If the playoffs have shown us anything, it’s that the New York Knicks will have to make decisions on the futures of Julius Randle and Tom Thibodeau, two people who could limit New York’s chances for contention in the near future.
With a season that included multiple successful winning streaks, a playoff appearance, and even a first-round playoff win, the New York Knicks finished their most successful season in almost a decade with more information on the path moving forward. Despite losing to the Miami Heat in six games, the Knicks showed some fight down the stretch, and the glass-half-full view is the team is finally a few steps ahead of being a true contender in the Eastern Conference.
But there is also a glass-half-empty view. The Cleveland Cavaliers were a perfect matchup for the Knicks – a team carried by two smaller guards and a defense built around two big men. The Cavaliers didn’t have much of a changeup with their rotation and faltered once their fastball went. Against the Miami Heat, led by a strong head coach in Eric Spoelstra, a superstar that elevates his game in Jimmy Butler, and a handful of role players who can operate on both sides of the ball, the Knicks looked overmatched schematically.
The ultimate question about the New York Knicks and their future goes back to where it starts – Tom Thibodeau and Julius Randle.
On a team where everything has the potential to go up, Randle and Thibodeau feel stagnant. RJ Barrett recovered strongly from the first two Cleveland games to have a solid performance to close out the series and moments during the Miami series. Immanuel Quickley struggled, but only just emerged as one of the best sixth men of the year and the defensive duo of Quentin Grimes and Mitchell Robinson just logged their first postseason appearances. There’s room for growth for all four players, with none of them over the age of 25 yet.
And their other in-prime starter, Jalen Brunson, is a star-level player. The first round showed Brunson’s strengths – attacking the middle of defenses and making teams who play with two bigs pay. The second round showed that Brunson is one of the best point guards in the conference with a 32-point, 11-assist performance in Game Four, 38 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists in Game Five, and a Game 6 for the ages. Brunson is a piece to build around for the long term as a second or third guy who can elevate your offense.
The questions about Randle and Thibodeau linger. Randle, named to his second all-NBA team, was a no-show in the Miami series, bringing up questions about what the Knicks should do with him. At 28 years old, Randle is in the midst of his prime and what you see is what you get – 20 points, 10 rebounds, somewhere between four and six assists a night, and if the shooting is legitimate, someone who has cut “bad shots” out his diet.
But you’re also getting someone who has had his run of the town throughout the last four seasons offensively, creating some potential problems if the Knicks, or another team, want to move him into a more defined role. Randle’s defensive intensity waxes and wanes throughout the season with his lowlights being that of a poor defender, and he’s a bit selfish as an offensive player, highlighted by his often holding the ball. When Carmelo Anthony held the ball and measured the defense, the ball was ultimately, in the hands of a hall-of-fame talent. When Randle does it, it can become plodding and often allows defenses to readjust. Throw on a lack of playoff success and you have a tough player to quantify value-wise.
And that concern bleeds over to Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau was a top-three coach this season, made adjustments during the regular season and for various stretches at a time, and had the New York playing as both a top 10 and top 10 defense. The addition of Josh Hart allowed New York to develop a perfect rotation, while not giving up on players like Isaiah Hartenstein turned out to be wise as Hartenstien emerged as a pivotal bench piece.
But you can’t teach, respectfully, an old dog new tricks. Thibodeau never went small against the Heat, using guys like RJ Barrett and Josh Hart along with three shooters and one center. He went to the Barrett-Hart combination on the wing, which doesn’t do enough on either side of the ball to see many minutes together in the postseason.
There were adjustments made in the regular season, adjustments and sacrifices that were ultimately better for the team, but as the postseason suggests, that old Thibodeau philosophy, player usage, and substitution patterns are still there when it comes to moments where the light shines the brightest.
And ultimately, that’s the ultimate fork in the road for New York. Not the acquisition of the next star player on this roster, but rather, can you win with Julius Randle and can you win with Tom Thibodeau? Randle has produced like a top-20 player based on raw statistics and accolades in two of the last four seasons, but the intangibles suggest that he’s more of a number-three guy on a good team.
Thibodeau has a bit of a longer rope – he’s established a culture that has mirrored the city with defense first. He’s unlocked both Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle offensively, won the Coach of the Year award for taking the Knicks to the postseason two years ago, and quietly, has done a great job at elevating some of the team’s younger talent into prime positions. However, the failure to stick to his evolution could bring up questions as to whether the long-time coach could continue to adapt.
Even if RJ Barrett pockets this recent postseason stretch and takes a step forward, if Grimes, Quickley, and Robinson can perform at a plus level in the postseason, even if someone likes Miles “Deuce” McBride evolves into a rotation player, could those ceiling-raising moves cancel out the ceiling-limiting of Randle and Thibodeau? These are the questions Leon Rose will have to answer this offseason and while he shares relationships with both player and coach, he’ll ultimately have to make the best decision for the Knicks.
Despite the moments made this regular season and even the drips and drabs of the postseason success, the Knicks feel both close and far away from truly contending in the Eastern Conference. Making it to the playoffs with a young nucleus of talent should create a cause for celebration and winning a first-round series the way they did should inspire confidence. However, when you examine how the Knicks can take the next step forward, the credentials of Julius Randle and Tom Thibodeau come into question. Randle’s playoff struggles cast doubt on whether he could be a true top option on a playoff team, while Thibodeau’s hesitancy to change when it matters most could limit just how much more he wins in New York.