Tom Thibodeau had made his decision to put Kemba Walker on the bench and explained it Monday, but as the Knicks readied to put this new plan to the test at Barclays Center Tuesday night, he wasn’t interested in looking back anymore.
The historical precedent for Thibodeau is to stick loyally with his players far beyond the patience of the fan base. He rode Elfrid Payton all the way into the postseason last year, cutting the minutes incrementally until he finally could not avoid the reality that Derrick Rose was his best player for the postseason and made the move. He’d done it in Chicago when fans clamored for Keith Bogans to be pulled from the starting lineup and he ignored every cry.
But after just 20 games Thibodeau pulled the plug on the feel-good story of Walker returning home to New York, and specifically to Madison Square Garden where, he starred since his high school days growing up in the Bronx.
Asked why this time was different, Thibodeau frowned and said, "I spoke on that yesterday so we’re moving forward, we’re getting ready for today’s game."
The reasons are easy to spell out, although not exactly just why it happened right now. Walker struggled to provide the offensive force expected when the Knicks signed him and Evan Fournier in the offseason. And on defense, the trademark of any Thibodeau team, the Knicks have struggled, with Walker a particular weak point. The Knicks numbers with him on and off the court are a glaring contrast.
But why now is a bigger question. Walker sat out Saturday night in Atlanta, the second game of a back-to-back set of games and coming off a humbling loss to Phoenix and with Rose still sidelined, the Knicks could have used all the help they could find. So did Walker opt to sit out and rest and draw the ire of Thibodeau? Or did Thibodeau push him to the sidelines as a precursor to what was coming?
Thibodeau has insisted that the decision on Walker resting was up to the player and the medical staff, and a source said that Walker was truly resting - and the result of the game in Atlanta with Alec Burks scoring 23 points and the Knicks beating the Hawks provided the evidence to make the move.
"It’s not easy," Nets’ coach Steve Nash said. "You feel for him. I’ve been there myself. It’s tough. Kemba’s a great human being, a great teammate, But no matter how great a teammate and how great an attitude you have, you to take that scenario into account and it’s very difficult for a guy who competes and wants to play, who prepares the way he does to play. That’s a tough situation for him. But I have no doubt that he’ll have the attitude and continue to have the character he’s always had in the league."
What is next for Walker and the Knicks is the biggest question. Burks provides an easy fit, manning the point guard role when the offense runs mainly through Julius Randle, and Rose and Immanuel Quickley provide an array of options. But with Walker now out of the rotation, the Knicks need to find a way to resolve the issue respectfully. They can't trade him until Dec. 15 and are in a holding pattern for now.
"Yeah, those things are never easy," Thibodeau said, comparing it with the Nets making a similar move with Blake Griffin. "But I think when you have a team like they have; he’s asking those guys to make sacrifices and put the team first.
"So for some guys, you may ask them to come off the bench and they’re really starters. Other guys may be starting and you’re asking them to sacrifice minutes. They’re not getting normal starters' minutes. Sometimes when you have a so-called Big 3, you’re going to ask them to sacrifice shots. I recall in Boston, we had [Kevin] Garnett, [Paul] Pierce and [Ray] Allen – they were all 25-plus point a game scorers, and with Boston, they dropped into the teens. They all had to sacrifice but the team won a championship, and that’s the most important thing. You put the team first and you put winning first."
NOTES & QUOTES: With Mitchell Robinson, Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson all available Tuesday, the Knicks made Jericho Sims inactive, preserving a night on his two-way contract.