Almost a year ago, I meditated on the soul Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau in search of answers to his most pressing coaching dilemmas. Humans are prone to making connections, comparing and contrasting, to make sense of the chaos around us. In the world of the NBA, Thibodeau shares much of the gray matter that made Tony Soprano so fascinating as a parable about man’s ability to change.
That opening paragraph raised more questions than it answered. When I first wrote that query, almost a year ago, Thibodeau was in the early stages of what would become a downturn. Especially compared to the stunning streak and results of the 2020-21 season, which earned him Coach of the Year honors. Through the first four games of this season, cracks in Thibodeau’s rigidity became apparent. He allowed the bench to run, trusted Cam Reddish to finish plays and gave Jalen Brunson offensive control. Julius Randle, the Christopher Moltisanti of Thibodeau’s crew, the guy you want to get a hold of but who does everything he can to make you want to choke him out, had just six turnovers in five games. Randle was finding open teammates, limiting drives and scoring on offense. The Knicks were up 3-1 and Knicks fans felt like the Sopranos crew hanging out front Satriale’s pork shopsmoke cigars, read the paper and enjoy a well-earned sweat.
Then came back-to-back games with the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers, real NBA talent, good teams with winning records and a lot of stars. The Knicks lost both handily. While neither game was close, Thibodeau returned to many of the trappings that made him the rage of Knicks fans last season. Especially limiting Obi Toppin’s minutes to 17 and 15 minutes, respectively. Toppin shot 4-7 in both of those games. Thibodeau’s relationship with Toppin and Randle has been the nexus around which many of his coaching issues have converged. The extended leash he allows Randle is ten times the length of what he extends to Toppin. Even liberals can admit this. Thibodeau seems betrayed by Randle’s goodwill, especially as the power forward returns to the toxic traits that make him the most polarizing player to ever wear a Knicks uniform.
“We are soldiers. Soldiers don’t go to hell.” — Tony Soprano
So, a year later, where is Tony, I mean Tom, now? We don’t know if Thibodeau has his own Dr. Melfi, voice of reason and responsibility. The Knicks are notoriously exclusive to the point of holding their own. Even if he did, which of those who make it happen would play that role? Leon Rose? William “WorldWide” Wesley? Rick Brunson? He has known all three for years. They are essentially his versions of Silvio Dante, Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensieri and Paulie Gualtieri, corporate men who enjoy the optics their friend brings as a coach. Thibodeau exudes confidence, leadership and responsibility, even when those qualities are misguided and to blame.
This current front office is also to blame for its inability to draft/sign/trade/convince a bona fide first round pick to make MSG their home. Rose has provided Thibodeau with a tight, data-packed roster full of variations and untapped potential. But it is also held back by duality and rigidity in position. Randle is the best player, but Toppin has the most promise. The bench is deep but rarely integrated into the starting five. Fournier is fine when hot from three, but that’s rarely the case.
“More is lost by indecision than by a wrong decision.” — Tony soprano
After the team’s last loss to the Atlanta Hawks, something changed. While the losses to the Cavs and Bucks felt reasonable in that the Knicks lost to clearly better teams, the Knicks blew a 23-point lead against the Hawks for good. In the third quarter, they were outscored 32 to 10. That wasted lead tied for the team’s third-largest lead in over 30 seasons. Almost as bad was the loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, to whom they gave up 145 points. And yes, Julius Randle has been terrible. He is shooting 46.7 percent from the field this season and 33.3 percent from three. Remember those only six turnovers in the first four games? He is now averaging more plays than assists. Still, Thibodeau’s co-dependency with Randle persists. Christopher Moltisanti was one of Tony’s biggest fears during that time Sopranos. He was family but also the most important responsibility of the crime family. His drinking, drug use and unpredictability were thorns in Tony’s side. Randle fits this role for Thibodeau to an alarming degree.
When given the opportunity in one of the series finales, “Kennedy and Heidi”, Tony held Christopher’s nose after a car accident, suffocating his uncle to death and ending the threat he posed. Tony was doing Christopher a favor and saving him from himself. And that is perhaps the biggest difference between Tom and Tony. When Tony looked out, he took it. When Tom looks up at the scoreboard to see yet another lost lead, his reaction tells him that Randle is the answer.
“Sometimes it’s important to give them the illusion of being in control.” — Jennifer Melfi
The first logical step in finding solutions to the Knicks’ current paradox is to fire Thibodeau. Maybe he is willing to change, we have seen an increase. He has taken the three-point shot. He has improved the Knicks’ defense. He got the best basketball from Randle at times. But his coaching style is stale and his stubbornness borders on arrogance when he relies too much on the starting team. He has been activated by his boss Rose, who has built a mediocre roster with no real first choice. With every Knicks win, like their super-fun revenge game against the Thunder on Monday, it’s as if Thibodeau’s reins are getting bigger. While it was great to see Miles “Deuce” McBride finally dust off the cobwebs to play stifling defense on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, one game doesn’t fix Thibodeau’s lack of offensive creativity or a typical nine-man rotation.
The Knicks are deep, but Thibodeau rarely maximizes his full potential, outside of Isaiah Hartenstein and Immanuel Quickley. Toppin, Reddish, Sims and McBride are treated like serfs by Thibodeau. What’s the point of going 12 deep when Quentin Grimes barely sees time and Toppin is glued to the bench even when he has the best plus/minus some nights? Toppin has the young core’s greatest potential but is buried behind Thibodeau’s biggest vice. Leon Rose has picked up valuable guys in Derrick Rose, Hartenstein, Reddish and Jalen Brunson, but he’s stuck when it comes to making moves to give the team a star it desperately needs.
Bringing Brunson on board was a smart solution to the team’s two-decade dance with quarterback desolation. He’s been a boon to a team full of players who need to start on offense, and he’s been worth every penny of the 4-year, $104 million contract he received. But roster improvements shouldn’t have stopped there. Perhaps the cost of entry into the Donovan Mitchell sweepstakes was too high. Most Knicks fans didn’t want to give up more than two unprotected picks along with a collection of Barrett, Toppin, Quickley and Quentin Grimes. But what about Dejounte Murray? The Knicks could have easily knocked out what the Hawks offered for a point guard who nearly averaged a triple-double last season. Since taking over, Rose has improved the roster through trades, free agency and the draft, giving Thibodeau just enough to squeeze out about 40 wins a year and make the playoffs once. But he has not built a team ready to compete at a high level, nor has he hired a coach capable of leading that team to the promised land.
Shooting Thibodeau isn’t the only move to make, but it’s the bare minimum. This Knicks roster is on the edge of possibility and runs counter to Thibodeau’s directive to win at all costs. To fully mature the young core requires a lot of trial and error disguised as loss. Thibodeau preferred to stay in a almost comatose but not playing Rose, Fournier and Randle. To reach mediocrity and beyond, this Knicks team needs the freedom to lose to learn. As it stands now, the Knicks are dying in one of the longest rounds of Dante’s Inferno.
“I feel like I have to be the sad clown; laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.” — Tony Soprano
Where does that leave the team? Step one, fired Thibodeau and his entire coaching staff, except for primary assistant Johnnie Bryant. Hand Bryant the reins and surround him with a mix of veteran and visionary assistant coaches. Then do what it takes to trade Randle while delivering business value. If this ends up being a collection of expiring contracts, a first-round pick and a young player, so be it. At this point, Randle should get a return similar to what the Knicks got for Kristaps Porziņģis from the Dallas Mavericks in 2017. With Randle gone, start Toppin at power forward alongside Grimes or Reddish at shooting guard and bring Fournier to the court. bench. Simple right?
To be fair, Rose has done a lot of good in his short time at the helm. Fortunately, the Knicks don’t have a ton of terrible salaries like in years past. They have a collection of sellable contracts, as well as one of the best young cores in the league. Through a series of smart moves, they’ve accumulated seven first-round picks over the next three seasons, though four of them are heavily protected. They have enough talent at nearly every position to handle trades that would drain them of their depth while keeping the roster balanced.
After all, today, more than any other decade, talent wins. The NBA champions of the last five years have had an accumulation of star talent in the starting lineup and on the bench, along with elite coaches. The Knicks have an elite bench, and that’s it. The Knicks don’t have a star, much less a superstar, and are saddled with a coach who is cohabiting with both their best player and frontline boss. As Tony sits comfortably in the booth at Holsten’s diner with his family, with Journey on the jukebox, the tension in the scene exceeds Tony’s occasional flipping of the menu. When the screen fades to black and we are left in the dark and our own thoughts, we can assume that Tony has been killed. Who pulled the trigger is less important than why. The answer to that is Tony’s own doing, by his refusal to change. Through a series of events, most if not all of which were within his control, he chose a path that led him to the shop and the man in Member’s Only jacket. When Thibodeau finally receives his pink slip from longtime friend and confidant Rose, the why in his case becomes just as easy to answer.