When asked about possible battles for starting jobs, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau regularly shifts the discussion to his more favored role — who finishes the game.
And there is some reason to believe him on that. Two seasons ago, as the Knicks raced through the second half of the season to a playoff spot, you’ll remember that Elfrid Payton was the starting point guard — but his work often was done in a matter of minutes, and Derrick Rose almost always finished the game. It’s far easier to pick out the players whom Thibodeau trusts most by watching the final minutes of a tight game than by calling out names for the opening tip.
But there is something to be said for noting who starts. Take last season, for example, when the five-man combination that logged the most minutes together was RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson, Evan Fournier and Alec Burks — playing 434 minutes together as a group while starting 25 games. The next most was the first four with Kemba Walker in place of Burks, which managed 427 minutes together and started 24 games.
After that? The next five-man group played 89 minutes together.
The point is that just because a five-man starting group is named and because we can guess on a five-man second unit, the game quickly becomes a mix-and-match patchwork. Thibodeau, like most coaches, will stagger his best players’ time on the bench. Last season, Randle would come out midway through the first quarter and Barrett usually would stay on until the start of the second quarter, with Randle returning shortly after.
So while we try to plot out who fits best, it figures to again be a mixture of players who will fill minutes together. While second-year wing Quentin Grimes might fit better next to Jalen Brunson because of his defensive ability, Thibodeau has defended Fournier’s play in that role — providing much-needed shooting on the perimeter and being part of a group that defended better as last season went on.
“The interesting thing when you look at the season [is] we started off slowly from a defensive aspect in comparison to the year before,” Thibodeau said. “But where we ended up was very high. If you looked at several categories, whether field- goal percentage, three-point field-goal percentage, rebound margin, points in the paint, transition points, defensive rating — whatever metrics that you like — I think they were pretty good in the end. I was proud of that fact. The thing is in this league, it’s very difficult to guard guys individually. You have to do it collectively. So I think in terms of team defense, I thought it was very good. But as a team, I think we can do a lot better than we did last year, so that’s our goal this year.”
Which brings us to the argument that has Knicks fans pulling out their hair — how to get Obi Toppin more time on the court. Acknowledging that the Knicks are not going to sit Randle for long periods, the hope is that Thibodeau can play Randle and Toppin together as a small- ball grouping. Randle has — and will — play some center offensively, but he spoke Saturday about losing weight to play faster this season, not bigger.
Thibodeau, who craves a rim protector on the floor — Mitchell Robinson, Isaiah Hartenstein and Jericho Sims check that box and will be at center — has experimented with it and isn’t impressed. While they have played only a small number of minutes together, removing one-sided games, Thibodeau said the team has been a negative when he has tried it. What that small sample size doesn’t take into consideration is that Thibodeau sees it in practice, too, behind closed doors.
“It’s not only the numbers,” he said. “I actually watch the games. When you look at the games themselves and then you look at the numbers, the games that were meaningful — and I went game by game, I watched the games and I looked at the numbers in each game. If you took out the games that were blowouts, there were one or two in particular that probably threw those numbers off. I want to be careful because it was a very small sample size. So you look at it, what do your eyes tell you in close, meaningful games, when we tried it, what happened, and those were very negative. So that’s part of it. But I’m hopeful that there’s improvement and we can do better.”
View of history
Jalen Brunson is a newcomer to New York as a player, but he grew up in the area and spends much of his summer in New Jersey. That proximity has allowed him to follow the chase for the American League single-season home run record by Yankees slugger Aaron Judge — even if he is more of a Philadelphia fan (the team he proudly shouts out are the Eagles).
But asked if he is a Yankees fan, he said, “My mother is, so I guess I am by association.
“What he’s doing is special. I’m pretty sure he’s about to win the Triple Crown, correct? . . . He’s doing incredible things. It’s really special to watch, and hopefully he just . . . I don’t even know what to say. When you see something like that, it’s just special. You’re just kind of in astonishment, so I’m happy for him.”