Amid a culture of accountability and effort, Tom Thibodeau reached his 100th win as the New York Knicks head coach after beating the Toronto Raptors 112 - 108 last Friday night. Thibodeau is the first Knicks coach to collect 100 wins since Mike Woodson in 2013, who later served on his staff during Thibs’ first season with the team in 2020-21. That season, Thibodeau won Coach of the Year and finished 41 -31.
Ahead of Thibs, Red Holzman is the all-time leader at 613 wins with the Knicks — followed by Joe Lapchick (326), Jeff Van Gundy (248), Pat Riley (223), Hubie Brown (138), Mike D’Antoni (121) and Woodson (109). With Thibodeau reaching this milestone and restoring stability to a franchise that has been mired in dysfunction, why am I still clamoring for him to be fired? The answer is nuanced.
First, I do not think he will be fired. Thibodeau will be the first Knicks coach in years to finish the length of his contract. Under Leon Rose, the team has become consumed with optics, choosing subtle, under-the-radar moves over big swings so as not to risk clear and present failure. Furthermore, Thibodeau and Rose go back decades as friends, with Rose representing Thibodeau as an agent before becoming his Knicks boss. With the Knicks, Thibodeau has been Rose’s splashiest hire. Severing ties with him would signal publicly that Rose made a mistake. Through this relationship and the Brunson father and son duo (Rick, who serves as an assistant coach under Thibodeau, and Jalen, the team’s lead point guard), nepotism and cronyism run rampant throughout Madison Square Garden. There are simply too many personal relationships tied into Thibodeau’s hire to fire him before his contract ends.
After reaching a milestone that no other Knicks coach has in years, doesn’t it seem like Thibs has earned to keep his job? The answer requires context. The coaches between Mike Woodson and Thibodeau are, perhaps, the worst revolving door of incompetence in the last decade. Derek Fisher, Kurt Rambis, Jeff Hornacek, and David Fizdale have not held a head-coaching job since being fired by the Knicks. This low bar makes Thibodeau look better than he is. He is a solid, above-average coach. No one disputes that he earned the Coach of the Year honor he received in his first year with the team. His strength lies in defensive schemes and cultivating a culture of accountability and teamwork. He has accomplished this, elevating the team to the league’s tenth-best defensive rating this season. In the three seasons since taking over the team, Thibs has racked up winning percentages of 57%, 45%, and the current 55%. Pretty solid.
But consider the lashing that Thibs’s Knicks received from the lower-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the 2021 Playoffs. That series ended in five games, and Nate McMillian grossly outcoached Thibodeau. In his three coaching stops, Thibodeau’s playoff win percentages are as follows: 40% with the Bulls, 20% with the Minnesota Timberwolves (one playoff appearance), and 20% with the Knicks. Thibodeau has not had sustained success in the playoffs. Even worse, he’s been awful in the two first-round ass-kickings with the Wolves and Knicks. Neither team put up a fight in their matchups. He has developed a reputation for being a culture builder and will excel in his first two seasons with a team, as he did in all three of his stops. But the NBA has passed him by in many ways, most notably in how he employs post players defensively and offensively. He is also a poor in-game adjuster, relying too much on what he knows and trusts, which can devolve into arrogance and losses, such as his late-game decision-making against the Dallas Mavericks in December.
All that being said, Thibodeau is the best we’ve had in a looong time. His accomplishments with the team should be celebrated, as they have been hard-earned. Reaching 100 wins isn’t easy to do, especially under James Dolan and during the last decade of incompetence. Thibodeau isn’t going anywhere, even if his strengths have hit their ceiling. He’s too close to Rose to be fired. That is, unless he continues to choke in the playoffs. Collecting 100 regular season wins only matters so much. To Knicks fans, it’s all about the playoffs. And in that regard, with the Knicks, he only has one playoff win compared to the 100 regular season wins he’s notched. Until that playoff number goes up, he will continue to be held accountable by the Knicks fanbase, who are too smart to be fooled by regular-season optics.