What Tom Thibodeau did well where he failed with the Knicks

Tom Thibodeau

Tom Thibodeau
Picture: Getty Images

The term “Knicks for clicks” is relatively unknown outside of New York Knickerbocker fan circles. It’s a pejorative term to describe the calculated proliferation of anti-Knicks content by the mainstream media for traffic and views. When the Knicks are mentioned in any segment on ESPN or FS1, it’s usually to make fun of their 20 years incompetence pod, below James Dolaneven if things have been relatively competent since Leon Rose took over as president of basketball operations in 2020.

But to those who live and breathe New York basketball, to those who bleed orange and blue, the ups and downs of the current Knicks team are discussed daily in every conceivable area. The most polarizing and contentious topic is the job of head coach Tom Thibodeau, who is the 31st head coach in franchise history, the 2020-2021 Coach of the Year. and the 11th most successful Knicks coach of all time. Thibodeau’s work on the sideline has divided Knicks fans, starting verbal spats between brothers, lifelong friends, podcast hosts and complete strangers.

What Thibs did well

First, the good: Thibodeau is without a doubt the best Knicks coach in 20 years. He is the elite in establishing identity, culture and habits. He has the Knicks playing fierce defense, as he is known to be dedicated to coaching, spending countless sleepless nights calculating his pregame preparations. As a result, the Knicks – through 51 games – rank fifth in opponent field goal percentage (40.4), third in opponent field goal percentage (45.3) and fifth in opponent three-point percentage (34.9).

He is also an underrated developer. This trait can be traced back to his time in Chicago, where he developed Derrick Rose into the youngest MVP ever, as well as developed Joakim Noah into an elite defensive stopper and expanded the games of Loul Deng, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson.

He continued this in New York, where he contributed to the growth of RJ Barrett, Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley, Miles McBride, Jericho Sims, and especially Mitchell Robinson. He also unlocked “star” level ability in free agent acquisitions Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson. The Knicks are back in the playoff hunt – currently seventh in the East through 51 games – after a disappointing season in which the team rose and fell under the mental fragility of Randle. They have shown strong defensive performances in the series, winning eight games in a row in December, behind the preparation and motivation of Thibodeau.

Thibodeau maximized the potential of his eight-man rotation and returned them to play competitive basketball in 2023. Unfortunately, this is where the positive trajectory of this story ends.

Where Thibs fails

“Thibs,” as fans of all three franchises he’s coached call him, has an expiration date. It usually comes around Year 3, when he’s fully maximized the positives he’s brought to a once-downtrodden franchise. That’s the case with the Knicks. He brought the team out of the depths of NBA hell and made it respectable again. But he was never known as a competent in-game adjuster, a skill that is more crucial than ever for a head coach. He is also the most rigid head coach in the Association. He is arrogant when it comes to minutes distribution, rotations, game planning and offensive competition. These mistakes usually lead to him burning his starters, with the best players on the last three teams he’s coached routinely leading the league in minutes played. Thibs’ apologists point out that only Randle is in the first 20 minutes per game. But when you look at the metrics from when Thibs cut the roster to a nine-man rotation in December, Barrett, Brunson and Randle have all jumped up the list.

He also depends on two schemes that have been phased out of the NBA in modern times – the drop-off defense at the center position and the isolation offense. Even as the NBA evolves into a product where the three is king, Thibs consistently emphasizes paint protection. That led to players from nearly every team in the league warming up for the Knicks, torching them from the perimeter as Thibs demands that his center defend toward the paint against the pick and roll while his guards pack the paint, leaving the perimeter wide open. . It’s even worse on offense, where Thibs leaves the playcalling to his best player. The last two years it’s been Randle, the wing. This season it’s been Randle and Brunson, both of whom shoot first and prefer to over-dribble on the island before taking tough isolation shots. Under Thibs, the Knicks are third-worst in assists per game (22.4), second-worst in assist ratio and fourth-worst in pace. This exposes Thibs’ antiquated half-court offense, based on isolation players and cornerbacks.

Too often, under Thibs, the offense crumbles in the fourth quarter. The Knicks usually move the ball better in the first half. For some reason, when the pressure is on in the fourth, Thibs lets Brunson and Randle go iso as much as they want without changing the scheme or benching either of them when it’s not under control.

What makes it even more unbearable is that we’ve seen it all before. If anyone knows this, it should be Rose, who was Thibs’ agent before becoming his boss with the Knicks. He was there in Chicago and then in Minnesota. He watched Derrick Rose’s knees turn to dust. Thibs lost playoff series after playoff series due to a lack of offensive creativity and underutilization of his bench. He left Chicago with a .402 playoff hitting percentage, just .001 better than his overall playoff record. Things got worse in Minny and New York, where he made the playoffs just once with either team, winning just one game in both first-round losses.

Thibs fans continue to cringe at mediocre metrics like effort, team defense and getting into the game, metrics that Thibs has excelled at as a head coach. But for the Knicks to take advantage of their good young core, they’ll need to hire someone better than Thibs in adapting to the modern game. To take the next step, they need someone who is an elite playmaker and willing to deviate from their game plan when it stops working. Thibodeau’s worst enemy is himself. Unfortunately, with his best friend and former agent, Rose, his boss at the Knicks, that’s unlikely to happen. Thibs will work out his five-year deal — not because he deserves it, but because Rose probably doesn’t want to deal with the optics of firing his brightest employee, a clear admission that he picked the wrong guy. It’s been almost 25 years since James Dolan got the Knicks on a silver spoon, and even today, cronyism continues to rot MSG from the inside out.

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