The Knicks find themselves at .500 with 28 games remaining in their 2021 regular season schedule, good for the sixth seed in the East.
A surprise postseason berth behind Julius Randle’s All-Star emergence and RJ Barrett’s second-year leap is about all New York fans could have dreamed of months ago, but not everything has panned out positively for the Knicks this season.
The eighth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, Obi Toppin, has been a disappointment thus far.
Once thought of to be Randle’s replacement and his draft class’s most league-ready prospect, Toppin has struggled to look like an NBA-caliber player in his rookie season.
This puts the Knicks in a predicament, as they have the chance to make the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons, but with them also having much larger long-term goals that should include Toppin.
In losing seasons past, fans would plea for the coaching staff to play their young pieces more, to not only give them the experience necessary to grow but to get amped about the future.
Things change when you’re a winning team, and if Toppin’s struggles ultimately hurt the team’s chances, it should be time to consider pulling him from the regular rotation. And Toppin does appear to be hurting the team’s chances.
The Knicks are getting outscored by 7.2 points per 100 possessions with Toppin on the floor, but are ahead of opponents by 1.6 points without him. Toppin has more turnovers on the season than assists, steals, and blocks combined.
He generally knows where to be on both ends, but beyond that isn’t adding much to the lineup.
Toppin is shooting 30 percent from deep, and can’t create offense for himself. When he isn’t immediately handing the ball off and screening for one of his perimeter guys, he’s overcome with indecision. The lion’s share of his rebounds are uncontested and his defense is suspect.
Calling Toppin a deer in headlights might be too strong of a metaphor, but it’s clear when he’s more comfortable than not. He’s shooting 42 percent from the field with the game within a 15-point margin, and 68 percent during blowouts. A third of his points are coming from the latter.
There are many reasons (or excuses, depending on how you feel) for Toppin’s poor play. He’s spent little time on the court with a creating point guard, with his best stretches coming alongside Derrick Rose, who has missed the last eight games due to COVID-19.
He’s spent little time on the court at all, averaging 12 minutes per game after a weird pandemic-affected offseason and preseason. In his limited playing time, Tom Thibodeau isn’t running plays to get Toppin involved or in his spots, nor trying him at the center position.
These also serve as good reasons to have sent Toppin down to the G-League. He could’ve gotten 30+ minutes and all the shots he wants, allowing him to get into some semblance of an NBA rhythm. Unfortunately the G-League season is now over, and a late-season playoff push does not make for a fruitful, low-pressure developmental environment.
The next best option is giving those spot minutes to a more seasoned member of the roster. Kevin Knox will hit corner threes, Frank Ntilikina earned himself non-replacement minutes, and even Taj Gibson would be an upgrade. The buyout or trade market could provide a useful fourth big.
Toppin will get his reps in practice and garbage time while getting to learn the game from watching. This is by no means calling Toppin a bust or writing off any future impact he may have on the Knicks. His leaping ability is legitimate, he’s a nice passer out of his position, and the form on his jumper is sound enough to expect better shooting down the line.
It is also not time for the Knicks to abandon any of their prospects and their long-term vision. This is still a “rebuilding” team and thankfully Thibodeau relies on many of his younger contributors.
Right now, Toppin isn’t one of them, providing nothing of value to the Knicks’ playoff hopes, despite the surprisingly long leash he has in comparison to the underwhelming young Knicks of past uncompetitive years.
It’s hard to say whether playing poorly or not playing every night would have a worse effect on Toppin’s morale, but he’s shown to be mature and level-headed, so letting Toppin take a step back and retool for next year might be the best thing.