As has seemed destined from the start, the New York Knicks have landed their guy.
Tom Thibodeau will be the next coach in New York. It’s a big-name hire by a big name franchise in search of a big-time turnaround — in the past 16 years, New York has made the playoffs just three times and won just one playoff series (and that was seven years ago).
But is Thibodeau the right hire?
Gregg Popovich thinks it is, telling the Associated Press:
“Tommy’s a seasoned veteran who it goes without saying understands what wins and what loses. He knows how to put a program together, create a culture and be demanding — and at the same time, make people accountable.”
Thibodeau is demanding, and he knows how to get wins, but the man has no chill — how hard pushes to get those wins has led to backlash and injuries in previous stops. Where Popovich has understood when to ease up on the throttle to preserve his teams — yet still get playoff wins — Thibodeau has not shown that deft touch.
Thibodeau’s marriage to the Knicks can succeed, but it’s going to take changes from both the Knicks organization and from Thibodeau himself.
EASE OFF THE THROTTLE
Thibodeau’s win-all-the-games coaching mentality has led to short rotations and heavy minutes for his stars. In his last full season in Minnesota, Thibs had both Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns in the top 10 in total minutes played, and both played a full 82-games schedule, there were no nights off.
That is not going to fly with the Knicks, a team looking to develop young players. Mitchell Robinson in particular, and also RJ Barrett, should get plenty of minutes — and plenty rope to make mistakes and learn from them — but New York does not want to wear down its young stars. More than that, the Knicks should have a couple of good locker room veterans on the team as mentors, but Thibodeau can’t lean on those veterans to try and stockpile wins with a tight eight-man rotation.
The Knicks need to find and develop other young players (like the Nets did one borough over, giving Spencer Dinwiddie room to grow) and that comes with patience and using a deep bench.
Thibodeau spent his season away from coaching traveling the league, talking to other coaches and watching them work. He told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on The Woj Pod he learned a lot from Doc Rivers — the Clippers’ coach known for having the fewest practices in the league.
“But [Rivers] is the best at managing the day before, in between, they had that day off, but everybody came in. And their young guys really work, and the older guys were getting treatment and recovery. So understanding who your team is and what everyone needs.”
If Thibodeau has really learned that lesson, the Knicks will be in better shape.
KNICKS NEED TO DRAFT, FIND MORE TALENT
Talent wins in the NBA. Yes, coaching matters. Chemistry matters. Guys buying into the system matters. But at the end of the day, talent wins out.
The Knicks don’t have enough of it.
Robinson shows real promise. Barrett has potential but the raw counting stats he put up as a rookie hid some ugly basketball. Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina look like fringe rotation players, not key contributors. Julius Randle raises the floor of this team but is not considered part of the long-term plans at Madison Square Garden.
The Knicks need a scouting department and front office that not only makes good calls when in the lottery, but finds guys at the end of the first round or early in the second who can be developed in a couple of years into contributors. That is always a bit hit and miss, even with the best teams, but those teams find guys. Right now Toronto is the gold standard of finding and developing players — Pascal Siakam was taken 27th, OG Anunoby was 23rd — and the Knicks need to move closer to that model.
THEN THIBODEAU NEEDS TO DEVELOP THEM
Tom Thibodeau has some development success in his past. Derrick Rose was the youngest MVP in league history under Thibs. He also helped turn Jimmy Butler (a No. 30 pick) into the player he is today. However, for the most part Thibodeau couldn’t be bothered with young players because they could not contribute in the short term to winning.
That has to change. It’s both a matter of mindset and of Thibodeau bringing in development-minded assistant coaches and giving them room to operate (sources around the league have told NBC Sports Thibodeau likes to control everything, designing every practice and game plan, down to the writing on the whiteboard before games and more).
Thibodeau needs to build a culture of player development in New York, something that has not existed there before.
It doesn’t mean the Knicks can’t take a swing at a big trade, something the franchise feels it is poised to do. However, it needs to follow more of the model the Lakers did: Draft and develop young players (Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart), trying to win with them while also building up their trade value, then using those players when the time comes to make a bold move (for the Lakers it was Anthony Davis). Right now, the Knicks future picks have more value than anyone outside maybe Robinson on the roster.
Thibodeau has a reputation as a defensive innovator, but his defenses were unimpressive in Minnesota. Part of that was certainly personnel — Karl-Anthony Towns is not going to be confused for Dikembe Mutombo — but Thibs didn’t lift players up or alter the system enough to fit their skills. In New York, he has to build from the defense out (and has a potentially strong anchor in the paint with Robinson) and make it all work.
The Knicks are not a turnkey situation where Thibodeau is walking into a playoff team. A culture needs to be built (one James Dolan doesn’t meddle with). Talent needs to be added to the roster, then developed. Do all that, build a place that superstars want to come, and the power of playing in New York will give the Knicks an advantage. Right now the big stars are choosing Brooklyn first. It shows how much work needs to be done.
Thibodeau could be the guy to do it. He’s going to get the chance.