A former assistant coach with the New York Knicks, Tom Thibodeau is in the mix for the head coach position, but is he the right man for the job?
Tom Thibodeau possesses one of the most distinct personalities to patrol the sidelines of an NBA game. Thib’s can be heard from the rafters, screaming out plays with his hoarse voice as he sweats profusely through his suit. But it’s this type of maniacal passion that excites the old-school New York Knicks fan looking to return to glory days of the 1990s.
Thibodeau, a client of the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and formerly repped by current president of basketball operations Leon Rose is rumored to have strong consideration for the head coaching position.
Via Jonathan Macri of SI.com, “One person with knowledge of their thinking put the odds at 90 percent that Thibs will get the job, with [interim head coach Mike Miller] staying on in some capacity.”
Thibodeau, of course, is best remembered for his time with the Chicago Bulls where he won at least 50 games during three separate seasons and made the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2010-2011 season.
However, more recently, Thib’s stint as both head coach and team president for the Minnesota Timberwolves revealed some of his warts. Fired after almost two and a half seasons at the helm, questions remain regarding Thibodeau’s rotations, heavy minutes for his starters, and antiquated offensive philosophy.
Still, Thibodeau’s track record alone would make him the most successful head coach to take the job since Mike D’Antoni. Let’s look at the pros and cons of selecting Thibodeau as the next head coach for the Knicks.
Thibodeau boasts an overall coaching record of 255-139. There may be some that don’t appreciate Thib’s style but the man knows how to win. Consider the fact that during his five seasons with the Bulls, Derrick Rose missed 213 games and the Bulls made the playoffs each year Thibs was in charge.
Nets fans will surely remember when the Bulls won a game seven on their home court during the first round of the 2013 playoffs. A season, in which Rose missed the entire year with a knee injury.
A major reason for Thibodeau’s success has been his emphasis on the defensive side of the ball. The architect of those strong defensive teams for the Boston Celtics, Thib’s teams in Chicago were amongst the top 10 in defensive rating, four out of the five years he was head coach.
The video above shows examples of Thibodeau principles which include limiting opposing ballhandler’s drives to the middle of the court and icing pick and rolls towards the sidelines. These philosophies, along with Thib’s preference for overloading the strong side, kept the Bulls in games even when their top talent was not on the floor.
But of course, personnel matters, and none of these coverages work without talent, basketball IQ, and player development. Players like Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler are examples of players who gradually improved each year under Thibodeau’s tutelage.
Noah was a two-time All-Star and both Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-NBA during the 2014 season. Butler improved his points, rebounds, and assists per game every season under Thibs, eventually leading to his first All-Star selection during the 2014-2015 season.
Even after Thibodeau was fired from the Bulls, credit the man for visiting other teams/coaches in an attempt to gain information to improve his craft. As Scott Cacciola writes for the New York Times, Thibs traveled, met with other coaches, observed their practices and came away with an appreciation for analytics and delegating more responsibility to his assistants.
“In Houston, McHale also gave his assistants more authority. McHale sensed that Thibodeau was surprised by their level of involvement when he watched the Rockets practice. McHale explained that he got tired of hearing himself talk, so he could only imagine how his players felt. He made certain that his assistants were delivering the same message.”
Cacciola continues to write that that Thibodeau started an analytics department in Minnesota, and acknowledged that what used to be a small contingent of staff had expanded to “40 to 50” people. These small but important adjustments provide some evidence that Thibodeau may not be the stubborn old-school coach that everyone believes he is.
Putting aside Thib’s impressive resume, there are reasons to be concerned. Michael Rand of the StarTribune puts it best, “The criticism of Thibodeau in Chicago stemmed less from his results and more from his methods. Bulls players logged heavy minutes, and Thibodeau eventually wore out his welcome.”
The howling perfectionist is perceived as a massive control-freak that may struggle to find balance in today’s NBA where a player’s coach seems to be preferred.
Thibodeau screaming out plays from the sideline has been a hallmark of a very deliberate and scripted offense that has been often criticized for its heavy reliance on isolation plays, little passing, and not enough input from the players.
On the surface, there are some truths to these faults, but not all of them. Per Basketball-Reference, Thibodeau’s Bulls actually ranked within the top ten in the NBA in total assists during each season except for the 2014-2015 season (14th).
However, despite Thib’s desire to create a team that was more analytically sound in Minnesota, his Timberwolves ranked dead last in both three-pointers attempted and made during the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 seasons. The T-Wolves were also consistently ranked within the bottom of pace as well.
Furthermore, Thibodeau’s 2017 Wolves squad featured a large amount of mid-range shooting. Players like Butler, Jamal Crawford, Jeff Teague, and Andrew Wiggins all shot at least 25% or more of their shots from the mid-range. And while mid-range shots are not necessarily the devil, the lack of variability in shot selection amongst players that receive heavy rotation minutes is a concern.
And of course, Thib’s history of playing his starters big minutes cannot be ignored. As Steve Aschburner for NBA.com wrote, this trend, especially in Chicago, had very real or at least perceived consequences for the players, later in their careers.
Luol Deng averaged over 38 minutes per game during his first three seasons under Thibs, and shortly after began to experience a myriad of injuries that derailed his career. Noah missed 53 games during his last season with the Bulls and the injury bug followed him to New York as he only played 52 of a possible 120 games with the Knicks.
With the Timberwolves, during the 2017-2018 season, the starting lineup which featured, Teague, Wiggins, Butler, Taj Gibson, and Karl Anthony-Towns were all ranked within the top 36 for minutes played per game.
As Aschburner points out, no team since the 1986-1987 Boston Celtics had a starting five where all players were ranked within the top 40 in minutes per game. Towns, who was an iron man during the first four seasons of his career, has missed 27 games this season due to injuries to his knee and wrist.
In the end, Thibodeau may not be the right coach for a young Knicks team light years away from winning any time soon. That said, people need to put some respect on his name. The Knicks could and have done a lot worse than select a coach with a winning record who demands a lot of his players.
Thibodeau’s best fit most likely lies with a veteran team that is ready to win now. And while I don’t completely buy into the “Thibs can’t adapt with the times” narrative, there’s enough concerning trends regarding offensive shot selection, not giving players enough freedom, and rotations over his career to give fans pause.
My bet is that Thibs will be back on sidelines, just not with the Knicks.