Get ready to hear Tom Thibodeau roar again on NBA sidelines.
Despite recent reports on Jason Kidd emerges as a precursor for Knicks’ coaching job, New York and Thibodeau are negotiating a five-year deal to make him the next head coach in New York, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. A signed agreement is expected soon for Wojnarowski, ending an coaching search that has lasted several months.
Thibodeau was last the Timberwolves’ head coach and president of basketball operations. Minnesota fired Thibodeau in the mid-season 2018-19 after a tough start, with Jimmy Butler prominently doing his best to burn down every bridge en route to the city.
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The 62-year-old has of course been very successful. He set a record of 394-255 over five seasons with the Bulls and won the Coach of the Year award in 2010-11 after Chicago finished 62-20 and hit the number 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. He also guided the Timberwolves to the postseason in 2017-18, their first playoff berth since the 2003-04 campaign.
His resume is impressive, but the big question here isn’t about Thibodeau’s past achievements. It’s about whether he can lead these Knicks into the future.
In his previous stops, including as a top assistant in the “Big Three” Celtics period, Thibodeau has worked mainly with experienced players. That’s not to ignore the impressive development of Butler or Derrick Rose in Chicago, but Thibodeau has never coached the kind of roster he’ll get in New York.
RJ Barrett (19 years old), Kevin Knox (20) and Mitchell Robinson (21) are just scratching the surface of their potential, and the Knicks could make it to a top five in the NBA Draft this year. Thibodeau’s run with Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins did not inspire much confidence. He must maximize the available talent this time.
Aside from the youth movement, Thibodeau needs to reevaluate his tactics on the field. He routinely had one of the NBA’s best defenses while coaching the Bulls, but failed to clean up the Timberwolves’ performance. In its only two full seasons in Minnesota, the Timberwolves ended 27th and 25th in defensive assessment, according to advanced statistics from NBA.com.
It’s fair to note that he had Towns instead of Kevin Garnett or Joakim Noah on the backline, but Thibodeau would be a defender. His groups in Minnesota did not embrace that identity.
The key for Thibodeau is to consider its staff and adapt to the modern NBA. For example, while Thibodeau traditionally shouts “ICE” regarding his pick-and-roll coverage – meaning the defense forces the ball guide to the side line rather than the center of the floor – he may realize he’s big drop or switch screens is the better approach for his team. Perhaps in that sense, Robinson can become the New York version of Brook Lopez while learning the intricacies of the game.
The same goes for the offensive side of the ball, as Thibodeau teams have typically not embraced the pace and space revolution. His teams never even finished in the top half of the league in 3-point attempts per game. This can change with this team, depending on the grid construction; for now, the Knicks have one of the worst groups of shooters in the NBA.
And then there is the health and conditioning problem. Thibodeau has a reputation for running its players into the ground with intense training and big minutes. (Luol Deng nods out somewhere.) For what it’s worth, Thibodeau seems to have a different perspective after seeing how other teams interact with their players.
“The way everyone deals with load management and where your team is, movement scientists, so it’s different”, Thibodeau told Wojnarowski in May. “And when your team is young and you rebuild, you probably practice more than an older experienced team. In some cases where the team is mixed, there are almost two workouts in one, where your young boys are getting the work they need , and the older vets are in the weight room to gain strength and fitness. “
Clearly, the future of the Knicks isn’t just about how Thibodeau allocates minutes or defensively attacks pick-and-rolls. Knicks President Leon Rose, who has built a relationship with Thibodeau during their time at Creative Artists Agency, is in charge of what will be challenging reconstruction. Thibodeau will put his heart into this job, but it doesn’t matter if New York can’t find better players.
It also doesn’t matter if Knicks owner James Dolan continues to change leadership like most people change socks. However, Thibodeau has a little more control there. If he can just make New York competitive in the East, the front office might be doing something crazy: let the coach keep his job.
But if Thibodeau relies on his old tricks in a new NBA landscape, the Knicks could pay back the remaining years of a long-term deal and start another disappointingly familiar quest.