The high expectations many Knicks fans held for their team coming into this season were myopic, clouded by unusually fortuitous circumstances last season that resulted in a 41-31 regular season record and No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, the Knicks’ unforseen pre-playoff success was not a reliable index of where they were in the process of being a sustainable postseason contender.
Their 4-1 first round series loss to the Atlanta Hawks was a more conclusive indicator of areas of strengths and weaknesses, and a painful examination of a roster that was and remains in dire need of an infusion of transformative talent at the top of its roster. The harsh truth is the Knicks, 25-34 coming out of the All-Star break and 12th in the conference, aren’t equipped to challenge the top dogs in the East as currently constituted.
They’ll host the Miami Heat tomorrow at the Garden and the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday at MSG before going on a 12-day, seven-game road trip.
By and large, they are what their record says they are. The Knicks are composed of a one-time All-Star in Julius Randle who would be slotted as the third or fourth best player on a championship contender, a promising but inconsistent young guard in RJ Barrett who is no lock to make an All-Star team in his career, several good role players (Mitchell Robinson, Evan Fournier, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel), aging veterans (Kemba Walker, Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose) and developing players (Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, Quentin Grimes and Cam Reddish) still finding their way.
So ascribing the Knicks’ struggles to head coach Tom Thibodeau is an exercise in misplaced frustration. Yes, the Knicks need changes, but firing Thibodeau shouldn’t be on the to-do lists of owner James Dolan and team president Leon Rose. Thibodeau deservedly won NBA Coach of the Year honors last season and is capable of producing positive outcomes when supplied with elite talent as he had in Chicago when Rose was in his prime.
While he plays some starters too many minutes, a fault he has carried with him throughout his head coaching career, and has been stubborn and resistant to allocate more time to Toppin and Reddish, and seemingly has not even considered giving rookie point guard Miles McBride a look, no combination of young players and veterans would significantly alter the Knicks’ downward trajectory. What would alter it are stars, a fundamental must for any team with championship aspirations.
Here is the cumulative record from 2014 to 2020 of Thibodeau’s predecessors Derek Fisher, Jeff Hornacek and David Fizdale, in addition to interim coaches Kurt Rambis and Mike Miller, who briefly took over after Fisher and Fizdale were fired: 147-329. The recurring theme is they all failed to have a winning record in any season they coached and had a combined zero playoff appearances.
The hook was warranted for Fisher and Fizdale. Hornacek was the victim of a philosophical battle with then-team president Phil Jackson, who was married to the triangle offense and brought in Fisher, his former Los Angeles Lakers point guard, in a disastrous experiment to implement the system.
Rose decided to forego making an impactful move at the NBA trade deadline and wait for the upcoming off-season to bolster the Knicks’ roster. But it is incumbent on him to acquire game changers. No Knick should be deemed untouchable. Red Auerbach, Pat Riley or any of the all-time great NBA coaches would find it an arduous endeavor to move this season’s Knicks team much further up in the standings.
Last May, ahead of Tim Duncan’s enshrinement into the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who won five NBA championships with Duncan, explained succinctly why he is considered one of the best coaches in the history of the game.
“The most concise way to put it is, no Duncan, no championships!”
An immutable NBA axiom is players make coaches. Thibodeau’s charge is to be more flexible. Rose’s obligation is to stock the roster with the requisite talent to contend for a title. Neither has yet to prove willing or capable.