Did the New York Knicks Make the Right Move Hiring Tom Thibodeau?

Jan 2, 2019; Boston, MA, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts during the first half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden.
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Knicks seemed to have found their guy, again. Last time, it was David Fizdale. The time before that, it was Jeff Hornacek. Both coaches ended up failing miserably and now, the Knicks have chosen Tom Thibodeau. Last week, the team gave the coach a deal that would keep him in the job through 2025. The signing marks the 13th time that the Knicks have hired a head coach since 2000. 

Before hiring Thibodeau, the Knicks interviewed many candidates including Kenny Atkinson, Mark Jackson, and Mike Woodson. But, Thibs was always the favorite to get hired. A main reason for this is his past success. For his head coaching career, he has a record of 352-246, close to a .60 winning percentage. In his seven full seasons as head coach, he has only missed the playoffs once. He also won coach of the year less than ten years ago. 

Gregg Popovic thinks the Knicks made the right hire, 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.” 

But did they really get the right guy?

Thibodeau’s Coaching Style

Tom Thibodeau has established himself as a defensive-oriented coach. In his first four years as a head coach, his Bulls teams finished in the top 6 in defensive efficiency each year. In fact, his teams finished in the top 2 in that statistic three of those years. However, in his tenure with the Timberwolves, his defenses were dismal. In both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, the Wolves were ranked 27th in defensive rating. Thibs did not have the best defensive players, but these ratings are not expected from a defensive guru. His defenses were great in Chicago, but that was a long time ago. NBA offenses have changed since then, and his inability to adapt was exposed in Minnesota.

Concerning History

Apr 25, 2015; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose (1) talks to head coach Tom Thibodeau in the second quarter during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks in game four of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at BMO Harris Bradley Center.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Despite his great career record, Tom Thibodeau has a tendency to push players past their limits. This could be said with Joakim Noah. From ages 24 to 28, he was a great player, even winning a defensive player of the year award. But by 30, he was washed. In what was supposed to be his prime, the injuries just kept coming. He was not even close to the same player he was just two years before. 

This could also be true for Luol Deng. He was an all star at 26 and 27 years old but by age 30, he was a role player. One year later, he was playing even worse. At 33, he was out of the league. 

The worst example is Derrick Rose. He tore his ACL in 2012 and was not the same player afterward. Following the injury, he has had knee struggles throughout his entire career. In 2019, Rose told NBC Sports Chicago that “if load management would have been around, who knows? I probably would’ve still been a Chicago Bull by now.

One of the main contributors to Rose’s injuries was the intense torque and power he put through his legs. However, with better playing time management, who knows what his career could have turned out to be.

Rose didn’t explicitly make a comment on Thibs, but we can reasonably imply who his statement was directed towards.

Recent Coaching 

Coaching the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2017-18 season, he played his best players a lot: Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns were all in the top 15 in the league in minutes per game. Even though “load management” was just introduced that year, no coach played his guys as much as Thibs did. That season, no teams in the NBA even had three players in the top 40 in minutes per game. Minnesota had five players in the top 40. 

With a lot of young players on the Knicks roster, will Thibodeau burn them out?

Thibs is known for running eight-man rotations. Both with the Timberwolves and Bulls, he had rotations where only the eight best guys were playing. Assuming that Thibodeau keeps it up, a lot of young Knicks players will not see time on the court. This could stunt their development. New York still has plenty of quality veterans on their squad and Thibs can not lean on those guys. He might get an eight seed out of it but the team is not built to really contend in the next one or two seasons. 

New York had the chance to hire Kenny Atkinson, who can coach an under-average team to the playoffs. They also could have picked Mark Jackson. As head coach for the Warriors from 2011-12 to 2013-14, he played a big role in developing Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green into who they are today. Or they could have hired Mike Woodson, who has proven himself to win games while under the spotlight.

Even with some data suggesting otherwise, Tom Thibodeau could still be the right guy. Here’s why.

Encouraging Signs

After getting fired by the Timberwolves last season, Tom Thibodeau spent this year studying other coaches. He especially learned a lot from Clippers head coach Doc Rivers who holds the fewest practices in the league.

[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,” Thibs stated on The Woj Pod. 

If Thibodeau truly learned from his mistakes in the past, the Knicks will be in much better shape. 

Knicks team president Leon Rose is confident that his new head coach will succeed: 

“Tom Thibodeau is a proven winner who gets the most out of the players and teams that he has coached. He will bring leadership, accountability, and a hard-working mentality to our organization.” 

With a likely high draft pick in this year’s draft, the Knicks might have many prospects to choose from. However, they seem to already be focused on getting one. With the team in need of a point guard, it should come as no surprise that they are rumored to have a lot of interest in Lamelo Ball. This most likely impacted the decision to hire Thibodeau. The Knicks clearly wanted to get a coach who has a great deal of experience in the league. Specifically, they likely wanted someone who has coached many great point guards. Tom Thibodeau is that guy.

USAB Experience 

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 6: Assistant coaches of USA Monty Williams, Tom Thibodeau, head coach of USA Mike Krzyzewski and assistant coach of USA Jim Boeheim look on during the group phase basketball match between USA and China on day 1 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 6, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

As an assistant for Team USA, from 2013-2016, he coached Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry. This experience should help when developing Lamelo as Thibs will know how a great point guard goes about his business. But what really puts Thibodeau over the top is his success developing and coaching Derrick Rose. 

In Chicago, he coached Rose when he became the youngest MVP in league history. One year before, when Thibs was not the Bulls coach yet, Rose was a 21 year-old all star. He was just in his second season. Although this was impressive, no one could have predicted the jump that Rose made to MVP the next season. The obvious difference between his second and third seasons was his newly hired coach at the time in Tom Thibodeau. Considering this, Thibs could guide Lamelo to somewhere near MVP level in the early stages of his career and beyond. The coach definitely has the tools to do so.

Speaking to Frank Isola of The Athletic in 2019, Thibs made it clear that he wanted to coach again. 

Oh, yeah. I want to coach,” Thibodeau told Isola. “I’ve always known that.”

Now, deserving or not, he will get his chance.

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