This can’t continue much longer. It shouldn’t, at least.
Not with the Knicks’ dismal starting lineup. Not with an uninspired, unmotivated Julius Randle as the primary ballhandler and playmaker.
It’s been trending downward since early this season for the Knicks, but now it’s like the bottom has jarred loose and is hanging by the sparse hair strands on Tom Thibodeau’s head.
Wednesday’s 110-96 nasty defeat to the Heat was the latest example, and certainly one of the more damning. The Knicks (23-26), losers of five of their last six games, were blown out from buzzer to buzzer, punished like a playground pickup squad facing a seasoned college program.
“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing against. When you’re losing like that and getting dominated, you don’t feel well,” Evan Fournier said. “There’s frustration. There’s anger. There’s a little bit of everything. What can I say? They just smacked us in the head.”
It was embarrassing. And at the center was Randle.
The 27-year-old, who will begin his max contract next season, scored 11 points with four turnovers in 27 minutes. During one stretch to start the second half, Randle shot an airball that missed so far left he might as well have been kicking for the Jets. The Heat followed with a three-pointer. Then Randle dribbled into traffic and threw a pass into the backboard. The Heat followed with another three-pointer.
The Knicks’ deficit ballooned to 30 and the game was over early in the third quarter. Overall, they were outscored by 34 points with Randle in the lineup. Still, Thibodeau again declined to place any extra onus on Randle.
“He’s proven to be a good player. And he’ll get back to that,” Thibodeau said. “And our team has to get back that. It’s not an individual sport. You have to count on everyone working together. We need to play better.”
Wednesday followed a familiar pattern of the starting lineup stinking and getting pummeled, with the bench surging to turn the final score respectable. Obi Toppin was the bright spot for the reserves with 18 points in 21 minutes, with the Knicks outscoring the Heat by 20 points when Toppin played.
ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy correctly called the situation.
“They just need major changes,” Van Gundy said. “They don’t bring it on a nightly basis. I’m talking about the starting unit. There’s been plenty of times throughout the year to show they work well together. I just see how they continue on like this. That’s the definition of insanity is seeing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
Van Gundy also criticized Randle’s body language and energy levels, which have tailed off since last season and spiraled downward since his war with Knicks fans.
It’s not hard to imagine Thibodeau looking at the Heat’s roster longingly, specifically at one of his favorite players, Jimmy Butler, who is leading a team the way Randle isn’t.
But Thibodeau also deserves blame for Randle weighing down the team. The coach allows unlimited rope for his struggling power forward and is never critical despite nights of low energy and poor body language.
The organization has enabled behavior unbecoming of a leader, deciding it was good to eat a $25,000 fine because Randle doesn’t like postgame press conferences. Randle again didn’t speak Wednesday. There’s no accountability, no leadership and, lately, no reason to believe this lineup can turn it around.
So what’s the fix? There’s changing the starting lineup, which should occur in short order. But Thibodeau didn’t sound too eager postgame Wednesday.