There’s one offseason change that deserves more attention for the Knicks than you might think.
People across the league are interested in who the franchise chooses to replace assistant coach Kenny Payne, believing the choice is a sign that Tom Thibodeau has regained autonomy over his team or will recede into the front office.
As a condition of being hired in the summer of 2020, Thibodeau was forced to hire three assistants in front of his bench, who eventually became Payne, Mike Woodson and Johnnie Bryant. The logic, other than former agents Leon Rose and William Wesley getting better jobs for CAA clients, was that Thibodeau had trouble managing relationships and personalities at his previous stop in Minnesota, so why not bring in coaches who can communicate without be so closely associated with the boss? technician? Thibodeau is much stronger in the areas of planning and strategy in the coaching game, and he dominates those areas in his team, without much room for collaboration.
Of course, such a setup is fuel and can generate distrust. It backfired when Phil Jackson forced Derek Fisher to use triangle assistants Kurt Rambis and Jim Cleamons, but it worked his way up to the Lakers title when Frank Vogel took on Jason Kidd, Phil Handy, and Lionel Hollins.
With the Knicks, it’s hard to argue with last season’s results when they surpassed all expectations and Julius Randle – who is close to Payne – blew up above all projections with an All-NBA selection. But the encore was a colossal failure, with the Knicks dropping to the bottom third of the East and Randle turning into an unreliable player/leader.
Thibodeau’s team remained the same after Woodson left for Indiana University last season, with Thibodeau’s handpicked assistants – Andy Greer, Darren Erman, Dice Yoshimoto – all remaining on the bench.
With Payne now heading to the University of Louisville, the important question arises: who will be the replacement? If Erman moves to the front of the bank—as he has since Payne left—and someone like Larry Greer gets promoted, it’s a sign that Thibodeau is controlling the process. Another potential signing linked to Thibodeau is Rick Brunson, the former Knick who served as Thibodeau’s assistant in Chicago and Minnesota. Brunson nearly left his head coaching position at Camden High School in South Jersey to join the Knicks ahead of last season.
But if it’s an assistant not associated with Thibodeau, the signs point to Wesley again exerting his influence. Either way, it should be interesting, especially after the news earlier this season that Wesley was blaming Thibodeau for the team’s difficulties.
PING PONG TIME
With the Knicks officially out, their next important date is May 17 in Chicago, where the ping pong balls will decide where to draft.
And since the Knicks were hovering around the play-in tournament for much of the season, their odds aren’t encouraging. After Sunday’s dominant 118-88 victory over the Magic, the Knicks dropped to the league’s 11th-worst record, with still a chance to finish between 8th and 12th.
In the most likely scenario, where they are 10th or 11th in the draft lottery, the Knicks would have an 11.7% chance of picking in the top 3 and a 2.5% chance of picking first.
Notably, the Knicks haven’t moved in the lottery since 1985, meaning they’ve picked in the rankings or below.
Obi Toppin – the team’s last lottery pick – hit a career-high 20 points Sunday in Orlando.