Nothing with the Knicks is surefire until Leon Rose pens one of his rare press releases or makes one of his even rarer appearances. However, on Wednesday morning Bleacher Report writer Jake Fischer reported Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau is expected to retain his job through this season, to the chagrin of more than half the Knicks fan base.
Thibodeau’s job performance has drawn justifiable jeers this season after an over-achieving fourth seed record and a playoff appearance last season. For some Knicks fans, his lack of adjustments and simplistic offensive schemes in last year’s Atlanta Hawks playoff series left more to be desired. Watching uninspired Julius Randle isolation plays caused many Knicks fans to wonder if Thibodeau could ever get them out of the first round. Those concerns were magnified this season, where he has shown a stubbornness to overplay the veterans and even worse, a propensity to lose large fourth-quarter leads through line-up mismanagement and lack of creative play-calling.
News of him retaining his job through the rest of the season is sure to draw mixed reactions from the fanbase, and perhaps some in the front office as well. It was much reported William “World Wide Wes” Wesley was on the side of dismissing Thibodeau at points this season. Whether there is truth to those rumors, it is certain Thibodeau has been pulled into conference with owner James Dolan after multiple late-game collapses. Never a good sign.
The Garden faithful have yet to resign themselves to adding Thibs name to the decades-long tradition of “Fire___” chants, as they did with Isiah Thomas, Don Chaney, Derek Fisher, David Fizdale, Lenny Wilkins, and Herb Williams before them. The hesitation is fair, seeing that Thibodeau earned Coach of the Year honors the seasons before.
But, there have been many lows this season, including Thibodeau’s handling of last summer's free-agent signing, Kemba Walker, whose benching and re-insertion into the line-up will go down in Knick hellish recent history. As well, the persistent benching of young players with hot hands in favor of Thibodeau’s favorite veterans has led to frequent late-game losses.
The team's defensive rating, a staple of Thibodeau-coached teams, fell from fourth last year to 15th this season, with opposing team role players routinely achieving career highs against the Knicks porous schemes and effort.
If the Knicks were to fire their current coach, the 15th under Dolan’s ownership, who would be expected to right the ship, yet again? This question is the main issue some fans have with dismissing last season's Coach of the Year. But the answer does not lie with a bloated name like Stan Van Gundy or the nostalgia-tinged promise of his brother, Jeff Van Gundy.
Knick’s current lead assistant, Johnnie Bryant has paid his dues and would maintain continuity with the team’s overall game plan if given the reigns. Bryant has the support of the roster and has been a part of a winning, functional staff in Utah. He’s been a mentor of Damian Lillard and Donovan Mitchell and would be tasked with nurturing the young core with minutes and a learning curve. Of course, the Knicks would lose under Bryant too. The roster is not currently at a point to consistently maintain winning seasons. At least the Knicks would maintain continuity with a familiar face on the sidelines and give the young core time to grow together.
For now, Thibodeau remains in place. That could change this summer or at an interval next season when the losses pile up. If and when it does happen, Rose and Thibodeau’s long-standing relationship would come to an end, at least in terms of the Knicks, and the Thibodeau hire would rest squarely on Leon Rose. This was Rose’s guy, and whether through nepotism, or past coaching experience, he chose Thibodeau over other qualified candidates. At least Rose was also smart enough to hire Mike Woodson (who is now coaching the University of Indiana), Kenny Payne, and Bryant on Thibodeau’s staff, just in case. Speaking of Payne, he has recently been in talks with Louisville to take their head coaching job, which would leave the Knicks with one less voice on the sidelines.
The issue with the Knicks has been with every coaching hire, the expectations are championship or bust. When in reality, this young core needs a chance to lose or win games on their own merits, while taking the punches and learning from each game. Losing should be an expectation when playing the young core. But patience has never been a quality of this team or their fanbase.
Thibodeau's overachievement in his first season sees the table for inflated expectations. And with each game, he is seemingly trying to rekindle that magic, with a roster incapable of meeting him halfway. His arrogance is that he refuses to divert from meaningless late-season wins and focus on development. So guys like Obi Toppin, Miles McBride, and Cam Reddish earn fewer minutes than Taj Gibson, Alec Burks and Evan Fournier.
Both sets of players would lead to perhaps the same record, but at least by playing the youth, the team would be building continuity with one another and gaining experience of being in the trenches together. Instead, Thibodeau continues to play Burks, a small forward at point guard, instead of giving McBride or Quickly consistent experience running the point.
Even now, the team seems unsure of its direction. The Knicks sit 5.5 games out of the play-in, which would surely lead to an even more embarrassing loss than last year’s fall to the lower-seeded Hawks. They also sit with the 8th best odds in the Draft Lottery. Thibodeau's rotations signal he’s trying to make the play-in tournament, which would lose any hope of finding a solution for at the point through the draft, leaving the Knicks once against praying for a big off-season trade. Only to be in the same situation next season, with a band-aid free agent like Jalen Brunson or a Malcolm Brogdan trade covering the gaping point guard wound.
With the exception of Randle, the core of this team is all under the age of 25. The team needs to commit to a plan moving forward. Are they invested in their young core? If so, get these guys a young guard who can grow alongside them and unlock their potential. The young Knicks like Toppin, Quentin Grimes, Mitchell Robinson need a playmaker to unlock their full potential. These are not initiators of their own offense. They need a point guard to run the team. Rose and the company need to figure out if Thibodeau is on the same page towards acquiring one, and if he's the right one to lead them through the inevitable learning curve as well.