Knicks will find returning Obi Toppin minutes, but it won't be easy

Nov 9, 2022; Brooklyn, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Obi Toppin (1) warms up before a game against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center.
Nov 9, 2022; Brooklyn, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Obi Toppin (1) warms up before a game against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center. / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Obi Toppin is working his way back to the court. He’s back on the active roster and has been cleared for contact. It sounds like he won’t play against San Antonio or Toronto unless there is an injury or a blowout.

But once Toppin regains his rhythm and conditioning, Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks will have a decision to make: how do we change the rotation to include Toppin?

The Knicks have won 11 of 16 games since they went to a nine-man rotation last month.

Thibodeau made it clear Wednesday that he will find minutes for Toppin when he returns.

“We’re gonna ramp him up and then he’s gonna play, yeah,” the coach said before the Knicks' win over the Spurs.

Thibodeau could reduce Jericho Sims or Isaiah Hartenstein’s minutes to make room for Toppin. He could also expand the rotation to ten players.

But the rotation decision becomes difficult if the Knicks continue to win with Sims and Hartenstein getting regular minutes.

“The team has to be put first. Everyone has to sacrifice for the team,” Thibodeau said Wednesday when asked about working Toppin back into the rotation. “And for some guys, it’s starting; some guys, it’s shots; some guys, they may not be in the rotation. But things can change very quickly.

“Right now… we have a nine-man rotation, and we could have an injury; we could have foul trouble; we could have illness. It has to be fluid. But the most important thing is the team playing well, so if the team is playing well, we can’t sacrifice that.”

Thibodeau will also have to work RJ Barrett back into the rotation. But that should be seamless. Barrett will slide back into the starting lineup and Immanuel Quickley will come off the bench. Thibodeau likes the way Barrett fits with the second unit. That unit will presumably have to change to fit Toppin into the rotation.

Any change to the rotation will alter a formula that’s worked well for the Knicks.

Since the club went to a nine-man rotation, entering Wednesday, they ranked second in the NBA in net rating (+10 points per 100 possessions). They were sixth in offensive efficiency in that span and second in defensive efficiency.

“When you look at the numbers over the last 15 games — that tells you something, right?” Thibodeau said when asked about Toppin returning to the second unit. “The offense, we’re scoring more. We’re giving up a lot less. The rebounding is through the roof. And you look at, OK, how has this impacted Quick? How has it impacted Julius? How has it impacted RJ? And the challenge is to bring the best out of the team.

“Whatever brings the best out of the team, that’s what we have to do. And oftentimes, there’s difficult decisions that have to be made. So, we have good players and some players have had to sacrifice not being in the rotation and then just stay ready. Things are always changing in this league.”

POP IMPRESSED BY BRUNSON: 

Jalen Brunson had a regular season career-high 38 points in the win over San Antonio on Wednesday. He made or assisted on the Knicks’ final five field goals – all of which were pivotal in the win.

Before and after the game, Brunson received compliments from future Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich.

“He’s a monster. He’s got a such a toughness about him. High basketball IQ, hard to guard. He really really tests your discipline, gets you jumping off your feet,” the coach said. “For a little guy, he has great pivot that he uses oftentimes in the paint, that sort of thing. But he’s also unselfish…. Just a helluva competitor.”

QUENTIN CLOSE OUT: 

Here’s Quentin Grimes on his approach on the Spurs' final possession, where he closed out on Keldon Johnson enough to prevent him from attempting a shot:

“We had about three and a half seconds on the shot clock. Jalen and Julius kinda had a little miscommunication with a double. I seen Keldon was wide open, so I had to make a decision to go out there,” Grimes said. “A three is gonna tie the game up, so I had to make sure to get out there, get a hard closeout and force a shot clock violation to end the game, late-clock situation.”

DECISIONS COMING FOR SVI AND ARCIDIACONO: 

Contracts for Ryan Arcidiacono and Svi Mykhailiuk become fully guaranteed after Jan. 7, so the Knicks have a couple of days to decide on keeping both players or waiving one or both to open up a roster spot.

The Knicks front office will presumably convene with Thibodeau to make the decisions. If it were up to Thibodeau, it sounds like the Knicks would be keeping both players.

“As far as I’m concerned from my end both guys have been terrific,” the coach said Wednesday. “They’re invaluable to us. Just the way their attitude and approach, whether it’s practice, the game, they’re fully engaged. They make things go well. They can fill in. They bring energy every day. So they both have helped us a lot. So I’ve been very pleased with them.”