The Knicks are living a regression to the mean nightmare

Thom Thibodeau isn’t built for continually improving his teams.
Image: Getty Images

I know I spend way too much of my time mocking the plight of New York Knick fans and their undeserved cockiness, but Thursday night’s fiasco felt like a turning point. They may finally be devoid of hope. For the third time in their last seven games, the Knicks squandered a lead of 20-points or more, which is something you’d expect from a volatile Bitcoin stock, not last year’s fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks are dead in the water.

These losses all have a theme. The Knicks come out firing and can’t maintain that consistency. Wednesday night’s ugly loss against their East River rivals was rock bottom.The Knicks drained 13 3-point field goals in the first half, including their first six. In the second half, they made only 3-of-19. The Knicks’ tumult after hot starts is their entire season’s narrative. Last season was a dead cat bounce and this wreck of a season is their regression to the mean.

No matter how much the Brooklyn Nets try to pretend that they aren’t transplants, New York City is a Knicks town. Hate him or despise him, James Dolan is even a native. Yet, the Knicks have become second-class citizens in their own city. These two statements aren’t diametrically opposing. The Nets bottomed out as a 6-seed this month, but once their new acquisitions are integrated and Kevin Durant is back in playing shape, they’ll be aiming for the top of the East again. Mayor Adams, who was previously the Brooklyn Borough President, is now discussing the unfairness of Kyrie having to sit for home games.

Regression is built into Tom Thibodeau’s DNA. We’ve seen it in his second seasons in Chicago, Minnesota, and now in New York. He’s stuck in the past. He clings to outdated ideas about what constitutes a flowing offense and who belongs in the rotation. Why else would he be playing Taj Gibson 25 minutes, as Obi Toppin only snuck on the floor for 11 minutes? Kemba Walker and Immanuel Quickley both played 21 despite Quickley producing significantly better. Now is the time to get the youngsters developmental minutes, yet Thibs is still rationing them out like they’re about to make a playoff push when they’re nine games under .500.

The front office and the coaching staff operate on different wavelengths. Thibs thinks any team he coaches can knock off a 1-seed and steal a first matchup.

The front office seemed so competent that, in putting together a winner that had space for more upside, decided to sign Kemba Walker, whose career is built on a series of bubbles. His run to the Big East title in 2010 followed by national championship run and one of the great contract years in recent history with Charlotte are the only reason he’s relevant to New Yorkers. Since 2019, he has tailed off. He was physically unable to play the second half of back-to-backs last season. And yet, Thibodeua completely disregarded that warning when Walker signed with the Knicks.

Derrick Rose returned to his injury-prone roots after a resurgent season as a dribble, drive, and scorching hot shooting starting point guard. He’s now been sitting on the shelf since suffering an ankle injury on Dec. 16 against the Houston Rockets. Julius Randle has been the paragon of regression since the end of his first All-Star campaign in 2021. No player has lost more altitude this season than Randle, including Russell Westbrook. The NBA’s Most Improved Player of the Year inked a four-year, $117 million extension in the offseason and proved his contract year performance was an illusion. His effort has plummeted, as has his scoring average, which has dipped from 19.8 to 24 points per night. His range shrunk again as his 3-point range nosedived from 41% to 30% behind the arc. An even more demoralizing strand of Randle’s devaluated stock is that he’s ruined his trade value.

In the second half against Brooklyn, Randle was a helpless bystander who couldn’t buy a bucket as he vomited up 3-for-11 shooting in the second half.

“It’s tough right now,” Randle said after the loss. “Ups and downs, we have good moments, we have bad. But it’s tough. We feel like we should be better than what we are right now. But we’re not, so can’t dwell on it. Keep one foot in front of the other and keep trying to turn it around. Keep trying to make it right.”

Even their cornerstone, RJ Barrett, took two steps back and has hit a rough patch. His shooting percentages from the field, behind the arc, and from the charity stripe have all unraveled.

The trade with Atlanta that landed Cam Reddish on the Knicks last month was an exquisite Knicksian trade. New York invested a first-round pick into a flailing young wing, who was touted as a star waiting to break out of his shell when, in reality, he’s closer to Jabari Parker. His first four years in the league have been riddled with streaks, peaks, and valleys. He’s shooting 18 percent from behind the arc 32 percent from the field meanwhile fans question why their cubic zirconia wing is only playing 12 minutes a game.

The Knicks stink, and the franchise’s collective carcass stinks up The Garden. The time to bury this season and fertilize their future with the highest pick they can possibly attain is now. Thibs has to fight against his nature and embrace the youth movement immediately even if it means playing dead for the rest of the season.

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