Julius Randle’s disappointing season also goes to Tom Thibodeau

Baseball’s Opening Day is fast approaching, and the Knicks will soon be free to watch as many Yankees and Mets games as they like. So let’s put Tom Thibodeau’s two seasons in New York in a balls and strikes context.

Last year, Thibs was a league MVP, hitting .325 with 37 home runs and 118 RBIs.

This year, Thibs hit .269 with 14 home runs and an endless parade of runners on base.

Just like good players have bad seasons, good coaches have bad seasons. With his team one unfortunate leap away from missing out on the play-in tournament — the lowest of any low NBA bar — Thibodeau must accept his share of the blame. And his most damaging failure has been his inability to do what he’s consistently done over the last year: Get the best out of Julius Randle.

On Wednesday night, when the Knicks’ four-game winning streak ended in a 125-114 loss to Charlotte, their only starter to be booed during the performance was Randle, not among the main culprits, not with 21 points and seven assists. Afterwards, the power forward expressed his love for the city and his franchise, but said he was frustrated at the impact of the crowd’s negative reaction on his 5-year-old son, who left the games because of it.

“As a father, that bothers me more than anything else,” Randle said.

He claimed that he knew he had to “live with the good guys and the bad guys” in New York and that he was “built for it,” though his on-court attitude said otherwise. So be it. Now that the Knicks are one loss or one win away from play-in elimination in Atlanta, it should be interesting to follow their blame game in the coming weeks.

Tom Thibodeau and Julius Randle
Tom Thibodeau and Julius Randle
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

No one knows if Leon Rose, the agent-turned-CEO, has any idea what he’s up to, or if he’d be better off finding work as a mime artist. No one knows if Randle has hurt his trade value with underplay and get-me-out-of-here vibes enough that his team will have a hard time moving him for a decent return.

Yes, Randle and Rose will take most of the heat, and rightly so. But Thibodeau, the 2020-21 Coach of the Year, needs to be right behind them on that line in 2022. Though he’ll never be forgotten for the gift he gave the city when he first got his dream job, and though he should never again be asked to pay for a meal or drink in the Tristate region, Thibs delivered in years 2 didn’t pull off a worthy sequel, in part because he couldn’t keep his best player from putting a strain on the team.

So, before the Charlotte game, I asked Thibodeau why he felt Randle’s explicit love affair with the city was taken to divorce court so damn fast last season.

“Every year is different,” he replied. “You are faced with new and different challenges. This year was not like last year. Hopefully we can finish like last year. Things change all the time and… I guess that’s part of the territory. You’ll get a lot of praise, you’ll get a lot of blame. That’s the way it works, so stay focused, come in the next day and just keep working. Just keep working.”

Thibodeau didn’t sound like he was speaking to reporters gathered in the Garden’s interview room; it sounded like he was talking to Randle.

Julius Randle scored 20 points in the Knicks' loss to the Hornets.
Julius Randle scored 21 points in the Knicks’ loss to the Hornets.
NY Post: Charles Wenzelberg

Does Thibs say these things to Randle behind closed doors? Has he taken it on privately after the star player chastised fans and showed a lack of enthusiasm for his teammates’ success?

I asked the trainer a follow-up question about buttons. Thibodeau certainly challenged the right ones with Randle last year, and I wondered if he’d had trouble finding those this year.

“It’s not just a player,” he replied. “It’s your entire team. How do you get the best out of your group? Right now I want the focus to be, OK, the team is playing really well, playing basketball, and that’s where I want it to be. … When the season is over we go into everything. We’re going to look at the things we did well, the things we didn’t do as well as we would like and then we’ll try to make the improvements over the summer.”

And yes, Thibodeau totally deserved the chance over the summer to fix what’s broken. The guy’s still one of the better coaches in the league and still the Knicks’ best asset (with RJ Barrett closing hard). Unlike Randle, Thibodeau has no credibility issues when he swears he wants to stay in New York in the worst possible way.

“It’s the best place in the league to play,” he said, “and look, I’ve been to pretty much every place. I speak from experience. This place is special.”

It just wasn’t that special this season, not even close. Thibodeau never connected with Randle, never inspired him to lead or play team first ball, or honor the terms of his $117 million extension.

It wasn’t just Randle’s fault. That was also the fault of the coach. Julius Randle’s disappointing season also goes to Tom Thibodeau


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