SAN ANTONIO — It took eight days for Kemba Walker to speak out about his demotion from the Knicks starting lineup to the end of the bench. But it appears that it took just one day after that for the Knicks to make the next lineup change.
Tom Thibodeau would not confirm the decision Tuesday morning after the Knicks completed their shootaround to get ready for that night’s game against the Spurs at the AT&T Center. But there were plenty of clues that what the coach said was a choice he was "Still mulling," was actually done and Mitchell Robinson would be the next domino to be removed as the Knicks tried to halt a three-game losing streak .
Nerlens Noel, who was a starter for 41 games last season when Robinson suffered a broken hand and then a broken foot, was wearing the starters’ blue jersey in the morning workout. And Robinson seemed to have already come to terms with the move to the bench.
Asked how he would fit with the second unit, Robinson said, "We’ll find that out. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll continue to work."
Robinson has not been the same player he was before the injuries last season and with good reason, having been sidelined for much of last season and unable to get on the court in the the offseason as he worked his way through rehabilitation on the foot injury. In that time while he focused on strength training, the only thing he could do, he put on weight and got stronger, but lost his conditioning and some of the athleticism that made him such a special defensive force.
Thibodeau can’t be blamed for trying to mimic his success from last season. Noel was one piece and by inserting Alec Burks at point guard in place of Walker he got the size defensively that Elfrid Payton provided while giving the Knicks a much better offensive player.
"Yeah, just thinking about anything," Thibodeau said. "Like I said, we just want to go step by step, practice well, have a good shootaround, be ready to play. We’ve got to get going."
He has said that in judging his lineup decisions he studies the player groupings for intensity, then execution. And now he has choices to make.
"It’s all of the above to see where the breakdowns occur, what groups are performing well together," Thibodeau said. "Like I said, in going back and looking at the Atlanta game, I thought we played real well in that game. The Brooklyn game, I thought we played real well, had a chance to win that game. The Chicago game, its’ a make-miss, Derrick [Rose] wide open, missed the shot but played well, well enough to win. We didn’t play well in the Denver game. Get back in, get everyone working together, get our focus back, get the intensity right, and get the unselfishness together. We’ve got to get out of it together. We’ve got to play well."
If that difference is Noel in place of Robinson or even a small-ball lineup at times with Obi Toppin joining Julius Randle up front, Thibodeau isn’t hesitating to try something. But for Robinson, it seems as if time is what he needs. He put on nearly 50 pounds since last season and said he topped out at 280 at the start of training camp. But with a return to the court and doing extra conditioning work he has dropped down to 265 so far.
After being dominated by Nikola Jokic in Saturday’s one-sided loss to Denver he said that he saw the problem, "Yeah, just be in better shape." Still, he is not himself and that has led to frustration.
"I mean yeah it is," Robinson said. "I wish I could jump right back into it and be who I was before the injury. It’s cool. I’m going to work and be back to myself."