Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau Pushing Starters Too Hard In February

Tom Thibodeau, Knicks, NBA
Feb 12, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts after a call during the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA regular season is a marathon. Along the way, there will be a lot of obstacles for teams to overcome. One of those obstacles is injuries, as players rarely play in all 82 games nowadays. That is an obstacle that the New York Knicks are now facing head-on.

The first blow for the Knicks came in early December when starting center Mitchell Robinson underwent ankle surgery. That forced Isaiah Hartenstein into the starting role, but the depth behind him was thin.

He was playing heavy minutes as a result and is now dealing with an injury of his own. Hartensten is currently sidelined for the second time with Achilles soreness. That has led to the team having to rely on Jericho Sims, Taj Gibson and Precious Achiuwa to soak up all the minutes at center.

They are also playing all of the power forward minutes, too. All-Star Julius Randle and his backup, starting small forward OG Anunoby, are both sidelined. The last time each of them played was January 27th against the Miami Heat; Randle separated his shoulder in that game and Anunoby had bone spurs removed from his elbow.

NBA NEWS & TRADE RUMORS: Tom Thibodeau, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Isaiah Hartenstein, OG Anunoby, Julius Randle, New York Knicks Updates

With four starters sidelined, head coach Tom Thibodeau has been riding some of his healthy players very hard in recent weeks. Achiuwa has played 39+ minutes in seven straight games. Donte DiVincenzo has played 38+ minutes in every game since Anunoby and Randle went down with an injury.

In some cases, the heavy workload has been necessary. The Knicks faced off against the Dallas Mavericks last week hours after the NBA Trade Deadline passed. Making a deal with the Detroit Pistons that sent four players out of town, New York was left with eight healthy players.

One of those eight, Hartenstein, was injured in the game. Reluctant to use Jacob Toppin, Thibodeau was using his last four starters, Miles McBride, DiVincenzo, Josh Hart, Achiuwa, with Gibson and Charlie Brown Jr.

That short-handed, it made sense Thibodeau rode his guys as long as he could. But, what he did on Monday against the Houston Rockets is something that needs to change. Known as someone who relies heavily on his regulars, Thibodeau is running his healthy guys into the ground when he has other options.

As shared by Tommy Beer on X, the Knicks had four different players on the court for at least 39 minutes against the Rockets. It was a physical, hard-fought game, but there is zero reason to ride guys as hard as he did on a Monday in February.

NBA NEWS & TRADE RUMORS: Tom Thibodeau, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Isaiah Hartenstein, OG Anunoby, Julius Randle, New York Knicks Updates

Four players in the NBA are playing at least 39 minutes per game in February; three of them are Knicks. Again, sometimes the heavy workload was out of necessity, but on Monday, it was by choice as Thibodeau trimmed his rotation to seven players in the second half.

Inexplicably, he played his starting five for the entire third quarter. Bojan Bogdanovic coming in for Sims was the only substitution he made to start the quarter, as Brunson, Hart, DiVincenzo and Achiuwa all remained in the game.

Alec Burks subbed in for Brunson with 9:16 remaining in the game. He would check back in with 5:12 remaining, replacing DiVincenzo who asked out of the game because of an issue with his hamstring.

Despite not coming back into the game, DiVincenzo was one of four Knicks to play at least 39 minutes on Monday. He played 41 out of the first 43 minutes of the game as Thibodeau didn’t go back to Miles McBride until the final defensive possession of the game.

Coaching in February days ahead of the NBA All-Star break like it is a must-win game in the postseason is far from ideal. There were times in recent weeks when the Knicks were extremely short-handed and guys needed to soak up a few extra minutes.

NBA NEWS & TRADE RUMORS: Tom Thibodeau, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Isaiah Hartenstein, OG Anunoby, Julius Randle, New York Knicks Updates

Alas, Monday was not one of those times. The heavy minutes were something that could have and should have been avoided by Thibodeau. Healthy players, such as DiVincenzo, are wearing down from the workload.

Making only four substitutions for an entire half, one of which was injury-related and the last of which was on the final possession of the game, is inexcusable. Thibodeau has done an excellent job of getting the most out of his team throughout the season, but this is a dangerous game he is currently playing.

New York has big aspirations to contend for an NBA Championship this season. Thibodeau has to start considering the big picture, focusing on the macro of a postseason run instead of the micro of individual regular season games.

If the Knicks want any hope of playing deep into the NBA Postseason, they need their regulars healthy and able to play. If they continue playing heavy minutes in games that don’t matter much in the big picture, they will not be physically capable of making as deep of a run into the postseason as they want.

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