Tom Thibodeau hasn’t quite reached the rearranging-the-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic portion of his coaching program just yet, but he’s getting there.
He’s officially coaching a sub-.500 team, staring at a three-game road trip through San Antonio, Indianapolis and Toronto that begins Tuesday night and could easily plunge the Knicks into an abyss that, in a vastly improved Eastern Conference, could prove ruinous for their season.
They’ll wake up in the Alamo City sitting in 11th place in the East. Eleventh place means out of the playoffs, out even of the four-team play-in round. It’s early, sure. No matter what Thibodeau does, his team isn’t going to clinch anything in December, no matter how hot a hot streak it can fashion. But the Knicks sure could bury themselves this early.
(If there is any doubt about that, feel free to contact Messrs. Barry Trotz and Lou Lamoriello, c/o UBS Arena, 2400 Hempstead Turnpike, Elmont, N.Y., 11003.)
So Thibodeau on Monday said he is “mulling” changes.
He did not identify what those changes might be, because Thibodeau’s default position is to be closer to the vest than lint on an undershirt. He has, after all, already made one seminal change to his lineup, benching Kemba Walker. That worked for one game in Atlanta — when Walker was out, and before he officially announced the switch. The Knicks are 0-3 since the formal benching. The defense is marginally better. The results are not.
So back to the hopper he goes.
And for now, that is part of the problem. Re-jiggering the pieces he already has promises little. A year ago, it took the return of Derrick Rose in a deal with the Pistons and a surprising renaissance from Rose to provide the external push the Knicks needed; they can’t even ponder anything so drastic until Dec. 15, when newly signed free agents can be included in deals.
So for now, there is this:
For now, there is seeing what the Knicks have, once and for all, with Obi Toppin. It means fully committing to playing Toppin and Julius Randle together, and see if Toppin’s added energy and enthusiasm can shake the dynamics.
Is it a risk? It would be a risk in a vacuum. And in Thibodeau’s defense-first, defense-always cocoon, it would be even greater. Playing Randle and Toppin together at the 4 and the 5 takes Mitchell Robinson — the team’s top rim protector — out of the starting five and may take Nerlens Noel, the team’s only other true inside presence, out of the lineup entirely.
But right now, at this moment of the season, the Knicks need a boost. They need a lift. There are too many first quarters in which they fall hopelessly behind, too many third quarters in which they flush the good work of the bench. There are too many starters with huge negative plus/minus numbers. What they have now isn’t working.
And to keep doing something over and over and expecting a different result?
In the real world that’s the definition of “insanity.”
In the NBA, it’s simply called “begging for trouble.”
Twenty-three games is enough of a sample size to get an early read on the Knicks. From the jump, on opening night against the Celtics, they tried to fritter away a late lead, and they’ve done that time and again. There have been many heroic comebacks from hard-to-believe deficits, but with the exception of one night in Milwaukee that has proven only that they have the heart to try but legs too weary to finish the job.
Something has to change. Benching Walker was a start. Inserting Derrick Rose to the starting lineup makes little sense, as last year’s playoffs proved, because he is far more effective at this stage in his career working one shift a half, as a backup does, as opposed to the four a starter requires. Folks have grown impatient with Evan Fournier but it would be far more beneficial to try and get him right as opposed to giving up.
Any other move, at this point, frankly, would be so much needless window dressing.
Toppin deserves a crack at more time. He profiles, at his best, to being precisely what the Knicks crave right now: high energy, high effort, with the chance to add an instant jolt to the lineup. The Knicks can’t be delivered in December. But they can be rescued. And have to be, soon. Ask Islanders fans how they feel about the next 4 ½ months right now.