a younger team with players that you have to be bullish on to coach well. Younger teams, with no supreme commander as a best player, need a coach who holds every player accountable in the same way. If Randle isn’t playing well, he isn’t much better than Obi Toppin and should be benched. Same with Burks and a player like Quickley. We’re stuck with a guy who should be coaching the 1999 Knicks and not a guy who should be coaching this team. I also think his ego drives most of his decisions. As I said at the beginning, part of me thinks that Thibs would rather lose dogmatically than win experimentally. Fuck that. This isn’t the New York Thibodeaus. We’re the Knicks. Find a way to coach the team in a way that makes sense or resign and become Doc’s defensive coordinator again. Because we just hired him, The Knicks are stuck between keeping this coach or having to admit that Leon Rose’s longtime friend is no longer up for a job like this. Let’s see what they do. My money is on them keeping him around and things only getting worse.

Abe: So I think we agree and somehow come to separate conclusions. I also don’t believe that this is a championship team. I don’t even necessarily believe we should lean into a tank for the rest of the season. We let Bully walk in the offseason. I think it was the right thing to do. But I don’t think we realized how badly it would affect Thibs. I think it broke his brain a little. We got to see the best version of what he can still be as a coach last year when he has a version of the A-Team, a ragtag bunch of castoffs and misfits who know where to go and what to do, soldiers to follow his orders. The Knicks are transitioning to something else, and I don’t think he’s the coach to lead a team with that vision into a new world.

You know I both loved my dear Franky, and I want Kenny Atkinson as our coach, and I’m old, so I’m not sure how you tried to thread that needle, but let me just present a final scenario because it’s late. We were both in the building for the Martin Luther King embarrassment in the Garden, when we got blown out by the Hornets without Melo Ball. During that game, when it was still tight, maybe by accident, Thibs had a lineup on the floor that was Taj, and four young, homegrown products. I believe it was IQ, Grimes, RJ, and Obi. And they were putting in work. It was glorious, and I thought to myself, “if we’re going to flush this season, or at least not make a serious run, why not make it useful, why not make it a season where we create something, or build towards something. Let’s learn together, let’s grow.” And that’s what I want from the rest of this year. We have some really interesting young talent, most of which was drafted in the last three years. You don’t want Atkinson? Fine. Let’s find a coach who is willing to embrace the youth movement, start to germinate the future of this team, and if the result is a mid lottery draft pick? Great! I’d take it over a play in game out or another first round embarrassment. One man’s take, but I say, let’s build towards the future. The future is now.

Jay: Thibs, go out and get some women for the first time since you broke up with your ex-fiancé for the game of basketball. This coaching with no chicks thing isn’t working out well.

Abe: Thanks for tuning in, assuming you made it this far folks. If there’s anything worth discussing next week, Jay and I will be back. If not, talk soon.