Tom Thibodeau has suggested in recent comments to the media that he’s willing to adapt his approach to coaching. Should the New York Knicks believe in him?
On paper, Tom Thibodeau should be a lock for the New York Knicks head coaching job. History of winning? Check. History with the team? Check. Connection to Jeff Van Gundy? Check.
Under ordinary circumstances, if the Knicks were linked to a coach who checked all three of those boxes, there would be a rare moment of solidarity for Knicks fans. But there’s nothing ordinary about Tom Thibodeau.
When The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Mike Vorkunov reported Tom Thibodeau was one of the names atop the list of Leon Rose’s coaching candidates, no one was surprised. The Knicks have been linked to Thibs for months, but the argument for and against the coach remains the same.
His fans point to his past success and well-earned reputation as a great coach that makes him a coach the Knicks would be lucky to have. His detractors portray him as a basketball caveman who runs players into the ground with heavy minutes and intense practices.
Thibodeau did his best to convince us that he’s willing to adapt to the times during his most recent tour of ESPN (via SNY’s Ian Begley) by using buzz words like sports scientist and load management.
But can a 62-year-old head coach who’s been so incredibly successful doing things his way really change?
In seven full seasons as an NBA head coach, Thibs has never had a team without a player finish in the top five in minutes per game.
He won 62 games in his first season as Bulls head coach while changing the way NBA teams play defense. Three of his Bulls teams (10-11, 11-12, 13-14) finished first or second in defensive rating. The Knicks haven’t had a top-two defense since JVG helmed the squad in 1996-97.
The Bulls featured the type of player that clicked with Thibs. The player who was willing to play his type of aggressive defense. The same players who Thibs is often accused of running into the ground: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and Jimmy Butler.
Rose was the youngest MVP in NBA history and became one of the league’s best players before injuries took him down. Noah was Defensive Player of the Year before New York City took him down.
Playing for Thibs, Deng led the league twice in minutes per game, and he was fourth in total minutes played from the 2011-12 to 2012-13 seasons. Butler was first in minutes per game in 2013-14 and second in 2014-15.
Deng was also a two-time All-Star with Thibs, but he was never the same player following a midseason trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014. Butler was also named an All-Star in 14-15 and emerged as Chicago’s franchise player in place of the injured Rose.
But Thibs didn’t have the same personnel in Minnesota. Especially on defense. He brought back as many of his Bulls guys as he could but couldn’t quite recapture the magic.
The most common five-man lineup used during the 2017-18 season was the Minnesota Timberwolves starting lineup of Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Towns and Wiggins played a bunch of minutes, and Towns didn’t like it, considering Thibs’ player development style a “slap in the face” in comparison to new coach Ryan Saunders.
Towns might not have liked Thibs — or playing for him — but he did get better while Thibs was there. In the 2017-18 season, he averaged 21.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game on a ridiculous slash line of .545/.421/.858. Towns also netted 120 triples that season.
Towns is the only player in NBA history to average 20 points and 12 boards in the same season he made 100 threes on 40 percent from beyond the arc. He’s done it twice.
Thibs still led the Timberwolves to their first playoff berth in 14 years. No one talks about that because of the way things ended in Minnesota.
When Thibs signed on, he thought he had a franchise player who could anchor his defense with Towns. He did not. Sometimes we’d see the flashes of defensive potential from Towns and Wiggins. But more often than not, their effort would remain inconsistent.
Instead of building around the young big man, Thibs jump-started the rebuild when he traded for the unhappy Butler. The deal paid off, for a little while anyway. According to Cleaning The Glass, the TWolves had a +13.2 efficiency differential with Butler in 2017-18. They played like a 61 win squad with their best player on the court.
We conveniently forget that his team was 36-26 — third in the West — when Butler hurt his knee in Feb., 2018.
Unfortunately, Minnesota played like a 29 win team without him, with a -4.7 efficiency differential. Without Butler, the TWolves went 8-9, dipped to the eighth seed, and fell to the Houston Rockets in the first round, where Butler requested a trade soon after.
Tom Thibodeau the coach knows what he’s doing. Like many great coaches before him, Thibs failed miserably in a dual role as president of basketball ops. He won’t have that role in New York.
It’s understandable why Knicks fans wouldn’t want Thibodeau coaching their prized young prospects. History would suggest that in the long-term there could be a problem. But if Thibs does intend to tweak his style, then we shouldn’t panic. If not, then may God have mercy on RJ Barrett’s knees.