Thibodeau, who was an assistant coach at Madison Square Garden from 1996 to 2003, is famed for his hard-nosed approach and prioritising of defensive stability. The 62-year-old now however arguably faces his most challenging task in the NBA to date.
The last seven campaigns for the Knicks have all been losing ones, with their last outing in the postseason coming all the way back in 2013. The highlight reel of calamities over the past two decades detail thirteen sacked coaches, the dismissal of Phil Jackson as club president and of course James Dolan’s disastrous yet ever present tenure.
Is Thibodeau the right candidate to get the Knicks back on their feet? We look back at the past, present and future of the sleeping giants of the Eastern Conference and what the appointment could mean for the franchise.
Thibodeau’s track record
The Connecticut native’s comprehension of the MSG side’s endeavour for success was learned under the leadership of Jeff Van Gundy and Don Chaney as an assistant coach. His first stint with the Orange and Blue included six postseason performances, including one Finals loss against the San Antonio Spurs in 1999.
The reputation as a defensively crazed coach that proceeds him would not be totally unfounded. Thibodeau has championed the ‘protect the rim’ and ‘icing’ the pick and roll philosophy, where the latter forces the ball handler to reject the ‘middle’ defence and be isolated out wide. He won his only NBA Championship as defensive coach with the Boston Celtics in 2008 before moving onto the Chicago Bulls in his first gig as head coach.
In each of his seasons in the Windy City, the ex-Bulls coach took his side to the playoffs, including the Conference Finals in 2011 in an eventual loss to the Miami Heat. Nevertheless, his offensive stats were not to be overlooked; the Bulls finished in the top 10 offensive teams in the league in first season, aided by MVP Derrick Rose, and then 5th in second season. Thibodeau even guided the Minnesota Timberwolves to 4th in the league’s offensive efficiency in 2017/18, of an otherwise somewhat tainted reign at the Target Centre.
He was unable to bridge the success tasted in Chicago further north, with a younger squad unable to sustain the taxing physical coaching style combined with Tibs’ reluctance to adapt to the league’s recent advancement to three point attacking plays. After being relieved of his duties in early 2019, now is the time for Thibodeau to prove himself as a coach not only willing to adapt but also possess the capabilities to rebuild an otherwise fractured franchise.
The Knicks’ recent history
The Manhattan outfit are shockingly the highest valued club in the NBA currently, worth an estimated $4.6 billion. But after a steady twenty-year fall from grace, how does it add up, and who is at fault?
Marquee signings, coaches, and presidents have all been and gone, but the one constant through it all is the owner – James Dolan. The losing culture that has been instilled at the Knicks’ is most evidently underlined by the constant merry-go-round of personnel and the inevitable instability that follows, all sanctioned under the watchful eye of the MSG executive.
The mishandling of a potential coup of former MVP Kevin Durant last year by president Steve Mills and the established hierarchy may be the biggest faux pas of them all. Recruitments like RJ Barrett may yet prove to be the basis of a Thibodeau rebuild, nevertheless the dismissal of the Knicks as ‘not cool’ by Durant will feel like a kick in the teeth for the New York faithful.
The outgoing David Fizdale was a creature of habit at The Garden, often leaving his young prospects on the sidelines in favour of veterans or those in their prime but on short term contracts, halting the progress of the likes of RJ Barrett and Kevin Knox.
The roster and the future
Thibodeau has garnered somewhat of a reputation for working the best of his available crop into the ground. The philosophy of short rotation will be tested once he steps into The Garden, as only two players below the age of thirty have averaged over 30 minutes a game (Julius Randle and RJ Barrett).
Kendrick Perkins, who won the Championship under Thibodeau’s tutelage in 2008, has argued that his 18 month break from the game will serve him well in adapting to progressive changes into the game: “If Thibs can (recognise that he needs a different approach), then he is the right person for the Knicks job.”
Thibodeau boasts an impressive CV in regards to player improvement, including Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Karl-Anthony Towns. The plans seem to be set in place for an awakening in New York. Will owner James Dolan get in the way of progression, or will a rejuvenated coach revitalise a franchise?