There were ominous signs that this year’s Valentine’s Day would be a heartbreaker for the New York Knicks.
Stranger things have happened in New York this season, so it was only fitting that Netflix’s hit series ‘Stranger Things’ actors David Harbour and Noah Schnapp were on hand to witness the Knicks’ spiraling season hit rock-bottom in a 127-124 overtime loss to the tanking Oklahoma City Thunder.
The latest debacle was the Knicks’ 12th loss in their last 15 games. Strangely, the Knicks could have won four of their previous five games, including Monday night’s embarrassment at the hands of the youngest team in the league.
“We’re just letting a lot of them go. Our last five (were) very winnable games,” said Julius Randle, whose first triple-double of the season went down the drain. “The story and narrative probably a lot different.”
But the reality is the Knicks are two games outside the play-in tournament, with nine of their next 10 opponents heavily in play for playoff contention.
Randle had been playing his best stretch of the season. But also, during this stretch, his late-game decisions have cost the Knicks some games. Like the four turnovers, he coughed up in the fourth quarter and overtime and the atrocious 1 of 5 shooting, including missing the potential game-winning fallaway jumper at the end of the regulation.
It was just the tip of the iceberg. The Knicks’ woes run deep.
There were the 60 Thunder points in the paint as the Oklahoma City guards and wings repeatedly attacked the paint. In another monster effort, Knicks center Mitchell Robinson had four blocks and four steals (14 points, 17 rebounds, a career-high nine coming from the offensive glass). But it didn’t matter as 19-year old Thunder rookie Josh Giddey shattered the Knicks’ defensive wall from the point of attack, leaving Robinson by his lonesome, protecting the rim to no avail. Giddey bent the Knicks defense to his every whim and repeatedly found his teammates.
Giddey represented what the Knicks don’t have — a young generational prospect. For all their blown picks and missing on the likes of Thunder’s current top player Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell, the Knicks have a collection of young talents that are either underutilized or miscast. They might have a star somewhere in RJ Barrett, whose floor is a high-level role starter. They have high-level role players in Robinson and rookie Quentin Grimes and fringe rotation players in Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin, who are losing confidence as the Knicks’ turbulent season drags on.
Giddey became the youngest player to come up with a triple-double at Madison Square Garden and the youngest player to log in consecutive triple-double games. The Australian kid punished the Knicks with a career-high 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 12 assists. His backcourt mate Tre Mann also stepped up. Once a rumored Knicks draft target, Mann played his best game of the season with 30 points, eight in the overtime.
It was just the 18th win of the season for the Thunder, who were missing their top two players, Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort, due to injuries. But they have more upside than the current middling Knicks roster.
In the final minute of the regulation, Tom Thibodeau’s brain cramp made the loss all the more strange.
With 1:07 left in the regulation, Thibodeau caved into Evan Fournier’s plea to challenge a foul called on the Frenchman, who clearly had contact with Giddey’s arms while going for a steal. The unsuccessful challenge cost the Knicks a timeout. Then, in the ensuing Thunder possession, Thibodeau uncharacteristically called a timeout to challenge a rookie Quentin Grimes foul, which they no longer have.
“That was my fault,” Thibodeau said. “I screwed that up.”
Perhaps the mounting pressure brought upon by the piles of losses and blown leads are taking its toll on last season’s NBA Coach of the Year.
“I just lost my train of thought there for a second,” Thibodeau said.
For once, Thibodeau publicly admitted to a mistake, a tactical miscalculation. He didn’t flinch when he removed Kemba Walker out of the rotation; when Randle was under fire for poor effort and body language; when Barrett got injured after he left him on the court with the game beyond reach; Toppin’s sporadical minutes; Quickley’s dwindling minutes amid a shooting slump; miscasting Burks as a point guard while refusing to give rookie Miles McBride a chance, and the list goes on.
Last season, teams feared the Knicks as they came well-prepared and oozing with the confidence that they could beat anybody at any given night. This season, teams are routinely beating the Knicks in every imaginable way. If there’s anything this Knicks team has established consistently, it’s playing wildly inconsistent.
But to be fair, Thibodeau didn’t have the luxury of a healthy roster, unlike last season. But when they are banking on a healthy Derrick Rose to save them again after the All-Star break, then they are inviting more trouble moving forward. Rose is supposed to be a mentor, not a savior; a placeholder, not the starter of a playoff team at this stage of his career.
From top to bottom, the Knicks are a mess this season. The front office tried to untangle their messy miscalculations in the offseason, but they found no takers for their overvalued veterans at the trade deadline. With last season’s magical playoff run increasingly looking like a mirage now rather than a montage of a bright future, the Knicks are stuck with their modified ‘run it back’ roster.
“We got to fight,” Thibodeau said. “That’s our only option.”
Thibodeau’s tone was like a cornered boxer on the ropes.
But are the Knicks really staring at a dead end?
It’s more of a crossroad where they have to decide which path to go: full-scale rebuild and produce a star or stay in the middle ground waiting for a star to force their way to New York.
A full-scale rebuild is to tank like what the Thunder are doing. They have a roster full of young players devoid of starter-level veterans. Their pathway to contention is to nail their lottery picks right and grow a young core of potential stars or through trades. A small market like Oklahoma City isn’t a free agent destination. Right now, they have Gilgeous-Alexander and Giddey as potential cornerstones to build around.
Zooming out, the surging Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference have also done that and are now poised to become a serious playoff contender in year three of their rebuild.
Looking back at the last 10 championships, only the Toronto Raptors are the outlier who struck luck in the Kawhi Leonard trade. Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors groomed their championship cores. Miami Heat created cap space for three superstars, Cleveland Cavaliers nailed two first-round picks to attract LeBron James back. San Antonio Spurs had their veteran core, all homegrown picks.
The Knicks are in the biggest market in the NBA. But even with ample cap space, big-name free agents have avoided them like a small-market team. Not even Leon Rose and his much-ballyhooed CAA connections have inspired free agent stars to join the Knicks in the past two summers.
Based on their surprising playoff run, the Knicks front office decided that their path to contention is to continue staying as a fringe contender until stars see their core ready for the big jump. But the move is backfiring spectacularly this season.
The Knicks have a collection of young talents. In fairness to Thibodeau, he’s made an All-Star out of a 26-year old Randle last season and is looking like one in the past six games. Thibodeau also relies heavily on Barrett, Robinson, and lately, Grimes — three players aged 23 and under.
Regardless of the result of their showdown against crosstown rival Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday, the Knicks have a lot of soul-searching to do during the All-Star break, especially their front office.
They still have their draft capital, and their offseason signings will be more attractive this summer, with many of them essentially on expiring contracts with those tacked-on team options in the final year.
Staying the course means Thibodeau should remain beyond this season with the risk of getting stuck in mediocrity. Full-scale rebuild means tanking, and Thibodeau has to go.
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