Late Sunday afternoon, the Knicks left Madison Square Garden on a team bus headed for the airport. They were flying to Utah, the first stop on a five-game road trip. Their next home game is in 11 days.
Tom Thibodeau was on the flight to Utah. He’ll probably be on the sideline when New York returns home to host the Portland Trail Blazers next Friday.
We say probably because the temperature on Thibodeau’s seat was raised a little bit on Sunday afternoon.
The Knicks dropped a winnable game to the Oklahoma City Thunder to fall to 6-7.
The record isn’t egregious. It’s in range with most reasonable expectations for the club.
But the way the Knicks lost on Sunday was alarming. They allowed the Thunder to hit 17 of 31 3-point attempts. Oklahoma City shot 62.5 percent overall. “It’s hard to win if we don’t make a better effort to defend,” Thibodeau said afterward.
Effort has been an issue fairly often for the Knicks this season. The Knicks cited a lack of intensity in a home loss to the Atlanta Hawks earlier this month and a loss to the Nets in Brooklyn last week.
“I thought (Sunday) was just a readiness (issue). We just weren’t ready,” Evan Fournier said. “Noon game, whatever. I don’t know. But lack of intensity, just not doing what we’re supposed to.”
If you hear phrases like that often after games, it’s a sign that a team isn’t connected to its head coach.
But, to be fair to the head coach:
The Knicks’ two big free agent acquisitions (Jalen Brunson, Isaiah Hartenstein) aren’t viewed as elite defenders.
Mitchell Robinson – the Knicks’ best defender – has been out for the past five games.
And Quentin Grimes – arguably the club’s best point of attack defender – has been basically** unavailable due to lingering foot soreness.
So it’s reductive to look at what happened on Sunday – or in the five games prior to that – and place all of the blame on Thibodeau.
But I don’t think Thibodeau can afford to have many more no-show performances in the next few weeks. And I feel confident in saying that Sunday’s loss turned up the temperature on his seat a bit.
Why would Thibodeau’s job security be a topic of conversation less than four weeks into the season?
The answer to that question starts with a loss to the Nets about seven months ago.
Playing without Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn rebounded from a 28-point deficit to beat the Knicks at the Garden the night before the All-Star break.
Sometime after that loss, Knicks owner James Dolan informed team president Leon Rose that he had the latitude to fire or retain Thibodeau, who had at least two guaranteed seasons left on his contract at the time.
Rose decided to keep Thibodeau. The Knicks finished the season 11-4, but missed the playoffs.
They used some draft capital in trades to clear enough cap space to sign Brunson in the offseason. They decided against giving up the amount of players and draft picks required to trade for Donovan Mitchell (an acquisition that Thibodeau was in favor of).
The path to sign Brunson and the disappointing 2021-22 season led to heightened internal expectations for this year’s team in some influential corners of Madison Square Garden.
People familiar with those heightened expectations said in the offseason that the Knicks’ early season performance would be critical. And those people acknowledged that Thibodeau would be under a microscope early on.
That’s why losses like Sunday’s no-show against Oklahoma City turn the heat up on Thibodeau. I’m sure Dolan wasn’t happy with what he saw on Sunday afternoon. And he’s never been shy in expressing displeasure to his executives after bad losses.
He undoubtedly wants to see more from this Knicks team.
Now, to be fair, many issues raised by Sunday’s loss are beyond Thibodeau’s control.
The Knicks, you might have heard, had a chance to draft Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. They passed, instead taking Kevin Knox. It’s easy to knock teams for missing on Gilgeous-Alexander. But the miss in the 2018 draft stings a bit more for New York than others.
Here’s why: Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t working out for teams ahead of the draft. But the Knicks were one of a very few teams – possibly the only team – to get a private workout with Gilgeous-Alexander, as SNY has reported. And they still passed on him.
Some see Gilgeous-Alexander as one of the young stars the Knicks could target in a future trade. The Garden crowd got a first-hand look at the rising star on Sunday, when he scored 37 points on 22 shots in OKC’s win. But fans in New York shouldn’t be overly excited about the prospect of trading for Gilgeous-Alexander; he’s under contract through 2026-27.
The trade speculation around Gilgeous-Alexander stems from a published quote from an anonymous executive. The executive was speculating about Gilgeous-Alexander’s happiness in Oklahoma City, citing his desire to win.
For argument’s sake, let’s say Gilgeous-Alexander is unhappy in Oklahoma City.
Why would he put his professional reputation on the line by trying to force a trade to New York?
The Thunder have an abundance of young talent (Josh Giddey and Lu Dort looked phenomenal on Sunday; No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren won’t even take the court until next season). The Knicks would have to give up a significant portion of their young players/future picks to obtain Gilgeous-Alexander via trade.
Would they have enough talent left over in the wake of a Gilgeous-Alexander trade to compete in the Eastern Conference?
That’s a question Gilgeous-Alexander would have to ask himself before he committed to (publicly or privately) forcing a trade to New York (A trade demand/request, of course, wouldn’t guarantee that Gilgeous-Alexander ends up in New York).
It’s also a question the Knicks have to ask themselves before they pursue any major trades.
The Current talent gap between New York and other young ascending teams was laid bare during Sunday’s messy matinee.
That talent gap was yet another issue laid bare by Sunday’s messy matinee.
Put simply: the Thunder’s young players looked better than the Knicks’ young players.
It’s unfair to put that problem solely on Thibodeau. It’s an organizational shortcoming.
But if the talent gap and energy issues lead to more lopsided losses like Sunday’s, there will probably be consequences. Will it be a coaching change? A change in the front office? A major trade?
Whatever it is, the Knicks will probably have to do something significant. Another season full of ugly losses that ends after 82 games won’t be enough to maintain the status quo.
**Grimes missed nearly all of training camp/preseason due to lingering foot soreness. He also missed the Knicks’ first six games because of the ailment. Grimes is healthy enough to play at the moment. But he’s not in the regular rotation. Thibodeau says Grimes’ conditioning is down due to the time that he’s missed. So he can’t play significant minutes at this point, even though he is healthy enough to get on the floor.
Source: Yahoo Sports