Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said the team’s recent success makes it difficult to reintegrate third-year forward Obi Toppin into the rotation now that he has cleared his knee injury.
The Knicks entered Tuesday night winners of four in a row and have been rolling without Toppin, who has not played since suffering a non-displaced fracture in his right fibula head in New York’s Dec. 7 victory over the Atlanta Hawks. Doctors cleared Toppin to return to action on Jan. 4 against the San Antonio Spurs, but the high-flying forward has remained glued to the Knick bench.
“I think that if things aren’t going well, you’re more likely to change, but you also don’t wanna disrupt the group, not at the expense of one individual,” Thibodeau said ahead of tipoff against the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday. “I think you wanna incorporate him and get him acclimated again, but not at the expense of the group.”
Thibodeau was noncommittal about playing Toppin against the Bucks.
“We’ll see. We’ll see how it unfolds. Each day, I think more and more — he’s gotten contact now,” he said. “So, just get in there and play well. Handle your minutes well, whether they’re short minutes, long minutes. Doesn’t matter. Play well. That’s the most [important thing] — make the team function well.”
Toppin’s role — and his fit alongside Julius Randle — has been a sticking point since the Knicks selected him eighth overall in the 2020 NBA Draft. Toppin is averaging the same number of minutes per game (17) as Randle’s backup as last season, but while his three-point shooting has improved 4% year-over-year, he is averaging fewer points and is shooting 11% worse from the field.
The Knicks attempted to play Toppin in minutes alongside Randle earlier in the season, but the experiment failed. Randle’s improved play has also played a role in keeping Toppin glued to the bench.
The star forward has averaged 28.3 points per game since the beginning of December and has scored less than 25 points in just three games during that stretch.
He’s also averaging close to 40 minutes, making it difficult to find room for Toppin in a rotation that relies so heavily on Randle’s production. It doesn’t help matters for Toppin that the Knicks have won 11 of the 16 games they’ve played since he sustained his injury.
Thibodeau suggested Toppin’s time will come, though there’s no telling when. Until then, the fan favorite will have to stay ready until his number is called.
”We ask everyone to make sacrifices for the team first, so we’re always gonna do what’s best for the team,” he said. “Be ready. We need everyone, and when we had the injuries and guys went out, other guys came in and played well. So, we’re always gonna prioritize the team, but Obi can add a lot to our team. So, whatever opportunities you get, get in there and play well.”