Making a name for himself due to defense, will Tom Thibodeau update his scheme, and how does Knicks roster fit in his system?
The New York Knicks have finished bottom 10 in defensive efficiency in each of the past five seasons.
In July, Tom Thibodeau was hired as head coach. Notwithstanding his stint in Minnesota, the 62-year-old is still considered a defensive guru who remains relentlessly devoted to mastering that end of the floor.
He’s a former innovator, too. The “ice” coverage schemes he popularized were revolutionary two decades ago and found undeniable success through the early 2010s.
But a lot has changed in a short period of time.
In five seasons as head coach of the Chicago Bulls (2010–15), he impressively developed and maximized talent. In two-plus seasons running and coaching the Timberwolves (2016–18), he was never able to overcome Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins’ unwillingness to commit to defense (and his own roster-building). But, he didn’t adapt, either.
Thibodeau is a notorious driller and legendary tape-cruncher. Defense will be the number one topic of conversation. So, other than “practicing harder,” what can we specifically expect to see from the Knicks defense under Thibodeau?
In the NBA, taking away the rim is still paramount, and Thibodeau prioritizes that. Historically, the core aim of his scheme has been to use baselines as extra defenders and funnel players to the middle. He asks his players to aggressively flood the strong-side while camping multiple defenders around the paint using a weak side mini-zone. His Bulls were always among the league’s best at limiting shot attempts and opponents’ field goal percentage at the rim. (In Minnesota, they were good at nothing.)
On side pick-and rolls, the defender of the ball handler will jump—or “ice”—the screen and force the ball-handler into the lane, while the screener’s defender will “drop” to encourage a midrange shot and have a rebounding advantage.
It’s not a switch-heavy scheme, and it’s fine against traditional big-small pick-and-roll set. But it’s far more vulnerable against the ubiquitous pick-and-pops and diverse sets of today (e.g. Steph Curry as the screener).
On the other hand, the Knicks played most of last season in Mike Miller’s drop coverage, and gave up about 40.0% eFG in those situations, the sixth-best figure in basketball.
Simultaneously, Thibodeau’s system is predicated on stopping isolations and post-ups, and that aspect of his system renders the entire thing antiquated, à la Phil Jackson’s beloved Triangle Offense. Thibodeau’s approach was constructed during a slower era of hoops—ideal against plodding, bigger lineups rather than sharpshooting, pace-and-space units. His three worst defensive seasons as a head coach, all in Minnesota, were the three fastest since he’s been a head coach, by league-wide pace. In his best years in Chicago (2010–13), the game was about 10 possessions slower per 48 minutes than in 2019 and 2020.
His defenses have always prevented corner threes because, for a long time, the corner three was considered to be the one efficient three. Nowadays, though, players happily let it fly from anywhere, at exponentially growing rates. In 2019–20, teams took 34.1 three-point attempts per game in 2019–20, compared with 22.4 during his final Bulls season—the only one in Thibodeau’s tenure in which the Bulls struggled to defend the three.
When he devised his tactics, two-shooter lineups were the norm. Now, they are practically extinct. Offenses have gotten more versatile and creative in how they space, create threes, use screens, and skip cross-court passes. Parking weak-side defenders near the paint is dangerous.
The good news: the Knicks three-point defense can’t get much worse. In 2019–20, only five teams attempted more threes against the Knicks, and the New York surrendered the third-best field goal percentage on those looks.
Thibodeau carries a reputation of limiting transition buckets, though it’s mostly because he encouraged slow pace and his non-Minnesota teams rebounded well. The Bulls were top five in rebounds per game three times, but were middle of the road in fast-break points allowed. The Knicks gobbled up the third-most boards per game last season, although much of that was thanks to Julius Randle, who could be traded.
There are reasons to be optimistic. Thibodeau has a legit track record of game-planning for a team’s best players, and his work ethic and comprehension of opposing schemes is legendary. He deserves praise for molding multiple young Bulls into All-NBA defenders.
Plus, he has adapted to changing trends before. He is credited as the first coach to truly understand how to take advantage of the removal of the illegal defense rule with his weak-side zone concepts.
Thibodeau has repeatedly insisted he is up to speed and open-minded, and there’s not necessarily a reason to doubt the famous basketball junkie. However, he clearly possesses entrenched ideas about basketball, which manifest via his scheme. To Jackson, the Triangle was not just an offensive strategy; it exemplified his spiritual connection to the game. (And lest we forget: Mike McCarthy admitted to lying about studying analytics when he interviewed for the Dallas Cowboys job.) Connections between coaches and systems can be deep-rooted.
Thibodeau was hired by his former agent, Leon Rose, to develop a winning culture, and he’ll attempt to do that by croakily preaching and teaching D. Ideally, the Knicks’ young roster will collectively and individually improve on that end and develop habits which will rub off in other areas of the game. As a general caveat, though, a huge part of this whole thing depends on whether the Knicks players mesh with Thibodeau’s personality and embrace his message or not—and he may need to modernize those elements of his coaching as much as his scheme.
Having said that, let’s examine how a few notable Knicks—including the two “building blocks” and offseason additions—and speculate as to how their skills might or might not gel under Thibodeau (assuming he doesn’t adjust all that much.)
R.J. Barrett has a long way to go, but his I.Q. and size should enable him to become an above-average defender. The Knicks were worse on defense with him on the court in 2019–20, but it’s hard to parse exactly how much Barrett is to blame for that. He was one of the league’s worst on/off defensive players last season, per Cleaning the Glass, but individual stats are faulty.
Barrett was best when guarding pick-and-roll ball-handlers and players coming off screens, rather than isolations, per The Strickland. A nice part of his game (like Elfrid Payton’s) is an instinctual ability to disrupt passing lanes. He’s a bit slow on his feet, so he can over-rely on his quick hands and be susceptible to drive-bys. Thibodeau can improve this shortcoming.
Even Thibodeau’s best defenses were not prolific turnover generators. His Chicago teams were consistently in the bottom-half in turnovers created. Instead, he promotes a disciplined commitment to positioning. Hopefully, Thibs can find a balance that allows Barrett, Payton, and others to hunt steals within the overall structure.
Communication is not a strength of Barrett’s, and it’s key in Thibodeau’s system. The concepts aren’t that complicated, but the house of cards can collapse if one player misses a cue, as was often the case in Minnesota.
Thibodeau deserves plaudits for developing Jimmy Butler, to whom Barrett should aspire: a cagey, physical wing with quick hands who can thrive within the flow of the game. Whether Thibodeau can have similar success with Barrett, unlike Andrew Wiggins, will have a major impact on the franchise’s future.
Frank Ntilikina is one of the best on-ball defenders in basketball, so he’ll be fine. Reggie Bullock and, to a lesser degree, Alec Burks, are dependable on-ball wing defenders, too.
Joakim Noah and Kevin Garnett won Defensive Player of Year awards under Thibodeau, but he’s never had a shot blocker like Mitchell Robinson, who had the second-highest block percentage in the NBA (8%) in his second season.
Thibodeau shouldn’t keep Robinson glued to the paint. The seven-footer is absurdly good at disrupting three-point attempts, which should help compensate for open weak-side looks the scheme may surrender. Robinson had plenty of spectacular blocks despite lower rejection rates overall in Miller’s drop system, but he still chased swats too aggressively. In general, he looked more comfortable in the drop scheme than in David Fizdale’s chaotic, switch-heavy system, which bodes well going forward.
Crucially, Robinson showed encouraging year-to-year improvement in his foul discipline—another staple of Thibodeau’s defenses.
His post defense was an issue—challengers shot 44.1% on Robinson in the post last season, better than Davis Bertans—though it would be a much bigger problem in 2003.
Most of what I just said about Robinson applies to Nerlens Noel. At 6’10″, the 26-year-old has turned into one of the most elite shot-contesters in the NBA, averaging 2.9 swats per 36 minutes this past season, sixth-best in the league. He struggles with switches, too, but Thibodeau has to be thrilled to have Noel to sub in for Robinson.
We’ll see how long Randle sticks around, but he seems like the type of physical, interior-based player who could have been maximized by a Thibodeau scheme in a previous era. However, the game is simply too fast and open for him now. He isn’t a rim protector, though he can drop better than he can switch on pick-and-rolls. He’ll compete hard, at least, which Thibodeau will appreciate.
As for first-round pick Obi Toppin, in addition to his age, apprehensions about his defense was the main reason why the AP Player of the Year was still available at no. 8 in the draft.
Like Barrett, the Bushwick native is a fascinating developmental project for Thibodeau. At 6’9″ with his athleticism, he can theoretically guard multiple positions and become an exciting weak-side rim protector. In the past, Thibodeau’s schemes have enabled subpar defensive players to excel if they can stay in their lane (see: Boozer, Carlos).
Toppin is yet to show a mastery of team concepts. At Dayton, he was often late on rotations and relied too much on his athleticism. Like Robinson, he bites on fakes and overly contests possible jumpers, surrendering drives. Draft experts will tell you his footwork and is a mess and his effort was suspect.
Thibodeau has a history of overlooking rookies, but, at 22, Toppin is a “win-now” pick that should see considerable action. He clearly doesn’t have a natural feel for that end of the floor, but if Thibodeau can turn him into a useful team defender, it would mark a major validation for the coach’s reputation as one of the sport’s defensive masterminds.
The Knicks’ other first-round pick, Immanuel Quickley, is undersized (6’3″), but he has more promise than you might think as a team defender, in part because of his communication skills and his energy.
“Just being in the right position at all times—and he talks a lot,” his Kentucky teammate, Ashton Hagans told The Athletic. “He’s one of the main ones talking on the court. If there’s a breakdown, he’s there. He’s watching film, always moving his feet, always bouncing.”
Teammate Nate Sestina echoed those sentiments. “He’s always in rotation. Whether it’s stepping up to help somebody or he’s going to switch—and always talks…Something he does really well is, in a pick-and-pop situation where a 4-man might slide out and (Quickley’s) guy is in the corner, he’s always there to stunt to take away that 3, and then he’s able get back and guard his guy.”
Quickley was the only Kentucky player to earn an “excellent” Defensive Rating last season, Per Synergy. According to Sean Vinsel of HoopsInsights, when Quickley was on the floor (excluding garbage time), the Wildcats defense improved in points per possession allowed, three-point percentage allowed, and opponent turnover rate. He may not be the same type of difference-maker in the pros, but he should be able to execute Thibodeau’s scheme and his loud-mouth will come in handy.
Finally, Austin Rivers may be the best bargain of the Knicks free agency “haul.” Above all else, the 28-year-old is competitive and aspires to be one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Unlike some of the Knicks’ aforementioned players, Rivers is better as a one-on-one defender than he is in team concepts, due to his lateral quickness, 6’4″ frame, and mindset.
“Avery Bradley, Patrick Beverley, Paul George, Victor Oladipo—I put myself in that category in terms of defense,” Rivers told Kelly Iko of The Athletic. “When it comes to smaller guards, I think I can guard them better than anyone in the league…You have to be a confident defender or else you’re gonna get eaten…My mindset is to be an elite defender…my biggest thing personally is locking in and being the best defender.”
In the end, Rivers might be the most Thibsiest player on the Knicks. If the rest of the team commits to defense with the same ambition, Thibodeau can excel with this group. It’s a two-way street, though, and perhaps the biggest tactical question facing the team will be how much Thibodeau truly adapts to the skill set of the roster and the game’s modern developments—neither of which happened in Minnesota.