Tom Thibodeau dismisses notion Knicks’ starters need time to jell: ‘It’s a bunch of bulls—‘

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The New York Knicks’ starting lineup — Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, R.J. Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson — entered Wednesday’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks having logged 188 minutes under their collective belt. In that time, they had been outscored by 11.8 points per 100 possessions. For reference, the league-worst New Orleans Pelicans have been outscored by 11 points per 100 possessions this season.

Am I telling you this because they managed to turn it around against the defending champions? Absolutely not. In 17 minutes, the Bucks outscored them 42-26, and Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau elected not to use a single starter in the game’s final 14 minutes. This strategy almost worked: A bench unit composed of Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Obi Toppin and Taj Gibson erased a 24-point deficit and tied the game before the Bucks rained 3s in crunch time. 

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As ESPN’s Tim Bontemps pointed out, New York’s starting five has played more minutes than any lineup in the NBA, and, after its rough showing against the Bucks, it has scored 104.9 points per 100 possessions and allowed 119.3 per 100. Following the 112-100 loss, coach Tom Thibodeau dismissed the notion that the unit just needs more time to jell.  

“You know what they say. When it’s 10 games, you say we need 20,” Thibodeau said. “When you get to 20, you say 30. And then once you get to 30, you say 40. And then before you know it, the season’s over. So, it’s a bunch of bullshit.”

This is as Thibodeau as it gets, and his frustration is understandable. When the Knicks signed Walker and Fournier in the offseason, they could have reasonably expected a bump in offense and a bit of defensive slippage. Broadly, this is indeed what has happened, but the defense has declined dramatically and the offensive improvement has come from the second unit, not the starters.

“You can’t pick and choose what you’re going to be good at,” Thibodeau said. “The defense, the rebounding, the low turnovers, that has to be consistent. That has to be every night. We gotta be able to count on that.”

New York has been pretty consistent when it comes to taking care of the ball. It is giving up a ton of 3s off dribble penetration, however, and it has gone from an above-average defensive rebounding team to a below-average one. Offensively, the spacing looks better than it used to, but the starters haven’t been particularly efficient. Randle is shooting 11 for 23 (26 percent) on long 2s, per Cleaning The Glass, and Walker, who is theoretically a source of rim pressure, has shot 4 for 14 at the rim with a free throw rate of 11.2 percent, by far the lowest of his career. Much has been made of the energy at Madison Square Garden, but the Knicks have now had a string of disappointing performances at home. 

One potential fix: Start Burks in place of Fournier. Burks is a superior perimeter defender, and that’s the starting lineup’s most glaring weakness. If Thibodeau chooses to go this route, though, there will be ripple effects. Simply putting Fournier in Burks’ place on the second unit, next to Rose and Quickley, is a recipe for disaster defensively. New York appears to miss Reggie Bullock, and the identity that it built last season — that of a tough, connected, physical, defense-first team — has not carried over. At 7-5, the Knicks are not in some kind of horrible funk, but they’re not playing up to Thibodeau’s standards, either.

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