In the era of load management, New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau is something of a throwback. He leans on his starters heavily. That’s a trend that he’s followed his entire career, through his time with the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves. But this season, his reliance on his first five is doing more harm than good for the Knicks.
Julius Randle, who led the NBA in minutes per game last season, is in the top 10 again, logging 35.5 a night. The surprise is that he’s the only Knick in the NBA’s top 20. Thibodeau asks much of his starters. Last season, New York reached the playoffs for the first time since 2013, with Randle earning Most Improved Player honors. But even then, Thibodeau’s heavily used starters had their issues.
Tom Thibodeau trusts few players over his career
Now in his second season coaching the New York Knicks, Tom Thibodeau’s tactics haven’t changed. Last season, New York had two players among the top 20 in minutes per game. Besides Randle’s NBA-leading 37.6 minutes a game, RJ Barrett averaged 34.9.
It’s a trend that goes back as far as Thibodeau’s career as a head coach. His first Chicago team in 2010–11 had two players, Luol Deng and Derrick Rose, in the top 20 in minutes per game. Deng led the league in 2011–12 and 2012–13, while Joakim Noah was also in the top 20 in the latter season. Jimmy Butler was No. 2 in the NBA in 2013–14 and led the league in Thibs’ final season with the Bulls in 2014–15.
Fast forward to Minnesota. In 2016–17, both Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns finished in the top five most-active players. In 2017–18, Thibodeau’s last full campaign with the Timberwolves, Butler, Wiggins, and Towns were all among the NBA’s top 13 in minutes per game.
Some have blamed Thibodeau’s short rotations for the rapid declines of Noah and Deng, as well as the knee problems that plagued Rose after his MVP season in 2010–11.
We know that in his 10th season as an NBA head coach, Thibodeau is unlikely to change his approach.
The New York Knicks overcame a sub-par effort from its most-utilized starting unit
The New York Knicks finished 41–31 and earned a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Atlanta Hawks bounced the Knicks in five games in the first round despite New York having homecourt advantage.
Their most-used starting lineup of Randle, Barrett, Reggie Bullock, Nerlens Noel, and Elfrid Payton opened 32 games and played in 41. Over 554 minutes, however, the group was outscored by 4.6 points per 100 possessions.
Among five-player units, that was the second-worst rating in the NBA. Only the Charlotte Hornets’ quintet of Bismack Biyombo, Devonte’ Graham, Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, and P.J. Washington was worse. They were minus-10.0 per 100 possessions in 258 minutes.
The Knicks had two units that totaled at least 250 minutes together. Barrett, Bullock, Payton, Randle, and Mitchell Robinson, played to a plus-1.9 rating. That group started 22 games and played together in 23.
The top-rated five-person group in the NBA last season belonged to the Los Angeles Clippers. In 19 games and 264 minutes, Nicolas Batum, Patrick Beverley, Paul George, Serge Ibaka, and Kawhi Leonard outscored opponents by 16.7 points per 100 possessions. Nine other groups posted ratings of plus-10.0 or better.
Of the 21 units with at least 250 minutes played, the Knicks ranked 19th and 20th. Familiarity is one thing, but numbers seldom lie.
Tom Thibodeau’s favorite group of New York Knicks is getting destroyed this season
The New York Knicks are 9–8 entering their primetime national matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 23. Tom Thibodeau already has a five-person unit with more than 250 minutes on the court together, the most-used group in the NBA this season.
But while Barrett, Evan Fournier, Randle, Robinson, and Kemba Walker have started 14 games and logged 270 minutes, they might as well have shovels in their hands. They are digging some gigantic holes from which the Knicks must climb.
Opponents outscore the unit by 15.5 points per 100 possessions. Lowering the qualifying standard to 100 minutes includes 21 five-player groups. Of those, the Knicks’ quintet is 19th in net rating.
Only the Oklahoma City Thunder (Shea Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley, Lu Dort, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and Josh Giddey) at minus-19.7 and the Houston Rockets collection of Christian Wood, Daniel Theis, Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green, and Jae’Sean Tate (minus-26.5) are worse.
No other Knicks group has played more than 89 minutes. For the record, Alec Burks, Taj Gibson, Immanuel Quickley, Rose, and Obi Toppin have been outstanding, with a plus-28.0 rating per 100 possessions.
That second unit is bailing out the starters repeatedly. But perhaps redistributing the minutes is a better plan than asking one group to clean up the messes made by the starters.
Tom Thibodeau is 402–285 in 10 NBA seasons and is 50–39 since coming to the New York Knicks. Considering the last coach to win 50 games with the Knicks also lost 104 (Jeff Hornacek), it’s clear Thibodeau is doing some things right. But maybe throwing some of his eggs into another basket might be a good idea because playing from behind every night isn’t sustainable.