CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 01: Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls reacts to a call during a game against the los Angeles Wizards at the United Center on March 1, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. The Clippers defeated the Bulls 96-86. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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Over time, Tom Thibodeau needs to help build an identity for the New York Knicks to embody. That process starts now.

Danny Small

When was the last time the New York Knicks possessed a tangible identity? Entering last season, they wanted to become “dogs” who protected Madison Square Garden, but that turned out to be all talk.

There was never any semblance of an identity over the last two seasons. David Fizdale tried and failed to put his imprint on the franchise. Mike Miller was only given a few months to try and pick up the pieces. Before those two, Jeff Hornacek ran into the same issue and the story was no different for his predecessors, Kurt Rambis and Derek Fisher.

The closest thing the Knicks have had to a bonafide identity was Mike Woodson’s playoff Knicks in 2013. They were a hard-nosed team that could get down and dirty on defense while playing fearlessly on offense. They had an edge.

Woodson is back to help the Knicks find themselves again, but he’ll be a lieutenant for Tom Thibodeau this time around. Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls teams epitomized toughness and defense. They’d punch you in the mouth from the opening tip and never stop coming.

Is that the exact type of identity Thibodeau’s Knicks will have? Yes and no. We can expect Thibs to favor a defense-first, hard-nosed mentality, but he plans to tailor the team’s identity around the roster. Trying to make these Knicks an exact replica of the teams he coached in Chicago or Minnesota isn’t his plan.

“I think a big part of [identity] will be who the personnel is and then we’ll play to our strengths and cover up our weaknesses,” Thibodeau explained on a Zoom call after the team’s voluntary workout on Wednesday.

“But the foundation will be the defense, the rebounding, low turnovers, and sharing the ball. Offensively, obviously, you’re trying to get as many easy baskets as you can and you’re also trying to get to the free-throw line and you’re also trying to create as many corner threes as possible.”

In terms of personnel, it’s not clear who might be on the roster for the start of the season in 2021. Thibodeau talked about how the Knicks are in a state of limbo. It’s still technically the 2019-20 season, but the Knicks are prepping 2021. The exact identity of this ball club will have a lot to do with what happens in the offseason.

However, Thibs still knows the general outline of what he wants the Knicks to be—a team that plays tough defense, avoids mistakes, and doesn’t have to work so hard to score points.

Building an identity takes time. It certainly doesn’t happen on the first day of voluntary team workouts. It won’t happen on opening night in 2021. Heck, it might not even happen in year one.

But one thing Thibodeau has preached since he was hired is working hard to improve day in and day out. Small steps every day can lead to big things in the long run.

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