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Reflections on Tom Thibodeau at the halfway point of the 2020-21 season

Thibs has his flaws, but it’s hard to argue with the results.

NBA: New York Knicks at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The following article was written by guest poster Jayson Buford.

In January 2019, despite ending a 13-year playoff drought, Tom Thibodeau was fired by the Minnesota Timberwolves. The reasons are vast and muddy: Some of it was because his star player, Jimmy Butler, had become disillusioned with management and his teammates and forced his way out after an infamous practice session where he beat the first stringers with bench players. Some of it was Karl-Anthony Towns’ relationship with both Jimmy and Thibs becoming chilly to the point of frostbite. Some of it was Thibs’s personality, which was considered too maniacal and insular for an organization like the Timberwolves. For those reasons, along with the Wolves’ surprisingly lackluster defense (ranked 24th that season and 27th the season prior), they let Thibs go.

When the new MSG don, President Leon Rose, got hired to run the Knicks, the chatter quickly came around that he was going to hire Thibs as coach. This put Knicks fans in a frenzy. We wondered whether a coach who has been at his best when surrounded by veterans in his Chicago Bulls tenure could coach a team of young upstarts like the Knicks. With that being said, his fit here was always better than his fit in Minnesota. He’d strictly be coaching and not in the front office like he was in Minnesota. Leon Rose is known as a relationship-builder around the NBA, and all Thibs would have to do is coach.

Communication and marketing has become just as important as the plays on your board in the NBA these days. Fans not only want a coach, they want a man who can excite the fanbase with rhetoric about working with players and FaceTiming with free agents. Thibs isn’t giving them that. With the Knicks, Thibs is coaching a team with a fanbase that will be into the Knicks because, well, it’s the Knicks. We just want to see a winner finally. We want to see a team that plays hard.

Thibs is a fiery basketball addict, just like Knicks fans who walk the streets of New York every day. It is an up-and-down marriage of two separate entities, like Cam’ron and Jay-Z. But so far, this season it’s mostly been ‘’Welcome to New York City.’’

The results — a 19-18 record at the halfway point of the season — wouldn’t seem very impressive to most franchises, but for the Knicks they mark the best the team has played this late in the season since 2013. More than the record, though, is the attitude that Thibs has brought back to the Garden.

During a Hawks game earlier in the year, Thibs was arguing with a ref about God-knows-what, while his body and arms kept flailing as if he were getting down on the dance floor. He was so angry that I thought his bad combover hairdo was going to move. He’s a maniac coach when the basketball world has tried to devalue maniac coaches. Thibs doesn’t feel like just a coach, he’s almost his own kind of brand of coaching that we all thought would die but is proving that it can still hang.

Thibs isn’t out there coaching as a lifeless husk like Jeff Hornacek, who seemingly coached an entire season with a stubborn cough. He isn’t David Fizdale, who always looked like he did more clapping than coaching. With Thibs, you can hear his voice on television even when there are fans in the arena.

Julius Randle’s improvements are probably due more to his own work ethic than any development by Thibs, but nobody can deny the once-mocked power forward is playing inspired team basketball so far. He’s keeping his head up and looking for teammates while playing the bully ball that attracted fans to him in the first place.

Of course, no marriage is perfect. Thibs has a few tendencies that make Knicks fans scratch their heads, from the abundance of leash that Elfrid Payton gets to the lack of minutes for Immanuel Quickley to the occasional late-game benching of RJ Barret, Thibs is stubborn and needs to be more creative with how he staggers minutes. Sometimes, like in the game in Miami, he abandons the offensive talent that helped him stay in the game and relies too heavily on ineffective starters.

Thibs’ post-game reasoning often doesn’t make sense, either. He likes to say. “If you are playing well, you stay in; if not, you don’t.” But he has often shown his famed tendency to play vets over rookies late in games. I argue it should be switched: Elfrid Payton is nowhere near as good as Immanuel Quickley or Barrett, two players who should play more at the end of games because of their contributions offensively (and in Barrett’s case, defensively as well).

Still, the Thibs Era is off to a solid start. Thereis clearly professionalism, structure, and discipline to how the Knicks play for the first time since Jeff Van Gundy a coach and not your annoying TV uncle.

And now my manager is yelling me over the loudspeaker like she is Thibs herself, so it is time for me to get back to work. Let’s go Knicks.