There is no lookout on a crime scene as alert to the presence of the police as is Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau. But his focus is on watching for what he likes to refer to as the minutes police and his crime. And that crime, in his critics' eyes, is overuse of his players.
It doesn’t have to be a critical question, but any mention of minutes is met with a shake of the head and a dismissive retort. And in this case, monitoring the use of his top six players, Thibodeau has put together a hard-to-dispute case that his way is the right way.
While there may be extreme circumstances — an overtime game on the second day of a back-to-back set like Monday’s loss to Toronto might be one — Thibodeau has called on his starters to play a heavy load. And since tightening his rotation to nine players, six of whom log almost all of the minutes, the Knicks have turned their season around.
But Thibodeau, conscious of the criticism that has dogged him since his early days in Chicago, rarely hears the full question or the criteria. And he has a point.
“I know you guys are the minutes police and all that nonsense,” Thibodeau said before the Knicks took on the Washington Wizards at Madison Square Garden Wednesday. “But you also have to look at — Toronto played seven guys. You got to look, they’re going to have their starters out there, this is what they’re doing.
“If you look at it — I try not to make a decision based on one game. A lot can happen. Maybe you don’t make a shot. Whatever it might be. But how is our team trending? What do the last 20 games look like? There are a lot more positives. And obviously, there are a lot more things we can work on. Keep getting better. Strive for improvement each and every day. But I like the way this team has worked, how they prepared, and just keep moving forward. And that’s where I want our focus to lie.”
Thibodeau pointed out accurately that the Knicks do not have a player among the top 20 in the NBA in minutes played. But the disclaimer there is that since Dec. 21 Julius Randle ranks first (40.1 minutes per game) and Jalen Brunson (39.7) third. Quentin Grimes is 12th at 37.6 minutes per game. RJ Barrett, after missing six games with a finger injury, has returned to play 37.2 minutes per game in the four games since and dating back to Dec. 21 it’s been 34.8.
“When you look at, OK, I know you guys like to create the narrative for your stories and you don’t look at it in totality,” Thibodeau said. “I don’t think we have anyone in the top 20 in minutes played. So it is what it is. I think you look at the people in your division and your conference. You look at how they’re playing their guys. More often than not you’re thinking about the matchups going into the game. When this guy’s on the floor we’re going to have this guy matched up with him. So that’s what you’re doing. Most teams are at eight, some are at seven. So I like nine, I like where that is, I like the rhythm. If you look at the numbers you’d have to say it’s OK.”
The dilemma is that to win as the Knicks have been doing they need Randle and Brunson on the floor for most of the minutes. The four players coming off the bench in the nine-man rotation — Immanuel Quickley, Isaiah Hartenstein, Obi Toppin and Miles McBride — have seen the minutes dwindle for the three other than Quickley. And Cam Reddish, Derrick Rose and Evan Fournier remain tied to the bench.
But what the numbers don’t reflect is what happens outside of the confines of the minutes at game time. Thibodeau has drastically reduced the workload on practice days — often limiting it to film sessions or opportunities for players who are not playing to get shots up.
“I think that’s all part of pacing your team,” he said. “In general, that’s where our league is. It’s like OK, there’s a lot of different ways to pace your team. It’s easy to say, OK, I can look at the boxscore and say this guy played 40 minutes, this guy played 36, this guy played 30, but you don’t know what the guy did the day before. You don’t know. What did he do in practice? Maybe he didn’t have any contact in practice, maybe it was recovery day, or if he did do something in practice, you had a sub with him, and he did very little in practice. So there’s a lot of different things that go into pacing the team.”