Tom Thibodeau's shortened rotation could prove pivotal amid heightened scrutiny on Knicks coach

Dec 4, 2022; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau gets called for a technical foul against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 4, 2022; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau gets called for a technical foul against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports / © Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Thibodeau shortened his rotation in the Knicks92-81 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday night. Derrick Rose and Cam Reddish didn’t play in New York’s much-needed win at the Garden.

Thibodeau instead went with Miles McBride and shortened his rotation to nine players.

And he made it seem as if he’ll be sticking with a nine-player rotation for the near future.

“For right now, that’s what we’re doing,” Thibodeau said after the Knicks beat Donovan Mitchell and the Cavs.

The win was pivotal for New York. As SNY reported, there has been heightened scrutiny on the whole organization from owner James Dolan in the wake of the Knicks’ uneven start.

New York was blown out by the Dallas Mavericks at home on Saturday. So a loss to Cleveland on Sunday would have further supported the idea that the team needed a major change.

But the Knicks and their new rotation were stout defensively against the Cavs. They bothered Mitchell and Darius Garland enough to limit them to a combined 13-for-41 shooting night. Cleveland shot 35 percent from the floor and New York limited the Cavs’ second-chance opportunities.

The Knicks also didn’t give up the lead they built early in the game, as they had in a few past home games.

Dec 4, 2022; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Miles McBride (2) defends against Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 4, 2022; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Miles McBride (2) defends against Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports / © Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

“Part of that is probably less people in the rotation, too,” Thibodeau said. “That gives you a better rhythm. So that’s part of the reason why we went to nine.”

Thibodeau shortened his rotation to nine players at the start of a recent West Coast trip. He removed Evan Fournier and Grimes from the rotation at that point. That was short-lived. He went back to a 10-man rotation during the road trip. The Knicks went 3-2 on that trip, which came after an embarrassing home loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Thibodeau explained on Sunday that he was still figuring out who to play in his nine-man rotation during that trip.

“The tough thing is you’ve got to make a decision. Who are the nine? And there’s guys who are deserving to be in there,” Thibodeau said. “You’re trying to stretch it a little bit until there’s more clarity to it and once there is and you have more information, now you’ve got to make the decision. So that’s what we did.

“We’re always going to do what we think is best for the team. So I want to prioritize that. And that doesn’t mean it’s permanent. It just means that’s where we are right now. Whatever gives us the best chance to win, that’s what we’re going to do.”

It will be interesting to see if Thibodeau sticks with McBride as part of his nine-man rotation or if he goes back to Rose.

The Knicks played the second game of a back-to-back on Sunday, which Thibodeau said contributed to his decision to give Rose a DNP.

He called the move to keep Reddish out of the rotation a “coach’s decision.” He was asked if Reddish’s performance in New York’s loss to Dallas on Saturday factored in to the decision. Reddish played just seven minutes in the game.

Dec 4, 2022; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Miles McBride (2) dribbles the ball chased by Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland (10) during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 4, 2022; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Miles McBride (2) dribbles the ball chased by Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland (10) during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports / © Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

“It’s more of … I wanted to get it to nine-man rotation. It worked a lot better. So just be ready,” Thibodeau said.

Rose’s minutes have been sporadic so far this season. His role is drastically different than the past two seasons. Particularly in 2020-21, the Knicks relied heavily on the former MVP.

The Knicks have also gotten some trade calls on Rose. So his situation bears watching. Teams had also called New York about Reddish prior to the start of the regular season. He will be a restricted free agent in the offseason. So it’s fair to assume that teams will continue to call New York about Reddish as the February trade deadline approaches.

In the more immediate future, Thibodeau will have to decide whether Reddish, Rose or McBride are in the nine-man rotation against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday. He also shortened minutes for both Obi Toppin (13) and Isaiah Hartenstein (14) on Sunday.

After the game, Thibodeau said the rotation decisions were based, in part, on the club’s poor outing against Dallas on Saturday.

“If you win by 20, you’re probably not making any changes; you’re probably looking at it, trying to clean a couple things up,” he said. “But if it doesn’t work, you’re looking at, ‘OK what are the possibilities? How can we inject something different?’ ... On the West Coast trip, we got down to nine and it gave us a better rhythm in the game and that’s part of it.”

If that rhythm continues to translate to wins over the next few weeks, it would probably ease the internal scrutiny around the club. One thing worth noting on any Knicks coaching change: Team president Leon Rose is fiercely loyal to Thibodeau. I don’t think he would take the decision to change head coaches lightly. Remember, he’d been given the autonomy by Dolan to fire Thibodeau last year at the All-Star break. He chose to stick with Thibodeau.

Any decision on the coaching staff, at the moment, will be solely Rose’s call.