LOS ANGELES — Is Tom Thibodeau sure he wants Argentinian point guard Luca Vildoza just as “a summer thing’’ for the Knicks?
Starting point guard Elfrid Payton is regressing while Derrick Rose’s star has been rising.
The Knicks coach won’t budge on removing Payton from the starting lineup, citing his size and agility on defense. Just as likely, Thibodeau doesn’t want to completely burst his eroding confidence.
Payton’s last strong game was against the Lakers at the Garden last month. In the 12 games since, Payton has been a minus in seven contests. Rose has been a minus in that same stretch just twice.
In the Knicks’ collapse at Phoenix on Friday, Payton was a minus-23 while Rose was a plus-zero, and the former MVP looked as if he would carry the team to a win with a bouncy first half.
Rose finished with 17 points and six assists. A lackluster Payton scored five points and shot 2-for-7 in 17 minutes.
While Rose is playing starter’s minutes, fans on social media have long begged for Payton to come off the bench — or not play at all.
Which brings us to Vildoza, 25, who signed Thursday to a four-year, $13.6 million pact.
Vildoza will pocket all of the $3.5 million this season — minus the buyout fee from his Spanish team — but it doesn’t appear Thibodeau wants to play him in a game.
Thibodeau was largely uninterested in discussing Vildoza on Friday before the Knicks faced the Suns.
“It’s going to take some time for him to get over here,” the coach said. “Our scouts really liked him. We’ll have time to evaluate him over the summer.”
Pressed if that meant Vildoza wouldn’t be with the Knicks for the play-in or playoffs, Thibodeau said: “There’s a whole process that he’s going to have to go through, so it’s going to be more of a summer thing.’’
It sure sounded as if Vildoza, currently in Spain, won’t be activated for the playoffs. Sources said Thibodeau was on board with the signing of the Spanish League combo guard, even if he never has seemed overly enthusiastic about overseas players.
According to sources, getting through immigration amid the COVID-19 pandemic will be a process, but Vildoza will join the team in New York once he’s cleared by government officials.
Sources said Thibodeau seemed blasé because he wanted to support his current players. Each player will lose a $200,000 bonus because the Knicks reached the salary-cap floor with the Vildoza signing.
Fitting Vildoza into a playing role in the short time remaining before the playoffs begin would be very difficult. The way Payton is sliding, however, it might not be the worst idea.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, who worked with Thibodeau on the Celtics’ staff, said Thibodeau deserves consideration for Coach of the Year. Lue said he “learned how to teach defense’’ from Thibodeau.
“Thibs is no-nonsense,’’ Lue said. “He holds everyone accountable 1 to 17 no matter the role on the team. He’s’ a great coach. Defensively his teams are top 10, top 5 defensively. Offensively he knows how to get the ball in his best players hands.’’