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Knicks 2022-23 review: Tom Thibodeau

The most divisive Knicks coach in years takes the team to the second round

New York Knicks v Miami Heat - Game Three Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

To the outside world, meaning those NBA fans who watch the game, including teams outside of their own, the Knicks look legitimate. The team is finally out of the headlines for institutional ineptitude, terrible trades, and whiffed draft picks. Instead, the Knicks have reached the playoffs for the second time in three seasons under head coach Tom Thibodeau. But when you dive into the Knicks fan community, there is a schism caused by Thibodeau, devoid of nuance, middle ground, and patience.

Early in the season, I was one of the loudest voices advocating for Thibodeau to be fired. I was live and direct in Dallas when the Mavericks dismantled and destroyed not only the Knicks but their soul on December 27th, 2022. I had been talking shit the entire game to bum-ass Mav fans. I ripped them apart for losing Jalen Brunson. I chided them for the Kristaps Porzingus trade. I ragged them for hiring a glorified shoe salesman in Nico Harrison as their general manager. I laughed at how they lost Rick Carlise and replaced him with Jason Kidd.

And then, in less than a minute, it all came crashing down. The Knicks lost the lead and the game. I walked out of the arena under a showing of boos and jeers. I crossed the street and silently stood in the W Hotel with my pops. Finally, after 20 minutes of dejectedly staring into the abyss, I walked outside, looking for a fight. I cussed at pasty bums walking past me in Luka Doncic jerseys, but no one took the bait. They were too happy, too filled with joy to be bothered.

That game would be a turning point for both teams. The Mavericks' season would end in turmoil after a Kyrie Irving trade at the deadline. They would miss not only the playoffs but the play-in tournament. The Knicks would drag themselves out from under .500 and take the 5th seed. While the Mavs watched from home, the Knicks beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games before losing to the Finals-bound Miami Heat in six games.

By all accounts, it was a successful season. Few but me picked the Knicks to win close to 50 games and win in the first round. But to many Knicks fans, the almighty fifth seed doesn't erase the fact that Thibodeau needs to go. I went from one of the loudest voices to fire Thibs to advocating for him to play out his contract. Once his coaching contract ends in two years, I don’t think he should be extended. Leon Rose hired Johnnie Bryant as the lead assistant for a reason. He is clearly being trained to take over once Thibodeau’s contract ends.

So what changed my mind? First, there’s the obvious, once Thibodeau shortened the rotation to nine players, permanently benched Evan Fournier and Cam Reddish, and started Quentin Grimes, things clicked. The Knicks thrived off offensive rebounding and second-chance points. They also had two of the best regular-season isolation players in Julius Randle and Brunson. But their offense was fifth worst in pace, dead last in assist %, and fourth most frequent in isolation sets. Their fourth-best offensive rating was deceiving, as it was primarily based on their offensive rating and second-chance points.

When the fifth-placed Knicks beat the fourth-placed Cavaliers, it was only the second time he beat a higher-seeded team in Thibodeau’s post-season career. He used his big-man rotation to pound the Cavs on the glass, and the Knicks just appeared to want it more. Thibodeau could not have been eliminated in the first round again after doing so in 2020. There was no room in Knicks' fandom for another first-round bouncing. That he did it in five games was thrilling. But he couldn't combat Eric Spoelstra’s zone defense in the second round and failed to bend from his rotation game plan, even when it stopped working.

Furthermore, nothing pisses off Knicks fans, including myself, in how he has mishandled third-year Obi Toppin. Toppin’s regular season MPG dropped to 15.7 this season. That’s an embarrassment. One of Thibs worst traits is overplaying his favorite players. This has left Toppin underdeveloped and underutilized. Either he or Randle must be moved this summer. The situation is no longer tenable.

While he has had a symbiotic relationship with Randle, he did bench him in Game Four, which seemed impossible before the playoffs started. It’s fair to critique Thibodeau’s rigidity. He is what he is, a great regular season coach, excellent at creating culture and habits for teams trying to escape NBA hell. But he has a ceiling. And with the Knicks' lack of superstar play outside of Brunson and the roster’s lack of shooting and spacing, it's hard to imagine an Eastern Conference Finals run for this bunch as currently constructed and coached. But he has helped to develop the Knicks' young core year after year. Two more seasons under Thibodeau would do wonders for continuity, something both teams in the Finals were built on.

But doing so will mean the front office must improve the roster and construct it around Thiboduea’s deficiencies. They should also replace the voices lost when Kenny Payne and Mike Woodson took head coaching jobs in the NCAA. Otherwise, Thibodeau only has Bryant and his cronies on the bench to advise and enable him. More than anything, Randle and Thibodeau should be separated. Trading Randle for pieces that fit building around Brunson would bring the best out of everyone, Thibodeau included. This was not only Thibodeau's best coaching season with the Knicks, it was one of his best coaching seasons ever. That can be true while admitting he lacks offensive creativity and fluidity in changing on the fly. While it can be debated whether Thibodeau should stay or go, most Knicks fans would agree the prospect of keeping him improves if his coaching staff is reinforced and the roster is reshaped around Brunson.