MIAMI — While the Knicks were finishing off the morning shootaround at FTX Arena Wednesday Kemba Walker was on the court working through final preparations. And Tom Thibodeau was off to the side engaged in a long discussion with Derrick Rose.
Thibodeau likes to focus on the present and Rose is likely at least a month away from returning following ankle surgery. But even if Thibodeau was the NBA’s Coach of the Year last season and Julius Randle earned awards and accolades, Rose was arguably the most important piece to the Knicks' success.
So for now, Thibodeau must trust in Walker to hold down the point guard spot as the Knicks navigate a difficult stretch of the schedule. And that trust has been tested, not just by the team’s 23-25 record or Walker’s production and fit, but by his availability.
"It’s tough, especially for me," Walker said. "I’m a competitor. I love to play basketball, want to be on the court as much as I can. This is something I’ve been dealing with for a few years now. Trying to look out for myself. I want to be able to play for some more years down the line. I’ve got to take it day by day."
For Walker, this balance has meant trying to find his fit with the Knicks. Signed as a free agent after being traded by the Celtics and bought out by the Thunder, the excitement about returning home to New York has been dampened by the cold realities of the season. He was benched and sat out 10 games earlier this season, returned for six games and then was sidelined again after tweaking his knee in warmups in Oklahoma City on New Year’s Eve.
He came back for two games, then sat out Sunday against the Clippers in the first half of a back-to-back set, a reality that he and the Knicks may have to face just as the Celtics did last season. And for Thibodeau, this means trying to fit a team together with the on-court leadership passed from player to player almost on a nightly basis.
"It’s the reality of it," Thibodeau said. "We do have good depth. I like the way Alec [Burks] has played. Unfortunately Rose being out for a time has hurt us, too. And [Immanuel Quickley] can fill in."
But he also said that as long as Walker is available he will be the starter at point guard.
"It’s how he’s feeling," Thibodeau said. "As long as he’s managing the knee now, we’ll see how it goes. He feels good. So that’s a good sign."
Walker has had his moments — the 44-point outburst against Washington, the triple-double on Christmas Day against Atlanta and a 29-point effort against Boston. And the Knicks are 14-13 in his starts entering Wednesday’s game against the Heat, nothing to sneeze at for a team struggling under .500 and out of the playoff picture right now. But he admitted it is hard to be a leader when he isn’t present.
"It’s just tough," Walker said. "Sometimes you don’t want to say too much. You’re not playing sometimes. It’s a balance. Yeah, man, you’ve got to find that balance when to say stuff and when not to. That’s what I try to do."
But Walker still smiles and confidently speaks his belief that his time will come and this will work out for the Knicks and himself.
"Yeah, yeah, this is my first year," Walker said. "This is my first year with the team. I’ve been in and out of the lineup. Other guys have been in and out of the lineup. Rome wasn’t built in a day they say, right? Everything takes time, man. Our relationship is building. Our chemistry is building as a team. I do think we are all building together. It takes time, man."