In many Tom Thibodeau news conferences, a question will be asked about the roster or about decisions on free agency or trades, about the past or the future. And Thibodeau inevitably will smile and give the same answer.
“That’s a Leon question,” he will say, referring to Knicks president Leon Rose.
It’s not always fair to ask Thibodeau that kind of question, but there is little choice, given how reclusive Rose has been.
So Thibodeau is the face of the Knicks in good times — such as his first season with them, which earned him acclaim that culminated in his second NBA Coach of the Year award — and in bad times. There have been plenty of those, and when that’s the case, he is left to explain away the troubles and shoulder the blame.
There already has been growing impatience among the fan base, and Thibodeau has been blamed for the team’s struggles, which are more a dose of roster reality than any underachieving.
The Knicks entered Saturday night’s game against the Celtics with a 4-4 record, having beaten three teams likely bound for the lottery as well as a 76ers squad missing Joel Embiid and James Harden. They lost to Milwaukee, Memphis, Cleveland and Atlanta, all games that they had little business winning.
What the front office won’t explain and what Thibodeau won’t say is that the Knicks are an imperfect team, a roster with ill-fitting pieces that lacks the star power that all of the teams they have lost to possess — Ja Morant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Donovan Mitchell and Trae Young, or in this week’s loss to the Hawks, more Dejounte Murray than Young.
A few of the things that won’t get answered:
- During the summer, the Knicks passed on the chance to obtain Mitchell, for whom Thibodeau was pushing hard behind closed doors. One NBA source said one of the reasons they didn’t go all-in on their offer to the Jazz was bad intel they got that the Cavs weren’t interested in meeting the demands of the Jazz, and Knicks executive Brock Aller pushed to not include three unprotected first-round picks.
- Murray went to Atlanta in a trade for three first-round picks and Danilo Gallinari — a package the Knicks easily could have matched. The Spurs and Hawks have close ties in the front office, but with all of the voices in the Knicks’ front office, not one could get wind of this and enter the bidding?
- The Knicks signed Evan Fournier in the summer of 2021 when Thibodeau was advocating for keeping Reggie Bullock, a defensive standout.
- Rose’s front office spent its first lottery pick on Obi Toppin — passing up Tyrese Haliburton — with Julius Randle in place. There now is a cry for minutes for Toppin, but Randle still is here and the Knicks opted to re-sign Mitchell Robinson and add Isaiah Hartenstein.
What this has left Thibodeau to handle — and explain — is a roster that is deep with useful pieces but lacking a star at the top.
“That’s how this league is built,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said of these decisions. “It’s a competition league. When you get the chance, you make the best of it, maybe several guys. I think the players’ job is always to make my job difficult as far as who should play. Coaches love when there’s nine guys that just stand out and separate themselves from everybody else. That’s easy. But as I said, I don’t want any player that doesn’t want to play. You want them to make it a competition. In the long run, that’ll probably make your team better.”
Changes on floor
What Thibodeau did do Friday in Philadelphia that may have quieted the fan base’s negativity toward him was go against his usual rotations — mostly because of circumstance and desperation.
Quentin Grimes, whom Thibodeau has advocated for since last year’s draft, was inserted into the starting lineup in place of Fournier. And with the 76ers missing Embiid and going with 6-7 Montrezl Harrell and 6-9 Paul Reed at center — and Robinson injuring his knee early and sitting out the second half — Thibodeau paired Randle and Toppin up front.
That pair led the Knicks to a comeback win, with Toppin scoring 13 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter. Is it something the Knicks will utilize more now?
“We had been talking about it, if the opportunity had presented itself,” Thibodeau said. “We had Mitch and Isaiah playing a lot of those minutes and also thinking about, OK, we have Jericho [Sims] there, too.
“You have a grouping if you’re behind; at a certain point in the game, you’re going small to change the variance of the game, to speed it up, to get more three-point shooting. You can go with RJ [Barrett] or you can go with Obi, and the way Obi’s shooting the three, it gives us another three-point shooter, so that’s a big plus. We talked about getting the opportunity to do it. If it presents itself, we’ll do it.”
Grimes started Friday but played only 15 minutes as he, Fournier and Cam Reddish all played essentially the same amount of time. Reddish finished the game and played well in the comeback.
“What we tried to do was split that up, get a look at Quentin, then Evan, then Cam,” Thibodeau said. “And I liked the way Cam played. He gave us a lift.”