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Don't Believe Everything You Hear About New Knicks Coach Tom Thibodeau

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistJuly 25, 2020

Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau argues a call during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Eric Gay/Associated Press

It was probably always going to be Tom Thibodeau in New York.

Newly minted Knicks team president Leon Rose undertook an extensive, weekslong search that included high-profile candidates such as Jason Kidd and less heralded assistants such as the Philadelphia 76ers' Ime Udoka, San Antonio Spurs' Will Hardy and Chicago Bulls' Chris Fleming. But from the beginning, the stars were aligned for Thibodeau, who ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reports is finalizing a five-year deal, to take over for interim head coach Mike Miller.

The Knicks have always loved making a splash, and Thibodeau is the biggest name on the coaching market.

New York tends to prioritize people with a history with the organization (Isiah Thomas and Phil Jackson, anyone?), and Thibodeau was an assistant in New York for eight seasons under Jeff Van Gundy and Don Chaney, from 1996 to 2004.

Rose took over the Knicks in February after a long career as a high-powered agent at CAA. Thibodeau has been represented by the same powerhouse agency for almost a decade. The Knicks and CAA have often worked closely together in the years since Carmelo Anthony engineered a trade to New York in 2011.

It feels inevitable in hindsight, but does the hire make sense beyond the convenience of prior business relationships?

The Knicks haven't made the playoffs—or even finished with a .500 record—since 2013. Thibodeau, meanwhile, has a long history of coaching teams that win more games than they should, even if it hasn't always translated to postseason success.

Thibodeau, who was fired midway through his third season as coach and president of the Minnesota Timberwolves in January 2019, checks every box the Knicks as an organization have historically valued. How effective he will be as a head coach in the NBA of 2020 and beyond is a different question.

Thibodeau's flaws are well-known. His once-innovative defensive scheme, built around icing pick-and-rolls, has become less effective in the past decade as the rest of the league caught up. His offenses are middle-of-the-pack when he isn't building them around an elite scorer like Jimmy Butler or pre-injury Derrick Rose. His views on minutes and workload are out of step with conventional wisdom in the load-management era.

And he has thus far shown himself reluctant to evolve as the NBA has. After he was unceremoniously fired by the Bulls in 2015, he spent the 2015-16 season sitting in on other teams' practices and talking a big game about how his year off had changed him as a coach. The Thibodeau who took the Timberwolves job in 2016, however, was more or less the same guy with the same approach.

The story has played out much the same in the 18 months since Thibodeau's exit from Minnesota. He swears he's open to changing his approach to minutes. He even appeared on a panel at this year's MIT Sloan Analytics Conference in March. In the coming weeks, when he is officially introduced as the new coach of the Knicks, he's going to talk a lot about the lessons he's learned since his last job ended and how he isn't out of step with the modern NBA. At this point, he needs to show it before earning the benefit of the doubt.

Thibodeau's greatest undoing in Minnesota was his insistence on being given the dual roles of head coach and president of basketball operations. Those job descriptions are often at odds with one another—a coach's job is to win as many games as he can with the players he has, and a general manager's job is to think long term about things like the draft and the salary cap. Thibodeau is too much of a film-room grinder to be worried about a multiyear team-building plan, and he's too loyal to his own guys (Butler in Minnesota, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich in Chicago) to make objective decisions on roster moves.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

In New York, with Leon Rose and influential NBA power broker William "World Wide Wes" Wesley running the front office, Thibodeau will, at least in theory, be able to focus entirely on coaching. And he'll face a tough task in getting a Knicks team that went 21-45 before March's COVID-19 shutdown to win more games.

The Knicks don't have much can't-miss young talent to show for their years in the lottery, outside of shot-blocking center Mitchell Robinson. Recent lottery picks Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina haven't panned out. But RJ Barrett, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 draft, may thrive under a coach who was more than happy to let scoring guards isolate when he had Rose and Butler. At least it's a young team that can handle a bigger workload.

On the subject of minutes: concerns that Thibodeau runs his guys into the ground are real, but they are a little overblown. The players he's played a lot of minutes—Butler, Deng, Hinrich, Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah—are ones who want to play a lot of minutes. If a player tells Thibodeau he can play, he's going to play him.

Thibodeau bristled in Chicago at minutes limits that management attempted to put on Noah coming off knee surgery in 2014-15, his last season with the Bulls. He doesn't like anybody getting in his way, which is why he wanted personnel control in Minnesota.

But Thibodeau also publicly supported and defended Derrick Rose's desire to be cautious in returning from two season-ending knee surgeries during his time with the Bulls. When Rose sat out the entire 2012-13 season recovering from a torn ACL, he faced a lot of pressure from fans and media to return in time for the playoffs, especially after the organization leaked to ESPN that he had been medically cleared to play. But that pressure never came from Thibodeau, who always maintained he wouldn't force Rose to come back before he was ready. There's a reason why Rose was one of only a handful of Bulls players who fought for Thibodeau when he was fired in 2015, and why he signed on to play for him again in Minnesota.

The Knicks haven't been relevant in a long time, and Thibodeau is a coach who teams hire when they want to win more games in the immediate term. He turned the Bulls into a title contender in his first year, winning 62 games in 2010-11 and making the Eastern Conference Finals. They had the best record in the East the following season too before Rose blew out his knee in the first round of the playoffs.

When Rose missed most of the next two seasons, Thibodeau's Bulls overachieved, even winning a playoff series extremely shorthanded in 2012-13. In Minnesota, he led the Timberwolves to their first playoff appearance in 14 years in 2017-18. Thibodeau wears out his welcome because he's uncompromising and can be difficult to work with, not because he can't coach.

The Knicks aren't going to contend anytime soon. At this point, they'd settle for being respectable. If Thibodeau can take them from 21 wins this year to somewhere in the mid-to-high-30s next season, it would at least be a show of progress. The next time New York is truly a basketball power, the roster will be very different than it is now. By then, Thibodeau may have hit the end of his shelf life in his third head coaching job.

For a lot of reasons, Thibodeau was Leon Rose's inevitable hire. As the first defining move of his tenure as Knicks president, he'd better hope this hire is the right one.

           

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on TwitterInstagram and in the B/R App.

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