DENVER — It is easy to blame the coach.
You could say the players are tuning him out. Fault him for the uneven start to the season. Make a change where you can because, as the saying goes, you can’t fire the players.
But it wouldn’t be a solution. Tom Thibodeau is not the problem with the Knicks.
This isn’t about the hot start to this road trip. It’s about taking a realistic look at the Knicks, where they are as a team and who would replace Thibodeau if they did pull what would be a premature trigger. Let’s dig into the factors that can best tell where the Knicks’ beleaguered coach stands — or should stand.
Before the season, bookmakers set the Knicks’ win total over/under at 38.5. They were projected to win in the low-40s, at best. They are 8-7, right around where they should be. This team lacks a superstar, which has been obvious in losses to teams such as the Celtics, Bucks, Grizzlies, Cavaliers and Hawks who have at least one of them. One of their best perimeter defenders, Quentin Grimes, has hardly played due to a sore left foot, logging all of 40 minutes in five games. Mitchell Robinson, their defensive backbone, has missed the past seven games because of a sprained right knee.
If anyone is responsible for the state of this middling team, it’s team president Leon Rose. He couldn’t get a trade done in the offseason for Donovan Mitchell. He brought back the injury-prone Robinson on a four-year, $60 million deal. He gave big money to Evan Fournier, a defensive liability who has been benched by Thibodeau. The only players on the roster who have reached an All-Star game are Julius Randle and Derrick Rose, and both have been at their best playing for Thibodeau.
Thibodeau isn’t just sticking with the status quo. He only started Fournier because of Grimes’ injury, and he has since not only demoted the veteran but now bumped him from the rotation. Thibodeau has given the talented yet enigmatic wing Cam Reddish a legitimate shot as the team’s starting shooting guard. He has adopted a more up-tempo attack, and the team has bought in, ranking 10th in the league in pace. More adjustments are needed. I’d like to see Obi Toppin, who is shooting a robust 42.4 percent from 3-point range, play more than 17.8 minutes per game.
Who’d be next?
If the franchise were to part with Thibodeau, it’s not as if they have Mike Woodson sitting there. The Knicks don’t have any assistants on their bench with head coaching experience. Lead assistant Johnnie Bryant never has run his own team. Remember last year, Knicks fans, when some clamored for Kenny Payne to take over? Well, Payne is off to an 0-3 start at Louisville, and already is feeling heat after losing top recruit D.J. Wagner to Kentucky. Forget the off-the-court issues with suspended Celtics coach Ime Udoka for a moment; in Boston, he had top-flight defenders such as Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. Those players aren’t on this roster. Unless you think former Jazz coach Quin Snyder wants this job, you’re not doing better than Thibodeau, a two-time NBA Coach of the Year winner.
I don’t see Thibodeau going anywhere. A winless road trip with the Knicks repeatedly getting blown out could have created some real questions, but even then, I didn’t see Rose dropping the ax. The moment he fires Thibodeau, all the pressure turns to the team president who has yet to land a superstar, which is the reason he was given the job in the first place. Rose assembled a mediocre roster that is slightly improved from last season’s 37-win team. You want to get on Thibodeau for the effort in a few of the losses, particularly the Thunder and Nets, that’s fair. He hasn’t done flawless work thus far. But ask yourself this: What coach has this team with a significantly better record through 15 games? What losses should’ve been wins? The coach isn’t the issue.
When will it be Grimes time?
The Knicks are making a mistake with Quentin Grimes. Rather than get him much-needed reps in the G League after he has missed much of the last two months due to a sore left foot, they are planning to keep him with the team on the bench as Thibodeau goes with a nine-man rotation. Thibodeau believes it better suits the young guard, but it’s hard to knock off rust without playing.
After missing eight games due to the injury, Grimes logged his first DNP-Coach’s Decision of the season in the first two games of the road trip. It came as something of a surprise because Grimes was so impressive during the Las Vegas Summer League and entered the fall with such high expectations after showing promising flashes as a rookie. He even started a game against the 76ers on Nov. 4, when Fournier was demoted, before the pain in the foot resurfaced.
The early part of the season has not gone well for the second-year guard. The foot injury cost him almost all of training camp and the preseason. He hardly has been on the floor, in practice or games, and when Thibodeau decided to cut his rotation down to nine, Grimes was one of the casualties.
The Knicks have to win games, and it’s unfair to expect Grimes to make an impact at the moment due to his inactivity. He needs to log minutes and get games under his belt. Watching won’t help him. The Knicks need Grimes’ shotmaking and defense, but only when he is ready to contribute. He would be better prepared by getting to play in actual games rather than watching.
A friendly rivalry
The Knicks have a rivalry on their hands between their two best players … but not on the court.
Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to their favorite football teams. Randle is a big Cowboys fan. Brunson roots for the Eagles. When the two teams met in a “Sunday Night Football” showdown on Oct. 16, Brunson had a number of teammates, including Randle, over to watch the game, which was won handily by the Eagles. Brunson had bragging rights, and has reminded Randle about that result.
“Just got together, spent a little time with each other off the court, watched the football game, watched the Eagles lose, so a great day,” he said with a smile.
The Cowboys and Eagles will play again on Christmas Eve, and the NFC East could be up for grabs. Stay tuned for more playful jabs between the two.