Baseball’s Opening Day is approaching, and the Knicks are going to be free soon to take in as many Yankees and Mets games as they care to watch. So let us put Tom Thibodeau’s two seasons in New York in a balls-and-strikes context.
Last year, Thibs was a league MVP who hit .325 with 37 homers and 118 RBIs.
This year, Thibs has batted .269 with 14 homers and an endless parade of runners left on base.
Just as good players have bad seasons, good coaches have bad seasons too. As his team is only one unfortunate bounce away from missing the play-in tournament — the lowest of low NBA bars — Thibodeau has to accept his share of the blame. And his most damaging failure has been his inability to do what he consistently did last year: Get the best out of Julius Randle.
Wednesday night, when the Knicks’ four-game winning streak died in a 125-114 loss to Charlotte, their one starter booed during introductions, Randle, wasn’t among the primary culprits, not with 21 points and seven assists. Afterward the power forward expressed his love for the city and for his franchise, but said he’s been frustrated by the impact of negative crowd reaction on his 5-year-old son, who has left games because of it.
“As a father that’s what bothers me more than anything,” Randle said.
He maintained that he knows he needs to “live with the good and the bad” in New York and that he’s “built for it,” though his on-court disposition has said otherwise. So be it. Now that the Knicks are one defeat or one Atlanta victory away from play-in elimination, their blame game should be interesting to follow in the coming weeks.
Nobody knows if Leon Rose, the agent-turned-executive, has any idea what he’s looking at, or if he’d be better off finding work as a mime. Nobody knows if Randle has compromised his trade value with substandard play and get-me-outta-here vibes to the extent that his team will have a rough time moving him for a reasonable return.
Yes, Randle and Rose will take the most heat, and rightfully so. But Thibodeau, the Coach of the Year in 2020-21, has to be right behind them on that line in 2022. Though he will never be forgotten for the gift he gave the city in his first go-around in his dream job, and though he should never again be asked to pay for a meal or drink in the tristate area, Thibs didn’t deliver a worthy sequel in Year 2, in part because he couldn’t stop his best player from weighing the team down.
So before the Charlotte game, I asked Thibodeau why he felt last season’s clear love affair between Randle and the city appeared headed to divorce court so damn quickly.
“Every year is different,” he responded. “You’re faced with new and different challenges. This year didn’t go like last year did. Hopefully we can finish up like we did last year. Things change all the time and … I think it goes with the turf. You’re going to get a lot of credit, you’re going to get a lot of blame. That’s the way it works here, so just stay focused, come in the next day and just keep working. Just keep working.”
Thibodeau didn’t sound like he was talking to reporters gathered in the Garden interview room; it sounded like he was talking to Randle.
Does Thibs say these things to Randle behind closed doors? Did he privately take him on after the star player chastised the fans and showed a lack of enthusiasm for his teammates’ success?
I asked the coach a follow-up question about buttons. Thibodeau sure pushed all the right ones with Randle last year, and I wondered if he had struggled to find those this year.
“It’s not just one player,” he responded. “It’s your entire team. How do you bring the best out of your group? Right now, I want the focus to be on, OK, the team’s playing really good, playing winning basketball, and that’s where I want it to be. … Once the season’s over, we’ll dig into everything. We’ll look at the things we did well, the things we didn’t do as well as we would like, and then we’ll try to make the improvements over the course of the summer.”
And yes, Thibodeau absolutely deserves the chance over the summer to fix what is broken. The guy is still one of the better coaches in the league, and still the Knicks’ best asset (with RJ Barrett closing hard). Unlike Randle, Thibodeau doesn’t have credibility issues when swearing he wants to stay in New York in the worst way.
“This is the best place in the league to play,” he said, “and look, I’ve been just about every place. I’m speaking from experience. This place is special.”
Only it wasn’t special this season, not even close. Thibodeau never connected with Randle, never inspired him to lead, or to play team-first ball, or to honor the terms of his $117 million extension.
That wasn’t just Randle’s fault. That was the coach’s fault, too.