Wednesday marks something of a milestone in New York City. It will be exactly one week since the Knicks committed anything resembling a basketball felony on your loyalties or your sensibilities as a fan. It marks a full week of inactivity for the Knicks, who were last seen blowing a 28-point lead to the Nets’ taxi squad at Madison Square Garden.
It’s a sign of just how bad things have been that this is what passes for an excellent week for your New York Knicks.
When last we checked in with Tom Thibodeau, he looked like a man who’d just been told his dog was about to be put down, and he talked like a man understanding that he would be well-served spending some time looking at, as Another New York coach once so elegantly put it, “the guy in the glass.”
“We have a chance to reboot here,” Thibodeau said last Wednesday, after the Knicks had closed out the pre-All-Star-Game portion of their seasonal program with their calamitous collapse against Brooklyn. “Everything is on the table now. Everything has to be merit-based. You earn what you get. You look at everything. How are we going to manage this? If a guy is playing good, he plays. If the team is functioning well he should play. The team has to come first for everyone.”
If Thibodeau is legit serious about building a meritocracy here, then that means we will see a commitment to Quentin Grimes even when injured Knicks return. We will see Miles McBride get some minutes, even if it means making Kemba Walker or Immanuel Quickley sit. It means finally giving Obi Toppin (17.4 points and 8.5 rebounds per 36 minutes) a legit look, even if it means pairing him with Julius Randle (and maybe gently suggesting to him that there’s generally a reason he’s left wide open outside the 3-point line).
It will mean quick hooks for Evan Fournier and Alec Burks when they turn in one of their periodic 1-for-9 shooting nights, and giving those minutes to Cam Reddish, who cost the Knicks a No. 1 draft pick and needs to be given a chance to prove he was worth it.
If Thibodeau really is serious about this, it will be a fundamental change from what we’ve seen so far this season, because there seems to have been many times when it is he is far more conditioned to going with what makes him comfortable — which is to say, relying on his veterans and his starters — than what makes the Knicks tick. Often it has felt like he’s broken up combinations that are working during games in order to force combinations that should work better but don’t.
Two antidotes to Thibodeau’s chronic basketball migraines ought to be present and accounted for soon, when Derrick Rose and RJ Barrett return from their respective ankle injuries.
It may be a telling sign of just how poorly the roster was constructed that so much of the Knicks’ hopes, as it turned out, were tied up in the 33-year-old Rose, but he was the team’s most consistent player before he went down and he is the single most trusted lieutenant in Thibodeau’s corps. His return will finally allow the Knicks to enjoy life with an honest-to-goodness play-making point guard again.
Barrett’s absence was in its own way even more damaging, and on a lot of levels. The fact it occurred deep in a blowout loss when he by rights should’ve been clad in his warm-ups has given gallons of fuel to anti-Thibodeau factions who have begun to wonder about his game management. But beyond that, Barrett had been playing some of the best basketball of his career — remember, just two games earlier had come the 36/8/5 explosion and game-saving (for the moment, anyway) shot against the Lakers.
But Rose’s and Barrett’s returns will be the easy part of Thibodeau’s second-half agenda. If what he said last Wednesday reflects his true intent, and wasn’t simply words to ward off the wolves, it means that Randle — playing better lately — will be shown the bench when he’s having one of his intermittent meltdown games. It means believing in what you’re seeing on the court, not hoping for what you want to see.
The Knicks may be a lost cause for the playoffs this year but the rest of the schedule needn’t be a lost cause, too. See what’s here. See what you have. Honor what you said about merit and earning your way. The Knicks have some rehabilitation ahead of them. It starts with that. It starts with meritocracy.