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The Knicks struggle against top teams: Is this the reason?

Making a case for greater flexibility.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Miami Heat v New York Knicks Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The New York Knicks’ record stands at 12-8 after 20 games. While they have demonstrated strength in offensive efficiency and defensive ratings against lesser opponents (Hornets, Pistons), they have faltered against top-tier clubs. As Ian Begley reported this week, New York has a 2-8 record against playoff-positioned teams and lost a combined five games against the Bucks and Celtics. To make matters worse, the Knicks have the hardest December schedule of any team, per Tough sledding, crew!

Truly, the Knicks’ biggest problem is not a lack of talent. The problem is how that talent is employed. For that, you can blame the coach’s inflexibility.

Anyone who watches the Knicks regularly will see Tom Thibodeau roll out the same rigid lineup every game. Time after time, he plays the same guys, in almost the exact order. Imagine if an intelligent opposing coach was told that these are the players we will field, these are the minute marks for substitutions, and these are our actions (spoiler: a ton of drive-and-kick and iso-ball). Seems like a dream scenario for game-planning. Erik Spoelstra, for instance, might know how to exploit that gift.

What might happen if he swapped out players on occasion? Playing the Pistons tonight? Let Immanuel Quickley take a turn at starting shooting guard. Facing the Heat? We need to glue Quentin Grimes on Jimmy Butler. The other team’s stretch-center can shoot? Maybe let Isaiah Hartenstein should chase him around first.

Altering the lineup every night just for giggles would foster unnecessary chaos. Indeed, first and second units need many reps together to achieve maximum cohesion. But why not try a different look based on match-ups just once in a while? The regular season is 82 games long. Players hit cold stretches that a minor shake-up might snap. The Knicks are a remarkably healthy team, yet the injury bug is inevitable. When it strikes, isn’t it more ideal to roll out an alternate line-up with some familiarity, rather than lashing together an emergency crew?

Instead of ironclad rigidity, a smart strategy during the regular season is to make small tweaks once in a while and see what happens. My guess is that it will result in more (and better) analytics for promising line-ups. Who knows? Thibs might stumble upon a perfect combination that surprises not just him, but the whole league.

For example, at you can see that the Knicks have fielded nine five-man rotations that have played 30+ minutes together.

Were I the coach, I would want a longer look at the group with the most points (+29) over their opponents per 100 possessions: Brunson, Quickley, Hart, Randle, and Robinson.

(Already someone interrupts, yelling, “Small sample size! That group played only 60 minutes together!” Yes, but perhaps we have only small sample sizes because of the coach’s inflexibility.)

Recently, I heard Doc Rivers on Bill Simmons’ podcast. As memory serves, the former Celtics-Clippers-76ers coach talked about how hard it can be to hold team practices during the week due to travel, guys needing injury treatment, etc. Upon hearing that, I thought it might explain why Thibs refuses to break the mold: mixing things up is hard to do when the team doesn’t have sufficient rehearsal time. Maybe. . . . Still, I’d bet that letting Quickley serve as lead shooter against–I dunno–the Detroit Pistons won’t jeopardize the outcome too badly.

As for bruising egos, that should matter little to Thibs. He is always singing the virtues of sacrificing for the team. Allowing the coach to try a different line-up for one game would be a shining example of a player’s self-sacrifice in my book.

To be fair, while Thibs is clearly not an imaginative fellow, we have witnessed examples of him tinkering before. Last season, he sent Evan Fournier and Derrick Rose to the end of the bench and turned the team’s fortunes around. Wunderbar! This season’s team is good, but not yet elite. The secret recipe for greater success might be hidden in plain sight, waiting to be discovered. Finding it could start with just a small, occasional tweak. And hell, if a roster experiment goes off the rails? Adjust at halftime.

I avoided discussing the inflexibility of their offense because I’m in Orlando on vacation and already wrote more than intended. (Come see me at mouse house.) I’ll close with this: one handy definition of insanity is “To do the same thing repeatedly and expect different results.” When I watch the Knicks fail against top-quality teams but change nothing, yes, me does feel pretty crazy. Maybe you, too. Group therapy starts in the comments below.