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It's Time for the New York Knicks to Fire Tom Thibodeau

Dan Favale

There is no need to mince words following the New York Knicks' no-good, very-bad, sorry-excuse-for-a-basketball-game loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night.

It's time to fire Tom Thibodeau.

This is not presented lightly. Jokes are jokes, and who doesn't love a snarky-ass meme? But I genuinely don't like campaigning for people to lose their jobs, not even when those people are earning millions of dollars, and not even when dispensability is the nature of the business.

This is likewise not an attempt to be edgy or incendiary after just seven games, or to evoke "Knicks for clicks!" outrage in the comments. Frankly, this shouldn't be considered an edgy or incendiary or even the faintest bit controversial take.

It is instead a completely logical, level-headed response to what we've watched both this season and last. And not only is it logical, but right now, unless something dramatically changes, it's necessary.

Falling to the Hawks on Wednesday isn't everything. But it is the latest evidence, amid a mind-melting amount of proof, that the status quo isn't working.

New York led by as many as 23 and ended up losing by 13. This was a collapse of epic proportions:

Imploding like this, coming off two days of rest, is so egregious it's almost impressive. To what extent you blame Thibs for this loss, and all the others, will vary. He doesn't play the games. But he is supposed to manage them, adapt to them, evolve over the course of them. He hasn't, and it's clear that he won't.

Thibs is failing these Knicks, incompletely built as they are, and he needs to go.

To be sure, his defining misstep is not the inability to transform this team into a contender. Even with Jalen Brunson, New York isn't constructed to sniff the top of the East.

Stubbornness, and all that branches out from it, is Thibs' downfall. He implicitly packages inexhaustible inflexibility and a lack of innovation as continuity. That schtick is getting old.

New York's misadventure against Atlanta was a masterclass in All Things Thibs.

Human shot of adrenaline Obi Toppin didn't play enough when it mattered, like usual, because Thibs hates deviating from the norm. Or maybe not:

How a search for something, anything, productive didn't lead to more meaningful minutes for Toppin is beyond comprehension. Robinson wasn't playing. Isaiah Hartenstein, a bright spot this season, wasn't impacting the game nearly as much in the second half and continues to wear an invisibility cloak on the defensive glass.

Is Thibs that married to watching Julius Randle decision-make his way to disaster? He could, of course, always play Randle and Toppin together. But he won't, because he never does.

Yanking Randle for Toppin—or, in this case, continuing to roll with the latter—is easier in concept than practice. Randle is paid like a franchise cornerstone. But after an encouraging start to the season, in which he was playing within the larger offensive ecosystem, he's reverting.

Almost two-thirds of Randle's baskets were coming off assists through the Knicks' first three games. That share has essentially flipped in the opposite direction over the past four contests, and his total time of possession aligns with the increasing number of touches to nowhere you're watching. In this span, meanwhile, he is shooting 13.6 percent on jumpers (3-of-22), including 0-of-11 from downtown.

Reining in his minutes is far from egregious. It's not even a matter of pulling him from the starting five—though, we'll get to that. How about not subbing him in for Toppin during the second quarter when you're rolling?

This isn't just about Randle. Thibs also has a penchant for too much Evan Fournier. And that killed the Knicks Wednesday night:

This coincides with the larger, longstanding loyalty Thibs has to his starters. New York's opening five—Fournier, Randle, Robinson, RJ Barrett, Brunson—ranks fifth among all lineups in total minutes. They're also getting outscored by 9.6 points per 100 possessions, with below-average offensive and defensive ratings, while downing just 32.3 percent of their triples.

Starting fives are more ceremonial than ever. "It's not who starts, but who finishes" has become a cliche. But who Thibs starts informs who will play the most. Equally, if not more, troubling: It also cements who spends an overwhelming amount of time together.

Staggering Barrett and Randle, specifically, makes too much sense. Especially when the two of them are a combined 15-of-67 from deep (22.4 percent). They don't complement one another very well, as ball-dominant scorers currently ensconced in, to put it kindly, shooting ruts.

Naturally, then, more than 91 percent of Barrett's possessions played have come alongside Randle. This will be an inexplicably drastic uptick compared to last season (74.4 percent) if it holds.

Maybe changing the starting five is too nuclear for Thibs' taste. That's ridiculous, sure, but let's roll with it. At least consider using the players within it differently.

Oh, and speaking of player usage, Thibs decided to bring Derrick Rose off the bench first against the Hawks rather than his recently preferred choice of Immanuel Quickley, because, well, even he doesn't really seem to know:

Don't worry, though. Thibs apparently has nice-but-weird things to say about IQ behind the scenes:

Let us know if you find the person responsible for obscuring IQ's underrated play (on defense). We're dying to know who it might be.

In the interest of fairness, this is a somewhat outmoded jab. Quickley has not been woefully underused relative to seasons past (he logged almost 30 minutes Wednesday), and his shot selection is often maddening enough to make you understand any limited runway.

Still, this is now year three of the Tom Thibodeau experience in New York. This means it's also year three of the Knicks' reserves routinely outplaying their starters. Yeah, Thibs won Coach of the Year in 2020-21. But who among us isn't still haunted by every single minute played by Elfrid Payton? Present-day complaints and frustrations aren't new.

Just so we're clear: This isn't all on Thibs. Maybe he will switch up the starting five. He clearly isn't going the Quickley route, so Quentin Grimes is the natural candidate to supplant Fournier, and he only just made his season debut Wednesday after missing the start of the year with a left foot injury. (Related: Thibs throwing Grimes in for a four-minute-and-change stint during garbage time is a top-tier troll job, even if it's an inadvertent one. Bravo.)

Perhaps Thibs even starts playing Randle less and Toppin more or experimenting with the two of them together. It won't happen, and we know better than to hope for it. But hey, you never know.

More to the point, it isn't clear whether a reformed version of Thibs would actually matter. New York is not going to be a juggernaut just because he futzes and fiddles with his rotations.

Much like the Knicks don't have the personnel to bomb away from deep and cold-turkey their junky twos, they don't necessarily have the talent to be materially better than they are now. Skill-set overlap won't dissipate with Thibs' departure, and the talent in tow won't suddenly become higher-end.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Indeed, there is real depth and optionality to this squad, and Thibs isn't capitalizing on either nearly enough. But he isn't floundering entirely by his own hand. The front office, led by team president Leon Rose, built a mediocre roster, and what we're watching now is, probably, akin to slightly underachieving. How far is a team that counts Brunson as its best player supposed to go anyway?

There could be a massive disconnect between front office and coach. That, again, would be on the front office. They had all offseason to remove Fournier and Randle from Thibs' tool belt.

So, yeah, the folks upstairs deserve just as much criticism as the man they've tasked with leading their on-court product. "If not Thibs, then who?" isn't a hard question to answer right now, but Quin Snyder could walk through that door tomorrow, and it wouldn't change everything. New York would still have the same semi-confusing blend of non-stars and mystery-box or yet-to-be-fully-tapped prospects coalescing into a hazy, if indiscernible, long-term direction.

Yet, Leon Rose and friends aren't firing themselves. And switching up head coaches, even if it's just to pivot toward associate head coach Johnnie Bryant, is much easier than finding a taker for the contracts of Randle and Fournier and just flat-out tearing down the roster and admitting to larger-scale failures.

In the end, Thibodeau may be collateral damage born from convenience. That doesn't excuse his role in where the Knicks are now, teetering on the edge of aimlessness, gradually inducing their fans to bookmark "Tankathon" and Victor Wembanyama highlights. He is complicit in hurting their direction, someone who remains unwilling or incapable of coloring outside self-imposed narrow lines.

And if these Knicks aren't a crisis of optimization, then they're facing a harsher reality Thibs is even less qualified to reconcile: the prioritization of youth and development for a roster that, as it turns out, isn't built to be good after all.

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Wednesday's games. Salary information via Spotrac.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and subscribe to the Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes.


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