Frustrations arose with the New York Knicks’ season on the brink.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau had benched Obi Toppin in the third and fourth quarters of a Game 4 loss in the team’s second-round NBA playoff matchup against the Miami Heat. The result left New York with a 3–1 deficit in the series, one loss short of elimination. Meanwhile, the decision not to play Toppin led to an out-of-character moment for the normally mild-mannered power forward.
According to league sources in attendance, Toppin aired his complaints to Thibodeau as the final buzzer sounded. The 24-year-old wants to play and he wants to win. That night, neither happened. An intense verbal altercation ensued between the player and coach as the group trekked to the Kaseya Center and visited the Miami locker room. It spilled over into the postgame huddle as the doors closed.
The Knicks drafted Toppin eighth overall three years ago, but they haven’t treated him like a mid-lottery pick since. The team’s starting power forward, Julius Randle, has skyrocketed into the All-NBA stratosphere during that time, leaving Toppin stuck on the bench more often than the organization thought he would be when it drafted him while he was fresh off an NCAA nationals. player of the year award.
On this occasion, when Toppin yelled at Thibodeau in front of teammates so fresh from a loss they were still in uniform, assistant coach Rick Brunson stepped in to stand up for his boss. Toppin and Brunson got into it for a moment. Randle, Evan Fournier and Josh Hart then pulled Toppin aside to cool him off.
The disagreement did not rub off on the Knicks’ culture. In fact, it happened in the evening, a league source said Athletics that he believed the fracas were more likely to shock the players after a spiritless loss.
Toppin and Thibodeau met the next day to patch things up. The following night, the Knicks won Game 5. Toppin played his regular rotations and played them well. Life was back to normal, though the Knicks fell a few nights later to end their season.
There is no fallout, no lingering anger. Sometimes competitive people become competitive.
But that moment should have made one concept clear: It’s time for the Knicks to decide where Toppin fits into their future, and if they hadn’t already realized that, they surely should have when Toppin flatly told them that evening.
Like Immanuel Quickley, Toppin is eligible for a rookie-scale extension this coming offseason. As soon as July rolls around, the 24-year-old can play up to five more years on his deal, a new contract that begins in the 2024-2025 season. But like with Quickley, whose crucial offseason Athletics outlined last week whether or not the Knicks choose to pay the former first-round pick has to do with more than just what they think of his play.
Athletics recently conducted a poll of 15 people who work in front offices across the NBA, asking them what they would consider a “fair” extension for Toppin. Sources were granted anonymity so they could speak freely. The results varied – but not necessarily because the participants thought very differently about Toppin as a player.
Ten of the 15 people polled for this story valued Toppin within shouting distance of the $12.2 million mid-level exception. These 10 ranged from $10 million to $15 million per year. The biggest proposed contract (in terms of both total money and average annual value) came from someone who thought $60 million over four seasons was reasonable.
Five people proposed salaries between $13 million and $14 million on either three- or four-year deals. Two suggested between $12 million and $13 million per season. Two more said $30 million over three years — a mere $10 million annually.
The top comparison from various people in the poll was the extension Brandon Clarke received from the Memphis Grizzlies last fall, a four-year, $52 million add-on. Like Toppin, Clarke is a big spark plug coming off the bench. But with Clarke, currently recovering from a torn Achilles, healthy, Memphis isn’t deploying him the same way the Knicks are deploying Toppin. Clarke closes the matches. He’s had big playoff moments. He’s an offensive rebounder and shifty defender, though he’s not a threat from beyond the 3-point arc. But like he was in the second half of that postseason loss to Miami, Toppin is often on the bench in the Knicks’ most important moments.
And that’s what makes this situation so complicated.
Five people in the poll suggested seven-figure salaries for Toppin, but not all considered him a player of that caliber. Some attendees were conflicted, acknowledging the reality of the business: You can pay your stars a million dollars a minute, but you can’t give that much to your role players, especially with far more restrictive luxury tax policies on the way.
“I don’t think an extension makes sense there,” said the executive, who favored the lowest average annual value in this poll: just $20 million over four years, a figure Toppin surely wouldn’t accept.
The difference comes down to roster construction. As long as Randle is around, Toppin won’t play over him, and Thibodeau, whose ethos is rim protection, doesn’t feel comfortable playing the two offensive-minded power forwards together. Instead, the Knicks use a conventional center, either Mitchell Robinson or Isaiah Hartenstein, for 48 minutes of most games, leaving leftovers for Toppin even on the nights he drives well.
According to league sources in contact with the Knicks’ front office before February’s trade deadline, New York held tight to Toppin when asked about his availability. This group, on the whole, believes in him. But can they justify a Clarke contract for someone who isn’t receiving Clarke minutes? And can they do that when Toppins wouldn’t be the only money they’d add to their books?
If they extend Quickley, it’s another significant contract. Eleven of the 15 people asked the same question about Quickley — what would be a fair extension for him? – said salaries between $16 million and $20 million. Josh Hart is also likely a free agent this summer and will cost eight figures annually. What happens if the Knicks also add $13 million per year to Toppin, which could put them close to the salary cap in 2024-25? How does the organization go about getting an extra wing or more 3-point shooting?
And thus five participants in this poll make lowball offers – even if this exercise is not a real negotiation.
Three people interviewed for the story suggested $21 million over three years, figuring Toppin could opt for the security of a long-term deal, even if it’s below his market, similar to what Nassir Little did when he signed a four-year discount of $28. million expansion with the Portland Trail Blazers last summer. But Little was also a lower draft pick than Toppin and has an injury history that might have encouraged him to take a more conservative approach.
Even if the Knicks were to extend Toppin, it probably wouldn’t happen in early July. They have other goals on the agenda. They will find shooting. They have Quickley in the same contractual situation as Toppin. They’re monitoring the market for a star – and it sure looks like big names could be on the way over the next month.
If a top player becomes available, New York wants to pounce, and because of an obscure rule in the collective bargaining agreement, an extension for Toppin or Quickley would make it more difficult to trade before a new contract begins in 2024-25.
So the Knicks could wait.
New York has until the day before the season opener to extend Toppin, giving the market time to make new contractual comparisons beyond just a Clarke contract.
One person asked for the story said to keep an eye on what restricted free agent PJ Washington gets this summer. Washington, like Toppin, is an energetic big man – although, as with Clarke, there is a significant difference between him and the Knicks forward: Washington has a defined role with his team and plays more. The Grizzlies and Charlotte Hornets also use Clarke and Washington at center. The Knicks have proven they don’t feel comfortable doing the same with Toppin.
But regardless of how New York handles his extension eligibility, the organization’s actions will show what it means.
If the Knicks are paying him big money, they need to have a plan to get him more minutes (although mid-range salaries like those suggested in this story for Toppin will become more valuable when the new CBA begins next month, as Athletics detailed in the final section of this story). If they never engage in extension negotiations at all, that’s also a message.
This summer, everything is on the table for Toppin. He could resume with the Knicks. He could opt out of a new contract and enter restricted free agency in a year. New York could include him in a big name trade. That could turn him into a player who might be just as good but could help more, if only because of his role. Perhaps the Knicks identify a 3-point shooter who is in the same congested situation with his current team that Toppin is in with New York and they flip one for the other; a classic change of scenery.
Either way, the way the Knicks have kicked this can down is about to hit a dead end. They are past the point of just thinking about how to deal with Toppin’s fate. Soon they will have to act on it.
— The Athletic’s Will Guillory contributed to this story
(Photo by Obi Toppin: Elsa/Getty Images)