It’s about to go down—that is, assuming this thing hasn’t touched ground already.
There is so much going on that it’s difficult to condensate everything without making a mess of it, forgetting about a little piece of information, or piecing together every single one of the ongoing issues that are brewing in MSG. Top to bottom by the way of all things in the middle, of course.
It doesn’t make much sense to beat the horse when it’s been dead for a good while now. You know the drill: tank for a better pick, fire Thibs, play kids, yada, yada... It’s all good. To each his own! Freedom of speech! Critiques galore! But the more you think about it, the more screw the New York Knicks' current state of affairs seems to be. And it doesn’t necessarily present an easy way it, but rather the opposite.
Let’s rewind for a minute now, instead of a second. Last summer, the Front Office had the chance, or at least the willingness, to chase some top-tier players through the Free Agency. Coming off a nicely 2021 season that ended in a first-round early playoffs exit, the Knicks looked good and on a clear uptrend. 41-31? A .569 winning pace for the first time since 2013? Legit improvement after a mediocre decade of struggles. Thus, the moves.
Nerlens Noel (27 years old at the time of the extension) got a multi-year deal. So did Kemba Walker (31), Evan Fournier (28), Alec Burks (30), Derrick Rose (33), and Taj Gibson (36). With a coach in Tom Thibodeau that is clearly geared toward winning games no matter what, and after the 2021 run, well, you can’t blame this approach! And judging by the results of Thibs’ first year at the helm, and the transactions going on around the team’s roster it is very clear to anyone what the Front Office (FO) was after: doubling down on 2021 in order to make another jump and reach, at the very least, the second round of the playoffs this season. Alas.
I can’t help but put myself in Thibs' current position and understand his ongoing plan. Thibs was brought to New York to win games, with that decision being based on his proven winning ways and his relation with the FO. Plain and simply. He was handed a meh-at-best team with which he did more than everybody expected (Coach of the Year!).
The FO handed him a new batch of tasty goodies last summer. I’m so well versed in Lakerworld, but it felt like both the Knicks and the Lakers front offices entered 2022 with the same challenge in mind—I’m not talking about the roster talent, just the mentality, mind you—which came down to contending/playing postseason-hoops by all means necessary. In both cases, it sounded good and in line with the steps taken before: having won a chip as recently in 2020 and bringing Russ; having made the postseason and bringing a bunch of veterans to solidify the rotation and provide a much-need offensive boost with the likes of Fournier and hometown-boy Kemba.
With that in mind, it’s hard to blame Thibs’ stubbornness when it comes to not playing young kids, prospects, and embracing developing those pieces as things turned nasty no later than mid-January. It’s been a month of play since the first loss of the current 3-13 slump. But Thibs, from the get-go and again, was seemingly brought to do this exact thing. Only, you know, the FO pivoted all the way from New York City to Timbuktu—even though the moves didn’t ultimately arrive in time, or at all. And kudos to them!
If we’re honest, we can’t blame the brass even in the slightest of ways if we look at their latest moves from the broadest perspective. They realized there was a problem early, kind of let everybody know about that flipping of the script with the Cam Reddish deal—it’s that a very dumb operation going on, because you don’t trade a first-round pick and a player, as protected or bad you think they are/will be, for someone you don’t plan on using at all—and on top of that, they tried to blast the vets they signed and weren’t really working that well together into oblivion.
As Ian Begley of SNY reported on Thursday, Thibs got mad at the FO for trying to send the vets packing in exchange for younger players, picks, or as a last resort, a cleanup of the rotation if only to open a bunch of minutes to the up-and-coming youngsters. Everyone was right. Thibs wanted to keep working on the path that was originally offered to him when he was hired (again, one assumes), and the FO wanted to flip the page trying to quickstart another round of roster modifications and team rebuilding—to whatever extent.
The problem, all things considered, is to be found in the pecking order. I made the concerted effort of accessing the New York Knicks website, namely the part of it which lists all employees, only to find quite a long catalog of names in it. The first one, at the top, is James Dolan. The third slot is occupied by Leon Rose, followed by Scott Perry, and William Wesley aka WWW. Down in 30th place: Tom Thibodeau.
What I’m saying, is that as the HC of the franchise, and no matter what the hell the FO offered him in the first place, Thibs just have to bow his head, stay humble, and abide by the current FO needs and plans. They wanted to win with vets (cool!) but now they want to explore the fountain of youth (equally cool!). They are the brain, Thibs is the engine.
That, of course, doesn’t even start painting the full picture. As much as Thibodeau can be blamed for his stunting, rancid, old-ass, safe-first, all-or-nothing coaching approach applied to a not-so-great mob, the FO shouldn’t scape blaming either.
Whoever is making the ultimate calls, and we probably don’t have a clue about that, doesn’t feel like following a pre-stated path but rather going with the flow. Brought Thibs and made the postseason? Awesome, let’s go and sign some veterans to try and win the chip! Oh, now nothing is working? Say no more, it’s sell-off time! Shaking. My. Head.
You might have noticed that I included the age of those getting contract extensions last summer above. That’s precisely because of what we’re talking about now. In which world is signing a bunch of late-20/30-somethings—average in skills at best—a good approach to building a roster that, as things have turned out, is in dire need of a young talent boost? In which brain can such an idea be conceived? If the FO truly believed they were building toward that two-pronged path—contending while preserving chances of moving pieces of things went awry—they were freaking delusional. Nobody is going to give a bag of peanuts in exchange for a washed Fournier, a washed Kemba, or a used-out-of-position Burks, boys.
Oh, and speaking of players doing it out of position, I haven’t even mentioned how the FO must have forgotten about roles and duties when it comes to roster building. Can we blame Thibs for playing Alec Burks at the point? You bet. Should we blame the FO for not signing a proper PG back in the summer when it was clear the team was lacking a true, bona fide leading man at the position? Hard not to. Alas, this stupid Moneyball-Piña/Leon-Thibs situation the New York Knicks almost find themselves into these days.
It’s sad. It’s sad that fans out there are calling for the FO to sell the house for nothing if only to open the door of the rotation to the likes of Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley, and G League phenom Miles McBride. It’s sad that we’re talking about a professional sports franchise in this terms, about a coach that straight refuses to go the rebuilding way for the benefit of the team now and later. It’s sad, mostly, because the current game plan—the one in which Taj Gibson, Alec Burks, and Kemba Walker are playing between 16 and 24 minutes nightly—has yielded a ridiculous 3-13 record while IQ, Reddish (he of the first-round pick, remember), Obi Toppin, Jericho Sims, and Deuce McBride have stayed rotting in the dark depths of the bench. Way to go for a win-at-all-costs coach, am I right?
I don’t think applying extremist measures is the best way forward, though maybe that’s the only way to go. If the Front Office truly is on a rebuilding/slow-developmental mindset and Thibs can rewire his basketball brain in order to accept it, fantastic. If the latter doesn't happen, though, firing HC right now would be the best decision to make. That said, there has to be crystal-clear clarity of that being the case for the FO to finally put the trigger and drop the guillotine's blade on Thibs’ neck.
It’s easy to call for the firing, but it’s equally simple to take five seconds of pause, to look at that potential scenario, and to find yourself looking at a barebones and lost organization going nowhere. And given the fluctuating set of targets of the FO, it’s not that anybody will be truly confident in getting on board and buying whatever they’d be selling.
There must be a middle ground solution, and everybody should benefit from it. The FO must look after the future of the franchise—thus favoring the pivot to a younger roster/see-what-we-got approach—and the HC must make the most of his pieces—which at this point through the season is clearly not heavily using veterans. This team is not going to contend this season, nor next season, nor the one after that one either. That doesn’t mean both the brass and the coach can’t work together, stay put, build on the current foundation of young players and solid veterans (Mitch if he re-signs and Randle, that’s it), and ultimately fight for greater things.
The blame is shared. Whether a happy ending eventually happens, though, it’s all down to one and only one-man war against his own stubbornness and denialism. The privilege of keeping the head coaching job, I’m afraid, would need to be earned.