The Knicks have their problems and Tom Thibodeau likes to focus on the immediate ones — the next game, the next practice — and hold a tunnel-vision approach for himself and the team.
So he won’t discuss the potential death march the Knicks (23-25, 11th place in the East) are in right now in the midst of eight of 10 games on the road. But as the Knicks weave their way through that test which began with a loss in Cleveland Monday and resumes Wednesday night in Miami, it’s hard to avoid the reality that this portion of the schedule will overlap with the Feb. 10 trade deadline.
Thibodeau wants to live in the present, but the Knicks' future is far more uncertain than it was when the season began with the team still riding the high of a fourth-place finish and a playoff berth last season. While team president Leon Rose has plucked away at the fringes of the roster, it’s hard to look at this team and imagine, even if they put together a second half to earn a playoff or play-in spot again, it ascending to contender status.
The heart of the issue is at the top of the roster, where Julius Randle, after emerging with a career year last season, has regressed in his play and seemed, to use Thibodeau’s word, distracted. Randle has feuded with fans, avoided media and hardly seemed like the leader the team expected when he was signed to a four-year, $117 million extension in the offseason.
Since returning from his bout with COVID — one game ahead of his now-infamous thumbs down game at Madison Square Garden — Randle has not led the Knicks in scoring alone in any of the 11 games. He tied RJ Barrett once with 18 points in a loss to Charlotte but has averaged 17.5 points on 39.8% shooting in that span, including 25.8% from beyond the arc.
Barrett has led the Knicks nine times, averaging 23.4 points on 45.4% shooting and has converted 42.6% from three-point range. Yet, as the seconds counted down on the Knicks with the ball and a chance to take the lead Monday against Cleveland, Randle brought the ball upcourt slowly, dribbled to no advantage and finally swung the ball to Barrett for a three-point attempt that misfired with the clock ticking down.
Is this enough to signal that Barrett, only 21 years old and on the upswing, is ready to displace him as the lead dog on the court and as the face of the franchise?
"I don’t feel like I’ve done anything so far," Barrett said this week. "Just my mindset. I’m always hungry. I’m hungry for more. I want more for the team but for myself, as well . . . I think anything’s possible. I want to continue to be able to make plays . . . and score and defend and rebound, really do it all out there on the court for the team and kind of be the guy that does whatever the team needs."
There are cries from the crowd regularly for Randle’s backup, Obi Toppin, but he is far from a finished product and despite his highlights that thrill the fans, he doesn’t offer many of the things that Randle does. Randle still holds great value to the Knicks on the court, a player who demands double teams and can orchestrate the offense, although placing the ball in his hands has led to sometimes staggering amounts of turnovers and a drag on the pace of play.
Randle will be eligible to be traded on Feb. 3, a week ahead of the deadline, and that may end up a solution if Rose opts to try for a star to lead the team that doesn’t really have one now. The question that will be answered by the next moves is just how patient Rose is with this group. But the reality is that without help arriving from somewhere this group isn’t on the level of the top teams and the future is in the hands of the youth like Barrett.