3 key decisions Knicks will have to make with 2021-21 team hitting its stride

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Ian Begley
·3 min read
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Tom Thibodeau pointing in grey pullover, no players visible
Tom Thibodeau pointing in grey pullover, no players visible

Before the season started, someone who knows Tom Thibodeau well was worried about him.

“I don’t know how he’s going to deal with all of the losing,” they said.

Three months into his Knicks tenure, Thibodeau hasn’t had to face that problem.

Thanks in part to the head coach and his staff, the Knicks are 18-17 heading into the final week of the first half of the season. They haven’t been over .500 at this point in the season since 2012-13, the last year that they qualified for the playoffs.

At this point, New York is in good position to break that six year playoff drought.

But there are a few important decisions to be sorted through before the Knicks get to the finish line. Here’s a look at a few of them:

Will Derrick Rose continue to start at PG?

There’s no clear timetable for Elfrid Payton’s return. But if and when the point guard returns to the court, Thibodeau will be faced with a decision: Keep Derrick Rose in the starting lineup or give Payton his old job back?

Thibodeau has said several times this season that he likes how Payton defends and he likes how he fits with the starters.

But the Knicks are 3-0 in Payton’s absence and Rose has played well.

Shortly after the Rose trade, someone in touch with the Knicks was under the impression that Payton and Austin Rivers would be the two players most impacted by the deal.

Since Rose arrived, Rivers has been removed from the 10-man rotation. Payton continued to start but Rose has shown an ability to fit with the starters and reserves. So Thibodeau faces an interesting decision.

If he inserts Payton back in the starting lineup, it would likely knock Frank Ntilikina from the rotation.

What do you do at the deadline?

When Mitchell Robinson was hurt, some with the Knicks said that the club was open to acting as a "buyer" or "seller" at the trade deadline. At the time, some with the organization felt that they could still be sellers if New York struggled during Robinson’s absence and fell out of playoff contention.

That hasn’t happened. New York is 6-2 without Robinson. Nerlens Noel deserves credit for stabilizing things in Robinson’s absence.

Since replacing the injured Robinson in the starting lineup, Noel’s averaging seven rebounds, 1.1 steals and 2.1 blocks in 31 minutes per game. On Sunday against Detroit, Noel had 11 rebounds, three blocks and three steals. In the past eight games, New York has a net rating of +2.4 with Noel on floor.

So thanks to strong play from Noel and the rest of the group, the Knicks are much more likely to be buyers than sellers. It will be interesting to see how much New York is willing to give up to acquire a player at the deadline.

In conversations about veterans who could help the club win this season, the Knicks haven’t shown a willingness to part with any first-round picks.

It seems reasonable to expect that Ntilikina, Kevin Knox and Rivers would be available in the right deals.

Can they get to the break without a backup center?

It’s unclear when Taj Gibson (ankle) is going to return to the lineup. Can the Knicks get through this final week without Gibson, their only traditional backup center. If Noel can finish up the first half of the season the same way he played on Sunday in Detroit, the Knicks should be able to survive without Gibson. The Knicks play San Antonio on Tuesday and finish the first half of the season against Detroit at home on Thursday.

If New York wants to add a big man, the club would have to waive a player currently on an NBA contract.