New coach Tom Thibodeau can’t fix the New York Knicks overnight, but can easily achieve certain important goals in his first season.
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) July 30, 2020
As the Knicks’ 14th head coach in 20 years, Thibodeau has his work cut out for him. He takes over a Knicks team that, entering the 2019-20 season, averaged just over 25 wins over the last five years. Thibodeau is a former Knicks assistant and was named NBA Coach of the Year while with the Chicago Bulls, so this is indeed a significant hire.
And we all know that regardless of record, Tom Thibodeau gets results. He turned the Bulls into a legitimate title contender and led the Minnesota Timberwolves to their first playoff berth in 14 years before falling out with his players.
But the New York Knicks are a horse of a different color. They have a brand new front office headed by former agent Leon Rose. Rose’s longtime associate, William “Worldwide” Wesley, has been hired as a vice president to help rebuild the organization’s reputation.
And where does Thibodeau fit into all of this? Well, he has to get the most out of a roster not ideally built for today’s NBA. Sure, Thibodeau will improve the Knicks, but it’s going to be a process. New York’s place in the standings won’t change overnight.
However, if Tom Thibodeau can focus on these specific goals in his first season, the future will finally look bright under Madison Square Garden’s lights.
Change the culture, up the wins
This almost goes without saying. Before the Knicks can even think about becoming a playoff contender again, they have to start winning games. This doesn’t necessarily mean immediately going from lottery team to playoff contender, but rather building a team the front office knows can keep up today.
Look at it this way. The Knicks had 21 wins before the NBA shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. That’s more than the 17 they managed last season, but still a problem. This is because regardless of how many or few wins New York had in recent years, the team never had a proper identity.
Under Tom Thibodeau, an identity is almost automatic. The Knicks are going to be a team that plays tough defense, but also score enough consistently to win games. Even without making the playoffs, moving in this direction is an important step.
Up the defense
Speaking of defense, it is Thibodeau’s bread and butter. Remember, he won a ring with the Boston Celtics in 2008 while an assistant under defensive guru Doc Rivers. That year, the Celtics ranked second in the NBA with 90.3 points allowed per game.
The trend continued when Thibodeau coached the Bulls. Chicago ranked second in points allowed in his first season, up from 13th the previous year. During his tenure in the Windy City, the Bulls were never outside the top 10 in terms of defense.
The Knicks, on the other hand, have had issues defending for a while. It’s not so much in terms of points allowed, as New York ranked 10th in the category in 2015-16. Rather the Knicks have really had an issue defending the three-ball.
For context, the Knicks ranked 29th in opponent’s three-point percentage (3P%) before the shutdown. They were a top 10 team in three-point defense twice in the last five years, but that was still before the NBA fully became a shooting and scoring league.
Under Tom Thibodeau, the Knicks’ defense should improve across the board. His Bulls teams were consistently in the top 10 for three-point defense, sometimes even the top five. If he can get the team to buy into his system quickly, the defensive improvements may be almost instant.
Develop a franchise point guard
In Chicago, Thibodeau turned Derrick Rose from a talented young point guard into an MVP. Assuming the Knicks draft their own point guard of the future in October, Thibodeau will face a similar task.
This could wind up being a huge difference-maker in New York. The Knicks ranked 27th in team three-point shooting this season and never ranked higher than 15th in the last five years. If the team is going to contend for a championship in the future, players who can shoot from long range are critical.
This is where there are some concerns with Thibodeau. His Bulls teams didn’t shoot the three consistently in his five-year tenure, and he is very much a defense-oriented coach. He also didn’t even last three full years with the Minnesota Timberwolves, so why should fans expect him to work well with such a young Knicks team?
Thankfully, the Knicks were prepared for this. One of Thibodeau’s assistants will be Mike Woodson, the last Knicks head coach to win a playoff series. Moreover, in that same 2012-13 season, the Knicks ranked fifth in three-point shooting.
By blending coaching philosophies, Woodson and Thibodeau set the Knicks up for success. And if this happens after the Knicks draft a dynamic point guard, Tom Thibodeau could soon again be Coach of the Year in the future.
Develop RJ Barrett
Important as it is for the Knicks and Tom Thibodeau to develop a franchise point guard, it is equally so that they further develop RJ Barrett. New York selected the former Blue Devil with the No. 3 pick in last year’s draft, and he averaged 14.3 points on 40.2% shooting, including 32% from three. He deserves another season to take a step forward.
And make no mistake, Knicks fans, it is vitally important that Thibodeau develop a strong relationship with Barrett. Remember, this is the same man who turned Jimmy Butler into a star while Rose dealt with chronic knee problems. Thibodeau knows how to develop athletic wings.
Paired with a strong point guard, Barrett’s possibilities are endless. But it all starts with Tom Thibodeau. He is Commissioner Gordon, with Barrett and a new point man a potential Batman and Robin.
If he can get the two producing consistently and the team’s record reflects it, Thibodeau’s Knicks tenure could potentially be one for the ages.