After streaking back into playoff contention by winning seven of eight games, the New York Knicks have now dropped four straight games and look completely out of sorts.
After Sunday night’s 125-116 loss to the Raptors, the Knicks have now given up 126.7 points per game since Mitchell Robinson has been hurt, the second-worst mark in the NBA. Opponents are shooting 48.8% from the field and 40% from three, knocking down 14.7 threes per game. What’s more, the Knicks are second-worst in the league, allowing 16.3 offensive rebounds per game, and their opponents have an 11.7 plus/minus, which is 5th-worst in the NBA.
All in all, the team has been a disaster since they lost their defensive cog and head coach Tom Thibodeau’s lineups have been a major reason for it.
Now, it should be said that some of the issues are simply that the Knicks’ roster is not a good defensive one without Robinson in the paint.
The fifth-year pro has a 92nd-percentile defensive plus/minus and a 98th-percentile block rate. The Knicks are +8 with Mitchell Robinson ON the floor this season, scoring 119.5 points per possession, and allowing 111.5 points per. However, with Mitchell Robinson OFF the floor this season, New York is -2.5, scoring 113.3 points per and allowing 115.8.
Without him, they’ve been trying a multitude of different things from drop coverage to switching to going under screens or going over screens. None of it is working right now, and New York is being exposed both at the point of attack and in the paint.
With only one game in their upcoming schedule against a team that’s not in playoff contention, the Knicks are going to have to make an adjustment quickly unless they want to see their playoff dreams shattered.
There are really only three choices without Robinson: play Jericho Sims, play Isaiah Hartenstein, or go small with Obi Toppin.
Last night, the answer was clearly to go small with Obi Toppin. The Raptors don’t play a traditional center, and Toppin was playing some of his best basketball of the season. He single-handedly changed the game in the second quarter when he hit four threes in less than three minutes to cut the Toronto lead from 16 down to seven.
He gave his team a jolt of life, which could be seen in a more intense defensive effort, a string of solid offensive rebounding, and some great ball movement. New York even briefly took the lead late in the third quarter before entering the fourth quarter all tied up.
What was Toppin’s reward for dragging his team back into the game? Eleven total minutes of court time, including playing only three minutes at the start of the fourth quarter before never seeing the court again.
Now, the Raptors started the fourth quarter on a 13-2 run and also dominated the boards in the fourth, so it’s not as though Toppin was playing flawlessly, but him only getting 11 minutes when he had scored 14 points and was 4-of-5 from beyond the arc is criminal.
Especially since he continues to play fewer minutes than Isaiah Hartenstein, who put up two points with two rebounds and three blocks in his 15 minutes of action on Sunday night.
Since rim protection and defensive rebounding are core principles of Thibodeau’s system, he refuses to adapt to a game that doesn’t involve a true center on the court for the majority of the time. As a result, Toppin often finds himself on the bench in favor of Sims or Hartenstein.
With Sims, it makes sense. He was one of the lone bright spots in New York’s 139-124 loss to Atlanta on Friday, scoring 12 points on a perfect 6-of-6 from the field with eight rebounds and two steals. He’s 6’10” with a 7’3″ wingspan and the athleticism to guard on the perimeter. When he stays out of foul trouble, he can help the Knicks to lessen the blow of losing Robinson.
However, when Sims is off the court, Thibodeau’s desire to thrust Hartenstein into consistent minutes has proven to be a disaster.
The first-year Knick is a poor fit in Thibodeau’s defensive scheme since he can’t execute drop coverage and has been really inconsistent with his defensive rebounding. He doesn’t have the athleticism to challenge guards on the pick-and-roll, and is also providing very little offensive production to cancel out his defensive liabilities.
Simply put, there is no reason he should be playing over Toppin, especially against teams like Toronto that don’t use a real center. Sims should absolutely be given a chance to earn major minutes, but if Thibodeau continues to be rigid in his desire to have a “true center” on the court the majority of the time, the Knicks will continue to lose games in non-competitive ways.
They are simply not built to play that way, and their head coach needs to realize it before it’s too late.