Obi Toppin has come out of the gates with a vastly improved game, but can his role expand within the Knicks’ rotation? 

Just a month before the season kicked off, there were reports that Obi Toppin could see an expanded role within the Knicks system this season, though there were also questions as to where those minutes would come from. As the season’s start has unfolded, it’s easy to see how the latter concerns have born out. Through the team’s first seven games, he has averaged 16 minutes while scoring just under 10 points per game (9.9). Despite the lack of playing time, he’s currently the Knicks’ fifth-highest scorer, behind Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, and Evan Fournier.

Considering that he is a top-five scorer on the team in minimal minutes compared to the players scoring more than him, it’s time that the coaching staff makes a change for the better.

A newfound confidence for Toppin

It’s clear from a glance that Toppin is more aggressive than he’s been in prior seasons. His confidence has soared and his shot mechanics have relaxed, allowing him to better create for himself on the perimeter and around the rim. Obi excelled when put in the starting lineup due to an injury to Randle at the end of the season, and he hasn’t looked back since. Creating off the dribble and taking and making more shots have created a buzz around the third-year forward. Take a look at how pure his stroke from behind the arc looks against the Cavaliers:

This is a different Obi Toppin than we are used to seeing. Always a high-energy player, Toppin has, through two years, been primarily a spark plug off the bench in quick bursts, but this season he has shown off his swagger immensely.

In years past, Obi has expressed himself through his flashy dunks above the rim. But this is a different player we are seeing this season. When Toppin does not have the ball in his hands, he is finding other ways to impact the game, as shown by his 2.71 average plus/minus this season, good for second-best on the team. A minutes increase for the former Dayton Flyer has been long overdue, considering he’s been scoring more in fewer minutes and his shooting splits have been impressive in a small sample size. For him to continue to play this well in limited minutes begs the question what does he have to do to earn more playing time? There have already been rumblings about teams around the league keeping an eye on Toppin; if New York continues to let this issue fly under the radar, the Brooklyn native could grow frustrated about his future with the team.

Thibodeau continues his timidity

Since his arrival in New York, Thibodeau has taken this team to heights that hadn’t been achieved in almost over a decade, establishing hope and excitement in fans. But in the last two seasons, Thibodeau’s decision-making and execution have been questionable, with Obi and Immanuel Quickley standing as prime examples. It’s understandable to rely on a player that took the team to their first playoff appearance in years with Julius Randle, but with how things have panned out last season and now at the beginning of this season, Thibodeau is missing out on corrections to his rotation that is now going to cost them games.

Is it time to look for a new head coach? It’s unlikely given Thibodeau’s track record and defensive mindset. But it is definitely something to look into as the season continues. To be fair, having a star player in front of Toppin makes it more difficult for him to thrive in this type of environment. But Obi has taken the challenge on and has shown coaches and fans alike that he can contribute night in and night out.

Reducing Randle’s minutes may have him disgruntled, but in terms of the team’s best interests, the Knicks could benefit from balancing Randle’s and Toppin’s minutes to get the most out of each player. While the head coaching market doesn’t feature the best candidates at the moment, do we trust that Tom Thibodeau will make decisions in the team’s best interest? That question will surely be put to the test this season, given that the team now features a difference-making point guard who can create for Randle and Toppin in Jalen Brunson. With how the team has played through seven games this season, Thibodeau could be on the hot seat sooner rather than later as the Knicks continue to be tested against playoff teams in the coming weeks.

Ramifications for Randle

If Toppin were to see a minutes increase, what would that mean for Julius Randle? The former Kentucky Wildcat was slated to be the Knicks franchise cornerstone for years to come after an outstanding campaign just two seasons ago, but after signing a  $117 million contract extension that began at the start of this season, Randle’s play has not been as good as we had hoped, and his efficiency hurt the Knicks last season and continues to hurt them early on this season.

In addition, Thibodeau’s reluctance to pair Randle and Toppin together during games has provided yet another barrier to Toppin breaking through. Julius Randle is not going to accept receiving fewer minutes but Toppin does deserve more time on the floor. If Toppin is going to play like this, then the Knicks may be better off exploring trade options for Randle:

Toppin Turmoil

The Knicks have to be careful with what they do with Toppin for this current season. By all accounts, he is a team-oriented player and looks to win each and every night, but if he knows that he is being held back, then he can easily request a trade to put himself in a better situation. After a successful 2020-21 campaign that saw the Knicks obtain the 4th seed in the East, Toppin has been an afterthought despite being drafted to become a pivotal piece down the line. Now in a limited role, Obi needs to put pressure on the Knicks coaching staff and front office to make a decision.

Whether that decision is firing Thibodeau, giving fewer minutes to Randle, or making a trade to free up minutes, the current landscape of the New York Knicks is not working and something needs to happen in order to establish balance within the confines of the team.

What’s Next

The Knicks will look to get back on track after losing three straight, most recently losing their first home game to the Hawks 112-99. New York is set to face two division rivals in the coming days: the Philadelphia 76ers on November 4th, followed by the Boston Celtics on November 5th.

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