How the Knicks are telegraphing Tom Thibodeau disconnect
There are a few buzzwords that typically precede significant changes within NBA teams.
Is a team questioning whether it is ready to play, an often damning strike against its coaching staff?
“I thought tonight was just readiness. We just weren’t ready,” Evan Fournier said after the Knicks’ 145-135 loss to the Thunder on Sunday. “Noon game, whatever. I don’t know. But lack of intensity, just not doing what we’re supposed to.”
Is a team questioning whether it is playing each possession with a proper level of urgency?
“We got to do everything with a sense of urgency as a team,” Jalen Brunson said in the Knicks’ quiet locker room at the Garden. “… We played with a sense of urgency in the fourth quarter, and it was just a little too late.”
Is a team questioning its overall effort level, which would demonstrate there is a problem in motivation?
“We just got to play harder,” RJ Barrett said after a game in which he was benched for the majority of the second half. “It’s not like we’re not playing hard at all, but we got to compete more.”
Check, check, check. Surrendering the most points in a game in 16 years is the type of effort that could prompt some reflection and perhaps some action from the Knicks. Sure, they are 6-7 — a mark that seems about right after an offseason in which they added Brunson but did not pair the point guard with a proven star — but their style of play has sounded alarms.
Tom Thibodeau teams are supposed to grind up opponents with an unrelenting defensive effort. Instead, the Knicks entered NBA action Monday with the seventh-worst defensive rating in the league.
In Thibodeau’s first season as Knicks head coach, the 2020-21 Knicks held opponents to 33.7 percent shooting from 3, the best in the league. They used a defensive grit and success limiting opponents from deep to surprise their way to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
This season, the Knicks were allowing 14.1 treys per game, the second-highest mark in the NBA.
The Knicks have not held an opponent under 102 points. They lost by 27 to the Nets on Wednesday. They were historically embarrassed by Oklahoma City. Awaiting is a five-game road trip that starts Tuesday in Utah, and few would be surprised if the Knicks return home stuck on six total victories.
If so, would Thibodeau return to the Garden for the Nov. 25 game against the Trail Blazers? Would Leon Rose look at a roster that is filled with interesting parts yet absent true difference-makers and make a trade or two? Would James Dolan even allow him to tinker with the team, or would the owner decide the problems include the team president?
Everything should be on the table if games such as Sunday’s — and Wednesday’s — continue to crop up.
“One-hundred thirty-five points, we should be walking out with a win,” Thibodeau said. “But if we don’t play defense, we’re not going to. That’s one thing that we have to be able to count on.”
The hallmark of a Thibodeau team has disappeared — though, in his defense, so has his starting center. In five games that Mitchell Robinson has missed due to a knee injury, the Knicks have surrendered 121.8 points per game. On Sunday, they lacked the foot speed to stay in front of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the paint presence to alter shots when the Thunder star got near the hoop.
Every part of the Knicks’ defense was exploited — the Thunder were the more talented and smarter team. There were times when the Knicks sold out to slow Gilgeous-Alexander, clogging the lane and ignoring the weapons around him. SGA then could draw a couple defenders and kick out to a wide-open shooter such as Josh Giddey, who drilled one of Oklahoma City’s 17 triples.
Brunson, who over-helped on the play, did not see the floor in the fourth quarter.
“I wouldn’t have played myself either, the way I was playing defensively,” the point guard said.
If the Knicks left Barrett — their best perimeter defender — on an island, Gilgeous-Alexander was free to attack. When Barrett tried to stick with the superior wing, SGA went 4-of-7 for 14 points and dished four assists.
And when Barrett could keep Gilgeous-Alexander in front of him, SGA still kept Barrett off balance. Gilgeous-Alexander forced Barrett into foul trouble — Barrett picked up his fourth two minutes into the third quarter and never returned — and essentially did whatever he wanted offensively.
Without Barrett, the Knicks threw an assortment of guards — including Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes — at Gilgeous-Alexander, who made all of them look silly. This version of Rose does not have a prayer against one of the more explosive players in basketball, particularly with little communication or execution in coverage against Thunder pick-and-rolls.
The Knicks, who were up 13 during a record-setting first quarter, dug a 19-point hole in the third because they ran out of both capable bodies and ideas to bother SGA. He scored 21 of his 37 points in the period, the final two of which came during a play in which Quickley face-guarded him far away from the basket. Thibodeau’s Knicks decided to attempt to deny him the ball — which just resulted in a backdoor cut and yet another layup.
In every single way, the Knicks’ defense was beaten. What could they have done differently?
“Helping each other out,” said Brunson, though over-helping backfired. “We left everyone on an island, and they’re very tough to guard.”
Is this a problem of effort, which could be corrected by pasting a few guys to the bench and shaking up the rotations? No fans would complain if Obi Toppin, who logged just 15 minutes, saw more time.
Is this a problem of readiness, which could be corrected by making a coaching change? You only have to look a borough away to see how a Nets team emerged from a defensive spiral after getting rid of Steve Nash.
Is it a problem of personnel, which could be corrected by finding a team president who can finally land a superstar — or, at the least, construct a roster with parts that fit?
The truest source of the problem might have to be identified before the Knicks return from their West Coast trip.
Today’s back page
🏈 O’CONNOR: Giants must do everything possible for an Odell Beckham Jr. reunion
⚾ Hal Steinbrenner rejects notion Yankees are stagnant: ‘Constantly evolving’
🏈 CANNIZZARO: Jets can flip script on Patriots and prove they’ve finally learned their lesson
The Mets found their second-best reliever, Adam Ottavino, in mid-March, securing a proven righty who excelled ahead of Edwin Diaz on a $4 million contract.
Judging by the early returns of the current free-agent market, it will be more difficult to discover such a bargain this offseason.
Diaz signed a record-setting, $102 million pact to return as the Mets’ closer. Robert Suarez, who was a 31-year-old major league rookie last season, re-signed with the Padres on a five-year, $46 million agreement. Former Met Rafael Montero, who found his niche in the Houston bullpen, signed a three-year, $34.5 million deal to stay with the Astros.
Diaz was incredible last season, and Suarez and Montero were solid if not spectacular. Diaz landed the richest contract for a reliever in MLB history. Suarez secured the fourth-highest contract among active relievers, and Montero’s deal made him the fifth-best-paid bullpen arm, by total contract value, in the early going of the offseason.
These types of deals would not have existed a few years ago for Suarez and Montero, which signals the reliever market may be changing. This represents great news for relievers from Kenley Jansen to Michael Fulmer to Taylor Rogers to Ottavino — and probably does not represent the best news for a team such as the Mets, who are trying to piece together a bullpen around Diaz and Drew Smith.
If this is the offseason of the reliever, it is not a great time to need a ton of relievers.
This is the time of the year when baseball fans will take any nibble of speculation they can get.
So there is this: Aaron Judge’s barber is optimistic the superstar will be leaving the Yankees for the Giants.
San Francisco is preparing for the Judge sweepstakes, and the city’s top newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, sent a reporter to Linden, Calif., Judge’s hometown, to speak with some San Joaquin County locals.
Included in the group was Terry Cano, Judge’s barber for five years.
“I’ve kind of got some inside information,” Cano told the outlet in a story published this weekend.
Cano and Judge are friendly enough that they are on texting terms, and perhaps Judge has let something slip while getting a fade.
“I’ve kind of been hearing the same thing that everyone’s hoping: that he’s going to come home,” Cano said about Judge, who grew up a Giants fan in Northern California.
It is possible. It is more likely, though, that Cano knows about as much as everyone else, and there will be a few more months of Judge intrigue before he settles on a team.
Still, in search of baseball rumors on Nov. 15, we’re all for a barber creating a buzz.
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