The ‘Leon and Wes Messi’ can be crystalized in a comparison to the Boston Celtics, who are in playoff position at the All-Star break, in sixth place in the Eastern Conference at 34-26 and winners of 10 of 12 games.
Last season, the Knicks were better than Boston, finishing 41-31 to the Celtics’ .500 record.
When coach Brad Stevens became general manager, his first order of business on his first day was shipping Kemba Walker to Oklahoma City and attaching an asset so the Thunder would take him off his hands. Soon after, Stevens was happy to allow Evan Fournier to leave in free agency.
Turns out Knicks president Leon Rose and chief adviser William Wesley took in Boston’s castoffs as their offseason upgrades when they had a league-high cap space. And look at the Knicks now — nine games under .500, in 12th place, 3¹/₂ games out of the play-in tournament.
“Brad Stevens should’ve been the Knicks’ GM,” one NBA coaching source told The Post. “Think about what was the first thing Brad did? Did the Knicks’ scout watch Kemba play last season?”
League insiders, The Post has reported, say the Knicks’ analytics department heavily influenced the Walker addition. Tom Thibodeau wasn’t gung-ho about the Walker signing, though saw potential in Fournier as a 3-point shooting space maker.
However, the Knicks coach still wanted the club to re-sign the “heart and soul” of the club, Reggie Bullock, and was disappointed it didn’t.
“They haven’t collaborated with him like they did last year,” the coaching source said.
After the Knicks last Wednesday night against the Nets blew a third 20-point lead this month, Thibodeau hinted at changes. A spate of social-media sentiment leaned toward changing the coach — which is positively ridiculous.
The only positive thing Rose has done is hire Thibodeau. It was Thibodeau who lobbied for last season’s trade of Derrick Rose, who elevated the Knicks down the stretch by playing at an All-Star level.
The front office will need Rose back healthy after the All-Star break, possibly Friday against Miami, before judging the coach that severely. Rose has been out since mid-December.
“Obviously we’d like to be doing better than we are,” Thibodeau said. “There’s still time. It’s not going as great as it has. It didn’t go great last year until the end.”
Publicly, Thibodeau isn’t pointing fingers about changes made in the offseason. He’s a company man.
“Everyone wants to look at last year, this year,” he said. “Every year is different. You can bring back the same exact group and it can be different. That’s usually the way this league works.”
Still, an NBA agent said the signings of Fournier and Walker weren’t keeping in line with last season’s philosophy.
“Thibodeau had established a culture and identity last season,” the agent said. “Evan and Kemba didn’t fit it. They’re not defense-first.”
The Knicks won big last season because of their durability and continuity. Walker entered the season with major questions about his health and his ability to play back-to-backs. That actually has been the least of his problems as he’s slipped further on defense and as an all-court scorer.
If the Knicks head straight to the lottery when the regular season ends on April 10, it will likely be a recommendation from “World Wide Wes” to can Thibodeau.
This is not a surprise. While Thibodeau always remained close with Leon Rose, his former agent, he didn’t have much of a relationship with Wesley after Thibodeau left the Bulls.
As The Post has reported, Wesley spearheaded the decision to hire three assistant coaches for Thibodeau whom he had never met — Johnnie Bryant of Utah, Kenny Payne of Kentucky and Mike Woodson of the Clippers.
Don’t be surprised if Thibodeau is axed after his second season of a five-year deal, Wesley lobbies for Bryant, a longtime assistant, to be head coach. Bryant is close with Donovan Mitchell (they huddled in the hallway after the Jazz beat the Knicks on Feb. 7 in Utah). And he’s Damian Lillard’s mentor in Oakland.
Mitchell, the Westchester native, spends his offseasons in New York. Some of the NBA cognescenti believe the natural course of action is Mitchell asking for a trade to the Knicks.
Mitchell is repped by Creative Artists Agency — the entity Rose once ran. When Rose was hired in March 2020, he bragged about his relationships around the league being huge in recruiting free agents to New York.
“There’s a huge difference in recruiting players to represent than recruiting them to play for your basketball team,” one former NBA executive said.
Rose’s relationships have gotten him Thibodeau, who has won two Coach of the year awards, and little else. Meanwhile, the Celtics have Stevens, a basketball lifer who has given Boston a chance to do serious damage in the Eastern Conference.
If owner James Dolan gives the OK to fire Thibodeau in April, he’s going after the wrong guy.