In 2020, Haley O’Shaughnessy wrote a classic article about Thibs called “The Five Steps to Every Tom Thibodeau Coaching Cycle”. The piece is amusing if you’re not living through it.
Once again, the perfectly average New York Knicks (6-7) have lost, this time in a blowout to the Oklahoma City Thunder (6-7). Statistically, the two teams were evenly matched, so realistically, a loss wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility. A 145-135 finish, however, came as a shock. The game was more lopsided than the score suggests, and the fans rewarded the poor performance with boos.
Knicks allow 145 points in regulation in a home loss to OKC. That is the highest opponent point total allowed by a Tom Thibodeau-coached Knick team. OKC hit 55 percent of its 3-point attempts (17-for-31. The Thunder entered play today ranked 29th in 3-point field goal percentage— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) November 13, 2022
When a team collapses so terrifically, there’s always more than one reason. Most of the blame is usually laid at the feet of its coach, though. So shall it be with Thibs.
Based on the O’Shaughnessy scale, we’re currently somewhere between the third and fourth ring of Thibodeau Hell, with a players-only meeting happening any day now. After another rotten game in another flat season, one has to ask: What are we doing here, Leon?
Thus far, the plan has been to acquire a star. As Fred Katz wrote this week for The Athletic, “Ever since Leon Rose took over the front office, the mission has been to build up youth and draft picks in the hopes of trading for a star one day.... They have various young players with encouraging futures. They have all of their picks and four protected ones from other organizations.” (Paywalled)
Last summer, Leon tried and failed to trade for Donovan Mitchell. If the intention is still to bring in a megawatt star who will do Thibs’ bidding, and the team just needs to tread water for another month or two, then fine, keep the boy from New Britain. I can’t think of any major hoopers who might be dying to play for King Curmudgeon, but if an All-Star has his heart set on Thibs and that’s the bait to lure him in, then great, let’s go. (Exceptions include Anthony Davis and KAT. No. No. No.)
If the front office thinks this is a deep-playoff-caliber team as currently constructed, then, first: uh, what? And second, they’ve gotta believe that Thibs is failing. With an eighth of the season complete, these Knicks are not a fearsome team.
Team owner James Dolan cannot be pleased. How much longer will he and Leon let the embarrassment continue before making a change? Could this be the end of Thibodeau’s time in New York?
About 40 minutes after the game finished James Dolan’s security was still guarding his suite at MSG.— Stefan Bondy (@SBondyNYDN) November 13, 2022
THE PREREQUISITE HISTORY
Thibodeau’s first credit at Basketball-Reference is Assistant Coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, 1989-90. He’s worked steadily for one basketball team or another almost ever since.
Thibs is famous for his love of the D. He subscribes to the philosophy of “the best offense is a good defense.” Recently he told Zach Braziller of the New York Post, “I’ve had top-five offenses, too. I think if you understand defense, you also understand where the holes in the defense are.”
His defensive acumen (ICE, baby!) was essential to the success of the Boston Celtics in 2007-08 and their victory over the Lakers in the Finals. The good times in Boston made Thibs an attractive head coaching candidate. In 2010, he declined an offer from the New Orleans Hornets and took his talents to Chicago.
His first season as a head coach cemented the legend of Thibs, that he is a demanding tactician who expects total effort from his players and intends to win every game at all costs, no matter how minor the stakes. In 2010-11, his relentless Bulls had the top-ranked defense, finished 62-20, and reached the Eastern Conference Finals. For this, Thibs earned his first Coach-of-the-Year award.
Joakim Noah, center during Thibodeau’s Windy City adventures, summarized it: “Coach is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around. He stays in late. He’s the first one here. He was there for me all summer working me out. I felt like I really improved as a player because of him.”
In Chicago, Tom enjoyed the high life as a successful young coach, the fastest ever to 100 wins. He became “a local celebrity who was soon dining with the mayor and receiving congratulations from the president, was invited to throw out the first pitch before a White Sox/Cubs game.”
Thibs is lauded for his thorough and professional preparation. What he lacks is the flexibility and creativity to abandon a failed plan and attempt new strategies on the fly. He also grinds his players to hamburger, with his starters usually leading the league in minutes per game. He’s been blamed for breaking a young Derrick Rose through overuse. After a grueling season, Rose tore his ACL in the 2011-12 playoffs, missed the next year, and never flew so high again.
After five seasons in Chicago, despite a winning record (255-139), Thibodeau had worn out his welcome. In 2016, he returned to Minnesota to become both head coach and president of basketball operations. He promptly led the Timberwolves to their first playoff appearance in 14 years, but thanks to conflicts with players and ownership, Thibs was dismissed 40 games into the 2018-2019 season. His final record in the Twin Cities: 97-107.
A KISS FROM A ROSE
In March 2020, the Knicks hired former agent Leon Rose as their team president. His first duty was to find a head coach, and he awarded the job to his old friend and former client, Thomas Joseph Thibodeau Jr.
Good choice, initially. Thibs won his second COTY award in his first year coaching the Knicks and deserved the accolade. He guided a ragtag group of players to a 41-31 record and fourth place in the Eastern Conference by sticking with his usual formula of preparation, expectation, and defense. The Knicks made their first playoff appearance in seven years. That’s the Thibodeau magic we wanted!
But Thibs will wear you down. He stubbornly started Elfrid Payton at point guard throughout that first season, despite ample evidence of sucking. Tom’s rigidity was exploited by the Atlanta Hawks, who bounced the Knicks from the first round, 4-1. And the team regressed in 2021-22, due to factors largely in Tom’s control. Yes, Julius Randle was terrible, but Thibs insisted on playing him 35.3 MPG. Yes, Kemba Walker was washed, but Thibs handled the situation poorly. When the season looked lost by January, we fans were outraged by the fact that Thibs refused to give more minutes to the young players, which would have A) allowed them the opportunity to improve, and B) potentially increased their trade value.
After coaching the Knicks for 164 games, Thibs has an 83-81 record. This season, as Joe Flynn wrote for Posting and Toasting, the Knicks are yet again completely, totally, absurdly average. Even with the addition of the talented Jalen Brunson, this is not a championship contender.
In the aforementioned Post article, Braziller wrote, “This season, Thibodeau is changing it up somewhat, emphasizing uptempo basketball, pushing the ball and playing with pace after the Knicks were next-to-last in that category last year and dead last the season before.”
The operative term is “somewhat”. Admittedly, Thibs has done some things differently. He has played the small-ball line-up—but not enough, and mostly because Mitchell Robinson has a sprained knee. Yes, he demoted Evan Fournier, but waited too long and seemed to be the last person to realize a reduction in rank was necessary.
Don’t be fooled by the recent smoke and newfound beard. Thibs is still so committed to rim protection that he will resist sitting his traditional center, even when the other team is raining threes and New York’s perimeter defense is abhorrent. Old habits die hard. And although he did give in and removed Fournier from the starting line-up, he continues to play Randle 33.7 MPG, even on nights when Julius is objectively terrible and super-stud Obi Toppin twitches on the bench, waiting to explode.
It doesn’t have to be this way, Leon. Let associate head coach Johnnie Bryant take over.
Consider the Portland Trail Blazers. Last year, rookie coach Chauncey Billups was given the chance to make mistakes and learn the ropes while the stakes were low and the team tanked. Now that he’s settled into the role, the team is primed to win—and they are, with an 8-3 record.
A bonus to letting Chauncey and the team air it out for a season? The seventh pick in this year’s draft. They used it to select Shaedon Sharpe, who looks pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.
Portland is a unified team, proceeding with a shared vision. Some nights Jusuf Nurkić sits in the fourth quarter, some nights he plays, and he’s not sulking about his minutes. The Knicks are not so unified, and they are unlikely to change unless changes occur.
I’m not breaking news here. Dan Favale of Bleacher Report wrote that it was time to fire Thibs last week. Alex Wolfe discussed it last week in a Locked on Knicks podcast, and with our own Matthew Miranda in the latest episode. As last season plodded along, many of us clanged cowbells in the social media streets and called for Tom’s head. I had the tattoo removed. Sad days.
Now, consider Johnnie Bryant, waiting in the wings. He was a candidate for New York’s top job in 2020 but was hired as associate head coach instead. Bryant had a sterling reputation as an assistant in Utah, is considered a “big brother” by Damian Lillard, and maintains a strong relationship with Donovan Mitchell. One can surmise that the front office expected his presence would attract star players to Madison Square Garden. Personality should never be the primary factor in choosing a coach, but surely there are more players willing to play for the amiable Bryant than the frothing, Lovecraftian madman who currently stalks the sideline.
Some suggest that the front office has kept Thibs because he’s their scapegoat. I imagine that scenario sounds like, “We gave him good pieces, Mr. Dolan. Tommy failed to assemble them correctly.” If so, that’s dumb. A smarter play would be to promote the young coach. Then the front office took action, at least, and aren’t some growing pains to be expected with new blood?
Leon, the time is now. If you’re cautious about commitment, name Johnnie the “interim” skipper, but give him the keys. Each game that the 64-year-old Thibs coaches is a squandered chance to let Bryant practice the day-in, day-out business of being in charge. Letting Johnnie coach allows the front office to see if he is capable of doing the job while the stakes are low. Keeping Thibs is akin to starting the vets on a half-ass team while your promising rookies claw for minutes on the second unit. Quit wasting time, Leon. Play the kids. Let Johnnie coach.
.@IanBegley tells @emacSNY that Tom Thibodeau's seat is "warm":— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) November 14, 2022
"If you have another few of those games on this trip where the Knicks just look terrible, I think there's going to be a big change made, whether it's Thibodeau or something else" https://t.co/9VKFOyvi2Y
➡️ @HONDA pic.twitter.com/j0pgwQHafJ