“Classic rock” was the first genre I learned. My pops grew up in the 70s and reared me on the best his decade offered. It all started when he told me to search for the Led Zepplin album with “the old man carrying sticks.” That album was Led Zepplin IV, considered one of the greatest rock albums ever. I would find Queen, The Stooges, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, and Death through the rabbit hole. But the band that had the most profound impact on me was The Who. The British quartet wasn’t my favorite band or the “best,” but they did expand my intellect, forcing me to ask questions about gender, sexuality, and class.
When writing about the beloved Obi Toppin, the Knicks brethren with the largest fanbase, defenders, and apologists, I was stumped about who I was writing about. There’s the obvious; he is a 25-year-old, third-year player with elite athleticism, a streaky three-point shot, and a blistering smile. He is a father, husband, and best friend to Immanuel Quickley, who he was drafted alongside. Toppin has rendered himself unknown to us since being drafted 8th in 2020. One lyric continued to creep through my consciousness while writing, “Who the fuck are you?” As Who frontman Roger Daltrey was inquiring about in the song “Who Are You,” we are all trying to know one another better. Most of the time, we must step out of the darkness and into the light of transparency and honesty. We have to share ourselves when it’s inconvenient and problematic. Toppin has never been given this chance; he has been kept in a role he has rightly outgrown.
Three years later, we know as little about him as we did when he was drafted. Toppin has never been given the space, role, and minutes to explore his body, mind, and soul on the court. He’s tried his best. He took advantage of Randle’s injuries at the end of back-to-back seasons to show his full range of offensive prowess against lesser opponents. Many of these monster games came against teams out of the playoff picture and looking to tank. So even in the few moments of freedom, he has been obfuscated. This season head coach Tom Thibodeau decreased his minutes per game, dropping from 17.1 MPG last season to 15.7 MPG this season. His stats across the board also dropped, averaging 7.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1 APG, and 0.2 BPG. When Julius Randle took his game to another level in Toppin’s rookie season, the writing was on the wall about Toppin’s diminished role.
Toppin might have been the primary reason Randle decided to turn his career around. Toppin was drafted to replace Randle after he failed as the number one option of the Knicks in the 2019 - 2020 season. Toppin was supposed to be the happier, younger, more promising of the two forwards. Who wouldn’t kick things into high gear after looking behind them and seeing Toppin’s wonderful smile?
Randle’s role on the roster will forever keep Toppin in the background, Expecting him to go along with 14 MPG when he becomes extension eligible this summer. The situation has become untenable. One of Toppin and Randle must go. While we have not gotten to know Toppin fully, Randle is intimately known to Knicks fans. We know his two All-Star and All-NBA nods, his 20, 10, and five averages, and regular season dominance. Randle is as familiar to us as Carmelo Anthony was. We have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. When given a chance to choose between the two, most of us would select Toppin, perhaps just to know better who he is and can be.
There is an agreeable assumption that if he were on another team playing 25 minutes a night, Toppin would be producing 20 points and seven rebounds on a nightly basis. As long as Randle is the starting power forward, we will never meet that version of Toppin, and as a two-time All-NBA player, why the hell wouldn’t Randle be? In both the Donovan Mitchell and Zach LaVine trade discussions that occurred this season, Toppin was included in both discussions, but Randle was not. That alone is evidence of how Leon Rose feels about the future of the power forward position.
With Toppin’s predicament in mind, even The Who’s lyrics to “Who Are You” seem like they were written about him.
“I stretched back, and I hiccupped
And looked back on my busy day
11 hours in the tin pan
God, there’s got to be another way”
Replace “tin pan” for “bench,” and it all begins to fall into place.
It’s highly likely we will never see Toppin in a Knicks uniform again. I hope I’m wrong, but Rose’s inclusion of Toppin in the last two trade offers for a star (LaVine and Mitchell) support that notion. Toppin’s situation was absurd from the start and, worse, out of his hands. His minutes under Thibodeau were closely monitored and controlled, making every missed three and fumbled rebound were reasons to be benched. The worst part about Toppin’s time in New York isn’t that he never got to know him. It’s that he was never even given a chance to properly introduce himself.