Fifty games into the season, the Knicks are still looking for answers, still mouthing the confident words that they can turn this season around the way they did the last one.
And it’s worth asking a simple question, as many fans have: How?
With a lineup infused with offseason additions, the Knicks have shown little sign of the fire and preparation that they put on display last season. Is that on the players who remained, the new arrivals or the coaching staff?
That remains unclear.
Tom Thibodeau didn’t become a worse coach or any less motivated months after being named NBA Coach of the Year.
On paper, the new additions, even through their struggles, are more talented than the players they replaced. Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker are much better offensive options than Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton, and you’d like to believe that they, along with rookie Quentin Grimes, could defend well enough in Thibodeau’s system to make it work.
But 50 games have shown that it’s not working. So what’s next?
Do the Knicks make a move ahead of the Feb. 10 trade deadline, exchanging their ill-fitting pieces for someone else’s problem? Or do they try to make a move within their own roster by moving the lineup around, which they have done 14 different times this season?
After all, it’s easier to change the rotation than find some taker for the Knicks’ underachieving pieces, unless they revert to the franchise’s dark days of attaching first-round picks in deals.
Despite Julius Randle’s insistence that he has no regrets about signing a four-year extension, the Knicks could be open to dealing him. Similarly, the declaration by teams such as the Sacramento Kings that they are building around their top players should be taken with a grain of salt.
Russell Westbrook and John Wall and their massive contracts would solve none of the Knicks’ immediate issues.
Thibodeau has said he would consider a lineup shift. Could there be a simple move worth making? How about this one — moving Grimes into the starting lineup?
The Knicks are lacking defensively, and the fit with the more offensive-minded Walker and Fournier has not worked alongside Randle and RJ Barrett. Grimes is a rookie, still prone to mistakes defensively and inconsistent nights shooting, but he plays hard (warming the heart of Thibodeau), has a toughness that the team is lacking and can shoot. His 40.3% shooting from beyond the arc is the best on the team.
"If a rookie can play, you’re going to see it right away," Thibodeau said. "He may not be a 34-minute guy, but he’s going to show you something, whether it’s competitiveness.
"Each time he goes through the league, he’s going to pick up more and get to know the players better and the teams better. The anticipation factor and experience factor get into it more.
"There is trial and error. The second time around, he’s been really, really good. He continues to grow — just the way he works. When you couple that with his shot profile, it’s exactly what we need."
Thibodeau has used Grimes at multiple positions. Could he fit in as a starter — moving Fournier or Walker to the second unit, where they could provide more — and allow Randle to recover some of what he showed last season? That remains a question for now.
Long before Kenny Payne joined the Knicks’ coaching staff before last season, he was a legend in Louisville, a star player for the college who went on to an NBA playing career and then, most notably, a 10-year run as an assistant coach and recruiter for the University of Kentucky.
In college circles, he is regarded as the top choice to serve as Louisville’s head coach now that Chris Mack has parted ways with the program.
"Experience," Thibodeau said when asked what the 55-year-old Payne brings.
"He’s come into the league and played in the league and obviously, having been in college, studies the game, great with players. But he’s fit in seamlessly.
"And I think he has great comfort in the college game because of the great success that they had at Kentucky. You know, I think for him, the Louisville job is obviously appealing because it is his alma mater. We had the same situation last year with Woody, Mike Woodson.
"He’s interested in it. I think he’d be a great fit. He’d be ideal for them. He’s strong on both sides of the ball, as far as individual development, and he’s been around. He brings a lot of experience to any situation that he goes."
One twist — Payne’s son, Zan, plays for Kentucky right now.
The Knicks were represented by Randle in the All-Star Game last season as he made it for the first time in his career. But they almost certainly will have no one in the game this season.
The first dose of reality came when the voting for starters was announced Thursday.
The voting was based on 50% fan vote, 25% player vote and 25% media vote (full disclosure: I had a vote and did not vote for any of the Knicks).
Randle got the most votes of any Knick from players with 10% and ranked 17th overall among frontcourt players.
Derrick Rose, injured much of the season, was the highest-ranking Knicks player, landing at No. 9 among backcourt players — eighth in fan vote with nine player votes and no media votes.
Barrett was 23rd among backcourt players with two player votes. Taj Gibson and Immanuel Quickley each got one player vote.
There were a few oddities, so you can guess which players opted to vote for each other. Jericho Sims and Luka Samanic each got one player vote.