Sitting at 25-35 this season has spiraled out of control for the New York Knicks. Including recently becoming the first team in 25 years to blow a lead of 20 points or more, in three games in the same month. With the latest meltdown, they blew a 28 point lead late in the third quarter to a Nets team containing precisely none of their star players on the court. Who is culpable for the Knicks’ terrible season? Primarily the head coach has to shoulder significant blame. However, the front office also has much to answer for their lack of strategy, whilst not working in lockstep with the Coach. I will go through who is primarily responsible for the Knicks’ terrible season, and what they need to do moving forward.
Who is Culpable for the Knicks’ Terrible Season?
1. Leon Rose
Knick fans on social media seem to pin much of the blame on Head Coach Tom Thibodeau. In my opinion, the person most relieved by that focus has to be Knicks President Leon Rose. First of all, he’s done his coach few favors with the muddled roster he constructed. Secondly, he remains completely silent and unreachable to the media. No one is any wiser as to what his plan actually is. Conversely, look at how accessible Sean Marks is as the Nets GM. He has kept the fans and media fully in the loop with his vision moving forward. When assessing who is culpable for the Knicks’ terrible season, Leon Rose’s lack of strategy jumps out primarily.
Rose’s off-season has been a disaster
Thibodeau is very much an old-school mind. For better or worse, he focuses on veterans and a defensive identity. Instead, the Knicks front-office signed defensively challenged former All-Star Kemba Walker. Traded by the Celtics, then bought out by the Thunder due to his arthritic knee. Alongside him, they paired him with Evan Fournier an inconsistent but talented shooter who also plays no defense. Essentially the Knicks’ two starting guards both can score in bunches but play little defense. This doesn’t fit a Thibodeau team.
According to sources, Thibodeau wished to bring back Reggie Bullock due to his defense, but the front office allowed him to sign with the Mavericks. Instead, they re-signed backup center, Nerlens Noel, to a 3-year deal. This was risky due to Noel’s balky knees, and it’s backfired spectacularly. He has barely played this year through injury.
Furthermore, with reports that DeMar DeRozan was interested in signing for the Knicks. Leon Rose preferring Fournier is troubling. Especially considering DeRozan’s MVP-calibre season in Chicago.
A case can be made that his only truly successful move to date was trading for Derrick Rose at Thibodeau’s request.
Kemba’s Decision to Shut it Down Further Shows Where the Front Office Got it Wrong
According to ESPN reports, Kemba has chosen to shut it down for the rest of the year allowing us to prepare for next season. This is a further indictment on the front office. They didn’t adequately address the point guard position, the only glaring need going into this season.
Having re-signed Derrick Rose after his tremendous year; there was always a risk of placing too large a burden on him due to his injury history. This has come to fruition as he’s been out with a long-term injury this year.
Pairing him with Kemba’s knee problems in retrospect seemed like a risky strategy. Even more so with how he looked uncomfortable not being the primary playmaker or scorer in Thibodeau’s system. He showed flashes of his multiple All-Star talent, but Thibodeau never seemed to fully trust him and in fact, briefly exiled him. Now Thibodeau is asking wing Alec Burks to run the offense, with Burks struggling dreadfully at point guard.
Leon Rose Failed to Pick a Direction at the Trade Deadline
If the off-season was bad, Rose failing to choose a direction at the deadline was the biggest mistake of his tenure to date. With the season spiraling, it was intrinsic on the front office to make a move. On the outside of the play-in places, the front office needed to choose a direction. Any direction would have been better than standing pat. With a logjam at the wing, they could have made the wise decision to trade Burks, who drew some interest and would have freed up space for newly acquired Cam Reddish. Attaching picks to poor contracts would have allowed New York to rebuild in the offseason. Alternatively, if they wished to upgrade their roster, Portland’s fire sale allowed the Knicks to jump into the Norman Powell or CJ McCollum sweepstakes. Yet the Knicks chose to sit out.
According to sources, Thibodeau was unhappy with the decision to stand pat at the deadline, another sign of a disconnect. It remains unclear what the front office direction is moving forward.
Who is Culpable for the Knicks’ Terrible Season?
2. Tom Thibodeau
While I don’t believe he’s forgotten how to coach, nor do I believe he’s been helped by his front office, he still has to shoulder a portion of the blame for this season. After his Coach of the Year award, he may have felt emboldened due to last season’s success. This year has not worked, however. His rotations and minutes usage have raised eyebrows including overworking his veterans. For instance, perplexingly 36-year-old Taj Gibson has often played more than young bigs Obi Toppin and Jericho Sims.
In the weeks prior to the All-Star break, he had a particularly rough stretch of games. Including trying to call a timeout for the last play against the Thunder, and forgetting he’d already spent it on a lost challenge call. This was on the back of needlessly risking future star RJ Barrett in the closing seconds of a blow-out loss to Denver. Causing RJ to get hurt and miss a key stretch of games.
There are also issues of accountability, with rumblings some players felt not all were being held to the same standard. This was made clear when he briefly exiled Kemba, doing little to help the chemistry in the locker room. He has an extremely quick hook for younger players such as Toppin, but an infinite amount of patience for Randle’s mental lapses.
Whilst I’ve stated that the roster is poorly suited to the coach’s preferred style, great coaches make it work with the style of players he has. There is still enough talent on the roster to be more competitive, especially considering they were the 4th seed last year. When assessing who is culpable for the Knicks’ terrible season, Thibodeau must shoulder the blame.
Indeed, According to NBA insider for SNY Ian Begley, Knicks executive William Wesley has been in the ear of owner James Dolan pinning the blame for this season on Thibodeau. This is a further sign of the dysfunction within the organization.
Cam Reddish deal indicates a disconnect between Thibodeau and the Front Office
As previously mentioned, there appears to be a disconnect between the two parties. A clear example of this can be seen in the Reddish trade. According to Marc Berman of the NY Post, Thibodeau wasn’t on board with the deal to begin with. Leon Rose pressed ahead with the trade, giving up a first-round pick in the deal. This appeared to be a solid move as a low-cost high upside move, for a talented young scorer. Yet Thibodeau clearly isn’t convinced. Prior to the All-Star break, he’s struggled to get off the bench at all.
With the clear disconnect and executives in the ear of the owner, it appears to be a case of when rather than if Thibodeau will be fired.
Who is culpable for the Knicks’ terrible season?
3. Julius Randle
Recently signed to a max deal, Randle’s season to date has been very poor. He’s markedly declined from his All-NBA season last year. Not only is he one of the least efficient players in the league statistically, but his leadership abilities appear to be the clearest problem. Randle often appears detached from the team. He has also accelerated his own problems by shouting expletives at the fans. There are clear instances where he negates his defensive duties to argue calls or shows a distinct lack of effort on the court. His mental lapses have been exemplified by turnovers and poor decisions leading to opposition fast-break buckets.
He is an extremely frustrating talent overall. He has the size, strength, and all the tools to be a dominating player night in night out. This all came together in his MIP season. For whatever reason, he’s gone from leading the Knicks playoff run, to seemingly being detached in the space of a few months. This was summed up by Friday night’s loss to the Heat, where he wasted Barrett’s 46 point night by shooting 2-15 from the field. With RJ clearly taking the leadership and scoring reigns at the age of 21, it’s fair to wonder how Randle fits with this new reality.
What do the Knicks Need to do Moving Forward?
Priority One: Focus on Their Young Talent
At 10 games below .500 and the playoffs a distant hope, it’s time to go young. Bring up rookie Miles McBride who has been balling out for Westchester to see what he has. Cam Reddish needs to be getting major minutes. Increase minutes for Jericho Sims and Obi Toppin. Find a way to get Immanuel Quickley back in a groove too. Most importantly, hand the keys of the offense to RJ Barrett, their one foundational piece.
Quentin Grimes has proven to be a very good draft pick in fairness, and his partial knee dislocation is unfortunate. As long as he is back before the season ends, he also should continue to play major minutes when healthy.
Priority Two: Plan for the Draft
With their imminent lottery status, they need to heavily scout the guards in the upper end of the draft. Combo guard Jaden Ivey of Purdue is an option. Perhaps Shaedon Sharpe is preferred due to the organization’s Kentucky ties. So too fellow Wildcat Point Guard TyTy Washington. Jean Montero is another first-round Point Guard who may be a sleeper pick.
Decide Thibodeau and Randle’s Future This Offseason
I wouldn’t rush to replace Thibodeau, but he needs to prove he is amenable to change moving forward. Especially regarding minute distribution and trusting younger players. Failing that, they could look to Kenny Atkinson, who did a tremendous job in Brooklyn. Perhaps Kenny Payne if they choose to hire from within. Incidentally, Payne is a favorite amongst the Front Office. Two things can be true, Thibodeau may be the best coach the Knicks have had since Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Woodson in two decades. However, perhaps he isn’t the right man for a young team moving forward.
Lastly due to Randle’s performances this year, trading his contract in a package for a disgruntled star remains their best hope of a quick turnaround. Perhaps Donovan Mitchell Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal make themselves available. Regardless, the first step is the Front office having a clear vision and their head coach delivering it on the court.
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