It is funny how quickly perceptions change. Just over a month ago, the Knicks were stuck in a seemingly never-ending losing streak sandwiching the All-Star Break. All hope was lost until three wins against varying levels of competent teams graced the Knicks' record to bring back the chances at a late-season run toward a play-in berth. That, of course, didn’t last long, with a 2-4 record in the middle days of March pretty much ending New York’s odds of extending their season beyond an 82nd game.
Or did it?
No one of sane mind believed the Knicks would finish the season on a 10-0 run — that is, including their four wins in a row from March 23 to March 28 while the Atlanta Hawks and/or Charlotte Hornets close the year on the completely opposite end of the spectrum losing all of their games. And that is not bad. The Knicks, realistically, are aiming at a lottery pick in the 8 to 12 range if the ping pong balls stay where they should. The last draftee to land in New York getting drafted in that range? 2020 eighth overall pick Obi Toppin, he of Dayton’s lore.
And please, before you do, don’t come at me with any sort of Obi was a bad pick and Tyrese Haliburton was available, and Toppin shouldn’t have been a top-10 draftee, and it was clear Randle was going to improve mightily, and... I think we’re clearly past that, and if you are going to bring the benefit of hindsight to make your point, I’ve heard enough of that bullshit already. I’m sorry. Carry on.
Toppin has had a rough couple of years to kick his NBA career off, and there’s no arguing about that. The numbers speak for themselves: a middling 6.1 PPG, 3 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.4 BLP and 0.3 SPG in 131 career games. That’s no bueno, indeed. Only, you know, the devil is in the details.
And the details tell us that Toppin played an average of 11 minutes per game last year (zero starts) while those minutes have just gone up a bit this season to just below 16 (with seven games in 69 games). The rookie-year numbers one could understand, mostly, because of Julius Randle's unexpected transformation into the Association’s Most Improved Player and the blockage that came with it for the supposed heir apparent of the power forward throne. The sophomore-campaign throttling, though? That’s been tougher to swallow.
Other than in his first game ever for the Knicks (23 minutes), Obi only topped (no pun intended) 20 minutes of playing time one other time through his rookie season. Written in the wall his future was, we could say. You could expect that to change, if only a tiny bit, this year. Alas, Coach Thibs stayed in town so no, it has not happened — not, at least, as the result of a thoughtful process undergone by the coach to led him to that decision. In other words, Toppin’s saving grace of late, as has been the case all year for him and others like Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley, and Jericho Sims, just to name a few, has been the rash of injuries and other maladies that have impacted the Knicks here and there at different stages throughout the season.
Toppin was forced into the starting lineup to close the 2021 calendar year and open 2022. Not since then had he started until two weekends ago, when Toppin started three games in a row. The outcome? Phenomenal averages yielding nearly a 14-9-3-1 per-game line in 30 MPG while shooting 68% from the field and 44% from three (hoisting 3 treys a pop).
I’m not saying Topping is already a 15-10 player; far from it. I’m also not not saying it. It’d be naïve to think one single start against the middle-of-the-pack Hornets that finished with Toppin getting 18 points, 11 rebounds, 6 dimes, and a couple of stocks represents a new normal for Obi if he started nightly. That’s an unreasonable jump to unsustainable production. Maybe. Because Obi is coming off another blast against the lowly Magic in which he dumped 20 pops, pulled down 8 boards, dished out 3 dimes, and blocked a shot, on top of everything.
That’s precisely the point, and the thing that has fueled most of the discussion around the franchise for the past few weeks and months: New York is most definitely not contending this season nor probably close to it for a couple of years at the very least. It’s time to throw shit to the wall and see what sticks, and what does not. And if we’re honest for a minute, playing Obi Toppin in as limited a role as the one he’s had to deal with the past three months is just malpractice from this franchise’s head coach. Who knew Grimes had it in him before he got some steady reps? Who knew (and knows) about Miles McBride’s talents if he’s only judged by his G League exploits? Gotta play the kids — and not just for the sake of it — is what I’m saying.
In Toppin’s case, things were even worse than in other players' situations. Obi was playing low minutes, getting zero opportunities to showcase his talents other than dunking the rock (salute and respect the Slam Dunk Contest Champ, tho!) so people just locked into tagging him with the wrong “glorified dunker” label, and when he was put on the court and offered larger playing time he was scheme-limited to just stick on the corner to attempt legit hard shots. Who the hell is supposed to thrive in such a role? Yikes.
I’m not one of those folks who believe draft position and a college resume define a player’s early pro career and the chances he should get. But if anyone deserves more leeway, it’s Toppin. This kid came into the NBA with the resume. He was great from the minute he stepped on Dayton’s campus. He racked up accolades. He’s had to go from a top-heavy usage-rate player to an oft-limited asset.
But he’s adapted. He has kept fighting nonstop for his chances. He’s embraced his new role as part of a totally different squad from that he had in the collegiate ranks. He’s kept his spirits high and done as best as one could do in the absolute depressing situation he’s been put in by Coach Thibs. Are we serious with the critics? Really? Give me a break.
Obi’s main trait, or at least one I feel he’s always had and I’ve perceived as such, is his short memory. The late Kobe Bryant said it a few years back, and it isn’t nor was anything new back then. It’s called refractoriness and, in the scope of psychology, it is applied to refractory periods. Simply put and in layman's terms, those periods are defined by the time it takes one to move on from an experience, and Toppin feels like the patron saint of the concept.
Toppin gets on the court with an offensive play ongoing, performs whatever he wants or is tasked with, gets back on defense no matter the outcome, and once the team recovers the ball he’s back at it once more like nothing — good or bad — happened. He embodies confidence. Doesn’t give up. Always goes full energy on the court and gives everything he has. He’s effort. He’s sweat. He’s hustle. He’s humility. He’s trial and error, rinse and repeat until it works.
Yet, quoth Thibs: “You have to earn your minutes.” You tell me what I’m missing, sir.
The time to move on from Julius Randle and hand Toppin the reins is now. There is no point in delaying the inevitable, so it makes more sense to cut ties as soon as possible while the franchise is still in the early stages of its reassessing process. Not doing so will only lead to frustration. A too-late trade down the road seen by many as the last move on the path to contention won’t be more than a fallacious move, full of false hopes that ultimately amount to nothing.
Getting rid of Randle and playing Toppin would, in my honest opinion, make the Knicks worse. Randle is the better player today. But it could be addition by subtraction. It will be one easy way of clearing operating space for other players — see: Barrett, RJ — to take more of a leading role. For that longed-for point guard to have a proper function and not a bunch of force-fed duties when the time comes.
It’s ridiculous that we’re less than a week from the season finale yet still discussing moves the front office should consider to open roads for substantial assets to blossom into valuable players. Yet here we are. It shouldn’t take a biblical plague of injuries or any other external/uncontrollable issue to have Obi and the Young Gang running. It should be easy for a professional head coach, let alone an NBA one, to see this and take the proper measures. Sadly, Thibs refuses to be one of those, and the New York Knicks — fans and prospects — are the ones truly paying the toll.
It’s never too late, much less in the current state of Knicks' affairs, but something has to transform, and that decision should come because of Thibs’ own reasoning, not because of maladies, injuries, and FO-forced moves and transactions... This is not some reactionary stuff. Of course, nobody here (should) expects Obi to put up 20-10-5-1-1 lines nightly if he’s given 30 minutes and a start. But he’s proved he can do it and that he can be trusted while others are caring less and looking worse by the day.
As Juanes said, it’s time to change.
Los hermanos ya no se deben pelear
Es momento de recapacitar
Es tiempo de cambiar
It’s time to change
Es tiempo de cambiar
It’s time to change
Es tiempo de saber
Es tiempo de cambiar
En la mente de todos
El odio (Julius) por amor (Obi)