The Knicks open the post-All-Star break schedule Thursday in Milwaukee in an unlikely position.
They are in fifth place, looking to remain in playoff position and staring at a March 25 trade deadline at which they have become buyers and not sellers.
Entering the season, it appeared the rebuilding Knicks would unload some of their one-year free-agent signees to a playoff team to collect extra future draft picks. (Last year, they traded Marcus Morris for a late first-round pick that turned into Immanuel Quickley.)
This year, their trade candidates were expected to be Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, Austin Rivers and Elfrid Payton. Frank Ntilikina, scheduled to be a free agent, also figured to be on the block, and now he may be used as a pawn to obtain a veteran.
President Leon Rose is seeing if he can upgrade their current talent — specifically in the backcourt with Rockets combo guard Victor Oladipo, a player of interest — to win now and break the seven-year playoff drought. The Knicks are thin at center as Mitchell Robinson is still not close to playing, according to coach Tom Thibodeau. The Cavaliers’ Andre Drummond is very available.
“That’s a Leon question,’’ Thibodeau said Wednesday night about the trade deadline after the Knicks practiced in Milwaukee. “Look, I have a strong bias toward good players. I know they’re looking at all the possibilities. If something makes sense for us, we’ll do it. If not, I love the team that we have. I love the guys that we have on the team. We’ll just keep working with what we have and Leon and Wes [William Wesley], they’re combing the league, Scott Perry, that’s their job.’’
A story in The Post, written by Yaron Weitzman, suggested the front office dynamic featured some friction — with Thibodeau derogatorily nicknaming director of strategy, Brock Aller, “Hinkie’’ (as in ex-76ers boss Sam Hinkie, in reference to his desire to only collect draft choices).
Asked about the report, Thibodeau said he hasn’t read it yet but added: “Leon and Wes, the whole staff, it’s a great staff. We spent a lot of time debating things and at the end of the night we’re going to dinner and we’re fine. I think Brock is terrific. What Leon and Wes have done, they’ve set it up where it’s great. It’s a great process they have in place. Everyone is encouraged to give their opinions and it’s worked out well. I admire the way they’ve done things.”
The Post report also suggested Thibodeau, in the offseason, was amenable to trading RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson at some point for veterans. The Post had previously reported the Knicks discussed trading Randle. But Randle turned into that All-Star this season.
“When you come in and take a job, Leon and Wes have done an unbelievable job and how we were going to go about our business,’’ Thibodeau said. “We looked at and studied the team, played out the pros and cons on everything we could do. We’re very pleased. And I feel very strong about all three of those guys. I’ve made that clear all along. I haven’t seen the article so I can’t comment on it. I know I feel very strongly about those three players.’’
Randle has turned into a beast under Thibodeau and led the Knicks to a winning record not missing a game.
During All-Star weekend, Randle said Thibodeau has been a key.
“Thibs has done a great job of putting me in positions where I’m comfortable and can operate whether it’s scoring or playmaking and my teammates are putting themselves in great position when I get doubled or trapped I know where my outlets are,’’ Randle said. “I know where to find them on the court. They’re honestly making the game easy for me.’’
The season’s second half begins with games at the Bucks, Thunder, Nets and 76ers. The Knicks went 8-3 heading into the break, but seven of those victories came against clubs well below .500.
“I think the big thing is consistency, it’s continuing to improve offensively, it’s the rhythm,’’ Thibodeau said. “We’re shorthanded right now. We have to make sure that whoever goes in gets in there and gets the job done. But I like the depth of the team, I like the way the guys have worked. And the good thing is we know there is a lot of room for growth. We have a lot of young guys who have gotten a lot better.’’