New York Knicks: Tom Thibodeau is pushing the limits

Without a shadow of a doubt, the New York Knicks are one of the major success stories of the 2020-21 NBA season. Leading the way has been Julius Randle who has had a remarkable season, not only making his All-Star Game debut but also being a strong candidate for All-NBA selection. Second-year guard RJ Barrett has come along in leaps and bounds, improving in all aspects of his game as the season has progressed. And there is Derrick Rose, with whom the Knicks have recorded a 22-10 record when he’s on the floor since acquiring him at the beginning of February.

Most importantly, the highest percentage of the credit for their rapid improvement should be directed towards head coach Tom Thibodeau. In his first season at the helm, the Knicks are currently placed fourth in the Eastern Conference with a 38-30 record, a far cry from the team that posted a 21-45 record just last season, and a franchise that hasn’t reached the postseason since 2013.

While he’s much deserving of the praise heading his way, New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau is nonetheless treading a fine line entering the postseason.

True to form, the Knicks’ greatest turnaround under Thibodeau has been at the defensive end of the floor. Having placed 22nd last season in defensive rating, per NBA Stats, the Knicks have catapulted to fourth in the league. Additionally, the Knicks rank first in opposition points per game, field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. And while these traits have followed Thibodeau in his previous stops around the league, another continuing theme is the minutes he allocates to his star players.

With just four games remaining, Randle currently leads the league at 37.2 minutes per game. In terms of total minutes accumulated, not only does Randle rank first, the emerging Barrett comes in closely behind in third position overall. Dating back to his days in charge of the Chicago Bulls, Thibodeau has had a player ranked in the Top-5 every season with the exception of the 2018-19 season when he was at the helm of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Among these years, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game twice, while Jimmy Butler ranked first on one occasion.

This season alone, the Knicks currently lead the league in games played of 40 minutes or more by a player on their roster. Currently, with 45 separate games of at least 40 minutes, the next closest are the Cleveland Cavaliers at 34 games.

Of course, these numbers don’t guarantee anything come playoff time, be it good or bad. However, the evidence has been clear in recent seasons that player load management is as important as ever, particularly in a condensed season such as the one we are currently experiencing.

One measurement that can be presently used is the production of Randle over the course of the season. Through his opening 40 games, Randle shot at a 48.0 percent clip from the field while averaging 36.7 minutes per game. However, in his past 27 games, his shooting has dropped to 43.5 percent while his playing time has ramped up to 38.1 minutes per contest. In fact, over his last three games of the Knicks’ current West Coast road trip, Randle shot a woeful 39.7 percent from the field and has nailed just one of his past 14 attempts from long range.

Granted, pinning this on his playing time is not an exact science, and is purely speculation at this point. But on the eve of their first postseason run in eight years, the New York Knicks and Tom Thibodeau alike will be eagerly anticipating the outcome of these excess minutes for their leading players, and how this affects their overall playoff prospects.