Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau blames everyone but Dennis Smith Jr. for his problems

New York Knicks, Dennis Smith Jr.
Dec 7, 2019; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. (5) dribbles the ball against the Indiana Pacers during the second half at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau has always been enamored by Dennis Smith Jr., dating back to when he was drafted in 2017. As a 20-year-old point guard, Smith averaged 15.2 points in his rookie campaign, logging 5.2 assists over 29.7 minutes on average.

Smith has gradually seen his production and efficiency in almost every category decreased to a point where he’s no longer considered a starting level player. In fact, he’s mostly been forgotten about, but Thibodeau still believes he can be a difference-maker in the NBA, especially with the next.

It is obvious on the court that Smith has issues moving the ball and creating space for his teammates. He has solid aggression, and he’s explosively athletic, but it doesn’t amount to much when his mental ability to clear space and control his teammate’s movements is lackluster.

Smith showed up to camp this year aggressive and looking to find his former self. There is no question he has the talent to be a great player, he just hasn’t been able to round out his weaknesses.

“I think he’s come into camp and he’s been very aggressive,” Thibodeau said several weeks ago. “I think each day, he’s gotten better and better. That’s what we’re asking him to do — to run his team, keep us organized, take advantage of what your strengths are, your ability to get downhill to force people to collapse, and then make the right play. He can score the ball, he’s shooting the ball pretty well right now, but he’s making good plays also.”

Fast forward to Sunday evening, in which the Knicks lost to the Detroit Pistons, and it is clear that Smith is still dealing with his past issues. Over 17 minutes, Smith secured just two points but did pass the ball a little bit better, earning three assists. His +/- was -15, so his contribution to the lineup was deficient. He was visibly frazzled by an aggressive Piston defense, trapping him and forcing him to make decisions.

“When you’re the point guard, you’re running the team,” Thibodeau said after Sunday’s 99-91 loss in Detroit. “The responsibility is to make sure everybody gets to the right spots. When guys don’t do that, you don’t have the outlets that are necessary to take advantage of what the defense is doing. It really wasn’t just Dennis. It was the rest of his teammates also.”

At this point, Smith is headed toward the dog house, as even Frank Ntilikina scored more than him with fewer minutes. Unfortunately, acquiring him didn’t end up being as luxurious as the Knicks hoped, but it is still possible Thibodeau extracts some magic down the line. The probability is small, but we’ve seen crazier things happen.