In his twelfth season as an NBA head coach and fourth with the New York Knicks. Tom Thibodeau is embroiled in a trifecta of player-coach conflicts within his roster. Current Knicks players Josh Hart, Quentin Grimes, and Evan Fournier have all publicly expressed their dissatisfaction with their roles in Thibodeau’s offensive strategies, raising concerns about potential rifts within the team.
Following an embarrassing 143-122 defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks, Grimes, in particular, aired his grievances, shedding light on his discontent with Thibodeau’s system, coming just seven days after Hart’s comments which could now lead to speculation that Thibodeau may be losing the respect of his locker room one player at a time.
Before delving further, it is important to acknowledge Thibodeau’s commendable achievements within the Knicks organization, navigating challenges where others have faltered.
This is not a critique of Thibodeau but rather a speculative exploration into a recurring pattern that has unfolded in his coaching career, sparking concerns about the dynamic between players and their coach.
Following the 2014 season, during Thibodeau’s tenure as the Chicago Bulls head coach, then-Bulls guard Jimmy Butler, expressed similar concerns over how he was being utilized by Thibodeau. In 2015 reports surfaced over Bulls management’s displeasure with how Thibodeau was utilizing their teams’ players. Neither side was ever able to resolve their matters, and shortly thereafter, the Bulls gave him the book in one of the most unprofessional manners in which an organization could publicly humiliate a former coach.
Both Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and GM Gar Foreman took the opportunity to blame Thibodeau publicly and aggressively for a breakdown in communication with the front office.
During Thibodeau’s next stint with the Minnesota Timberwolves, his very public feud with Minnesota’s franchise player Karl-Anthony Towns led to Thibodeau's dismissal in 2019. Towns was once quoted saying he believed that the way Thibodeau developed young players was “disrespectful and a slap in the face to their development.”
In the middle of the 2021-22 season, the Knicks acquired Cam Reddish, a move that excited Knicks fans alike. However, it became obvious very early on that Thibodeau had zero intention of even giving him a fair shot. Reddish suited up in just 35 total games for the Knicks, before getting dealt to the Blazers during the 2022-23 season.
Shortly after the trade, Reddish opened up about his feelings about playing for Thibodeau. “It was tough but at the same time, it ain’t even about basketball,” Reddish told reporters. “It had nothing to do with basketball. It was all the politics, all the favoritism. S–t like that. That’s why I wasn’t too worried about it.”
Justified, or unjustified, similar sentiments have been expressed by current and former players of Thibodeau including Kemba Walker, Derrick Rose, and Evan Fournier of late.
Last week, after a Knicks practice last week, a frustrated Josh Hart took to the media to express his dismay over his role within Thibodeau’s offense. Hart stated, “Just trying to get in a rhythm. I think that’s the biggest thing, I’m a rhythm player. I’m not someone that’s just a catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter that really just only does that. That’s not really what I do. I’m more someone who can get in the lane and find guys and stuff like that, and I’m capable of making shots. When you don’t have a rhythm like that or you don’t feel included, it’s just sometimes that’s tough not touching it and having to catch and shoot. So, it’s definitely something I’m working on and hopefully [I will] get in a better rhythm.”
Thibodeau’s response to Hart’s comments was a bit dismissive, and not even factual. “His usage is up. He’s handling the ball more. The way he’s being used is not any different than last year,” Thibodeau said. “The most important thing is to be mentally tough, to work through things. Put what’s best for the team ahead of any individual stuff. It’s all about the team and sacrificing for the team.”
Hart was right though. His usage rate is slightly down when compared to last season.
Now just one week since Hart’s comments, Quentin Grimes is the latest one of Thibodeau's comrades to open his frustrations to the media regarding his role within Thibodeau’s system. Following the Knicks 146-122 blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday, Grimes unleashed his frustrations to reporters: “It’s just hard when you go the whole quarter without touching the ball, the whole second quarter without touching the ball, and then you get one shot and you gotta make it, so it’s tough going out there and just standing in the corner the whole game. Then you gotta make the shot when you shoot the ball one or two times per game. It is what it is.”
Against the Bucks, Grimes took just one shot, which was his 7th consecutive game with four or fewer points.
As the locker room unrest becomes more apparent, questions arise about Thibodeau’s leadership style. While star players like Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle remain loyal, concerns emerge about non-star players feeling marginalized due to perceived favoritism. Two guys are not fifteen.
The Knicks 12-8 record is good enough for 5th in the Eastern Conference standings right now, but there is a lot to be said in what has become obvious to how Thibodeau is using his bench. Why haven’t we seen more of Jericho Sims as the backup four instead of an out-of-place Josh Hart?
How are there now three disgruntled players over nearly identical matters that both Kemba Walker and Derrick Rose also expressed frustrations over while members of Thibodeau’s Knicks—nearly identical complaints since nearly a decade ago while Thibs was the head coach of a different organization?
The publicized saga involving Evan Fournier adds to the narrative, with the Frenchman expressing dismay over his role and a lack of communication with Thibodeau. In speaking with L’Equipe last summer, Fournier opened up by saying “When he took me out of the five, he just told me he was going to try something else, then at the first match of a road trip, he announced to me that I was leaving the rotation, and ciao.” When asked about his relationship with Thibodeau, Fournier’s response was “I have nothing to say because I have none.”
At the beginning of this season, Thibodeau gave a response to Fournier’s quotes during a press conference, stating “I have great respect for him. I didn’t go into the season thinking we were going to do the things that we ended up doing. We did it because we weren’t having success one way, so we adjusted. And then the next group that went in, it’s hard to argue with a 37-22 [record] and a plus-five net rating. It is what it is. Your job is to stay ready, go out there and do it, and be a part of the team.”
Fournier wasn’t done, as he followed Thibodeau’s remarks back up with remarks of his own. “To be honest—I might be dreaming—but to me, I can help the team. I’m a good player. I can f***** play,” Fournier said. “I can bring stuff that this team doesn’t have, too. I have hope to play.”
It’s obvious Thibodeau will not be bullied and will not let a player change his game plan. He coached the team to the second round last year and has the Knicks looking like a playoff team again this year. Every team has its own share of issues which would remain private in a perfect world.
Once those are made public, however, there is no turning back. Where do both sides go from here? It’s a slippery slope for players and management (i.e. James Harden) and at the end of the day, those 15 players need to be a cohesive one.