Tom Thibodeau pushed the Knicks as far as they could go after an incredible turnaround between seasons. Despite the stubbornness, the Knicks need Thibs, and the Coach of the Year could impact the shape of the roster going forward.
My prediction that Tom Thibodeau would win 2020–21 NBA Coach of the Year was about more than the New York Knicks’ surprising success in the standings and the individual development of players. Above all else, Thibodeau—Round 1 shortcomings aside—made the Knicks an ideal reflection of his best qualities: a quintessential Thibs Team.
“The big thing is, what goes into winning is…being serious-minded, tough, hardworking, smart, together—those are the things that you want to stand for,” Thibodeau told ESPN. “You take care of all the little things, and the results will take care of themselves.”
Thibodeau endeared himself to New Yorkers with that identity—which both embodies the city and resembles the cherished teams of the 1990s (the latter years of which featured Thibodeau as an assistant coach).
Thibodeau’s style isn’t for every handsomely compensated professional basketball player. However, as long as you’re buying what Thibs is selling and put some ego aside, he’ll get the most out of you, both in terms of productivity and workload.
Of course, you don’t need Dax Shepard to tell you that a symptom of Thibodeau’s rigid daily devotion to his duties, and basketball, is stubbornness. Stubbornness about adherence to the gig, to time committed to the preparation, over rotations, minutes, style, and players.
Here’s well I’ll say: I’m going to defend Tom Thibodeau. In my opinion, he was relatively flexible in his first season in New York—arguably his best coaching job since his debut campaign with the Chicago Bulls (2011–12), for which he won his first Coach of the Year award.
The Knicks were one of the best teams around the three-point line this season, on both ends. They were third the NBA in three-point percentage and surrendered the lowest three-point percentage. They finished 27th in attempts, but the 2019–20 Knicks were 27th in three-point percentage. Nearly every player on the roster set career-best marks from downtown. Yes, the metrics say it’s lucky, and their opponents missed open looks all year. But it’s still points for Thibs. Neither Rome, nor championship NBA teams, were built in a day.
In terms of minutes—he may have run R.J. Barrett and especially Julius Randle into the ground, especially relative to the record amount that stars rested this season. Did Thibodeau conform to the once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, involving sleep-deprived COVID-19 testing and a historically condensed schedule? LOL, no, he did not.
As for the playoffs, let’s be honest: the Knicks simply weren’t as talented as the Atlanta Hawks, and there was no chess move on the board Thibodeau could have made to change the outcome.
His toughest critics would frame his lack of button-pushing versus Atlanta as mid-series stubbornness. Maybe that’s fair. He basically made one move—starting Derrick Rose in Game 3, which was widely called upon by fans then roundly criticized after it backfired and depleted the second unit.
Rose was gassed by the end, but he was also their best offensive option. We’re playing to win here.
Would starting Alec Burks have really changed the series?
Plus, he played the young guys! (Well, not Kevin Knox). Immanuel Quickley was rightfully trusted in crunch-time from early on. Obi Toppin was unplayable all season until he suddenly wasn’t in the playoffs. He was rewarded with his only stretch of five straight games with double-digit minutes outside of February. Would a few more minutes have gotten the Knicks to the second round?
I suppose Thibodeau could have used Frank Ntilikina more, but is that truly the answer on Trae Young?
I’ve seen both takes on Randle, who led the league in total minutes played (Barrett was second): Did Thibodeau ride him too hard, up to and including leaving him on the floor during the latter parts of Game 4? Or, should Thibodeau have had a shorter leash throughout the series when he could use the rest or was clearly lost (if you trained your eyes on him, you would notice a guy painfully overthinking—unclear where to stand, how to box out, what play was called, where to rotate. It was dark.)
Meh. That’s who got you there. The Knicks have no business load-managing (ahem, Yankees). They’re young, they’re exciting, they tapped into a moment. Rack up wins, clear eyes, full hearts, buy goodwill, and embrace it all. In that sense, Thibodeau was the perfect—and perfectly stubborn—coach for this team, right now.
The Knicks went up with Julius Randle, they’re going down with him. Can’t knock the hustle.
“It’s all about just adjusting,” Rose said about Randle. “I told him I still do believe in him. I’m gonna ride with him until the end, just like everybody on the team. He got us here. It’s all about making the adjustments during the game and just learning from all of your experiences. Now, the next time when he’s back in the postseason, he has a foundation to work from.”
Thibodeau was already playing with house money, and he had already maxed out this group. I won’t pin this series on him, even if his effectiveness in the playoffs is generally a fair thing to speculate about as the rest of the league elevates their focus and effort to Thibs levels.
“You learn from each experience,” Thibodeau said. “Atlanta, they added some good pieces to complement Trae, and that helped him. Every year you analyze the things you did well, the things you didn’t do as well as you would like, you look at how you would match up with the teams in your—you start with your division, then you look at the conference, then you look at the league. Then you see where you may have opportunities.”
Thibodeau may not be the right coach for the Knicks in three years. But, in one year, he elevated the franchise into respectability faster than optimists could have imagined. As long as he’s croaking on the sideline, he and the front office will, and should, fill the roster with dudes who embrace his mindset and approach.
Leon Rose, intelligently, didn’t splurge on a star last offseason or at the trade deadline. Instead, he populated the roster with affordable, quintessential Thibs investors.
This summer, the Knicks are facing more individual personnel decisions than perhaps any organization in the NBA. The team is a year ahead of schedule and looking to jump into contention. They have a cabinet full of draft picks, a rather large market, a slew of young players and useful veterans, and, most importantly, $55 million in cap space.
We know Rose values Thibodeau’s opinion on major roster decisions. So far, that’s been prudent. Quickley, a scrappy workhorse, was a last-minute Thibodeau choice on draft night, and he’s going to make All-Rookie First Team. Rose, Gibson, Burks, and Nerlens Noel have been shrewd additions.
As we get settled into the offseason, let’s go through the players on the Knicks roster who the Knicks have to make decisions about, and how their fit under Thibodeau may or may not affect that call.
The former MVP—and 2020–21 first-place vote-getter!—has achieved the highest highs of his career playing for Thibs, so you don’t have to worry about him getting cramped by his demanding style. Furthermore, Rose has become a valuable locker-room veteran and a key mentor for Quickley and others since being acquired in February.
Rose is finishing up a two-year, $15 million deal. If he wants to stick around and play for Thibs as an elite Sixth Man, a three-year, $30-35 million deal seems utterly reasonable. We know he’s a fit.
“That’s not up to me,” Derrick Rose said. “That’s up to the front office. They got big plans. Who knows if I may be back.”
If he’s looking for one more contract as a starting point guard, the Knicks may have to let the 32-year-old walk.
TAJ WITH THE DEFENSE, RJ COAST TO COAST AND THE KNICKS REGAIN THE LEAD LET’S GOOOO pic.twitter.com/Nj5iiMH0dd
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) May 30, 2021
As Sam DiGiovanni of The Knicks Wall noted, Gibson has played for Thibodeau in part of eight of his 11 NBA seasons. Obviously, there’s a deep bond there. I’d bet a few Chia coin that Thibodeau will advocate for re-upping Gibson on a short-term, veteran deal.
You’d think Ntilikina would’ve shined under Thibodeau, as a defense-first combo guard with the potential to develop a corner three. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. Ntilikina spent most of the season out of Thibodeau’s rotation, though the Knicks coach evidently trusts him enough to throw him in for a crucial possession against Trae Young.
ICE TRAE! 🥶 pic.twitter.com/aP37k0ER5a
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 24, 2021
Ntilikina’s rookie deal is expiring this summer, and there’s little reason to think he’ll return. Leon Rose—Ntilikina’s former agent at CAA—didn’t even discuss an extension with Ntilikina prior to the season, choosing to take a wait-and-see approach.
If the Knicks weren’t sold on Ntilikina before 2020–21, it’s hard to believe that an underwhelming year with (finally) a great defensive coach has swayed the front office. Again, if the market for Ntilikina is bearish, the Knicks may want to retain him for cheap. Overall, though, his lack of development under Thibodeau has been one of this season’s few disappointments.
Burks was another bang-for-buck pick-up. The 29-year-old signed a one-year, $6 million with the Knicks last fall, and by the spring he was arguably their best crunch-time scorer.
ALEC BURKS, THE CLOSER pic.twitter.com/TSiK0Rn41A
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) May 24, 2021
Burks shot 40% from three in 2020–21, many of which come by his own creation off the dribble—a rarity for the Knicks. He’s shown encouraging chemistry with Randle and Barrett.
Burks fits the Thibs mold in two ways: He’s a reliable veteran who executes his job regardless of the surroundings, and he’s also a dead-eye corner shooter, which Thibodeau’s offense looks to create.
Burks has earned himself a handsome raise. If he gets overpaid elsewhere, so be it. But he’s a winning player who plays both ends. I’d like to see him return, even if it costs a little more cap space than the Knicks would like.
Noel is a tricky case because of the existence of Mitchell Robinson.
Like Burks, Noel has earned himself a hefty raise with his fine rim protection this season, though he’s done it as a replacement for Mitch. Playing on a one-year, $5 million deal, Noel ranked second in the NBA in blocks per 36 minutes this season. He deserved a few All-Defensive Second Team votes.
If you come at Nerlens Noel you better come correct pic.twitter.com/CDOkBhFaws
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) March 16, 2021
Certainly, the Knicks should offer him a respectable deal to be their backup center, with the opportunity to seize the starting job depending on Robinson’s production and availability. But, considering some of the contractual mistakes Noel has made in his career, I don’t expect him to turn down big money if he receives it from another franchise.
Robinson had a disappointing 2020–21 campaign, mostly due to injuries. However, it’s still unclear whether he ever fully embraced Thibs Ball. Hopefully, he does, because he’s such a gifted defensive player.
The Knicks face a fascinating predicament with Robinson, as TKW’s Tyler Marko broke down: Pick up his $1.8 million team option for 2021–22 and allow him to hit unrestricted free agency, or decline the option and match any offer for him in restricted free agency, assuming his price tag will be especially low following a tough season.
Robinson is a chip the Knicks can play in a variety of ways.
The Knicks Wall’s Dylan Burd just wrote up an excellent analysis of Bullock’s impact in 2020–21 and how that could pay off this summer, so I’ll refer you there. TLDR: He’s a high-character individual whom Thibodeau firmly believed in through his early-season shooting struggles. Sure enough, the 30-year-old found his stroke and turned in a fine defensive season.
As Dylan writes, the Knicks can chase sharpshooters like Duncan Robinson or Gary Trent Jr. for Joe Harris money ($70-plus million), or bring back Bullock, a reliable 3-and-D, for a fraction of the cost.
Last fall, it made perfect sense to re-sign Payton. The Knicks waived him rather than picking up his $8 million option, then re-signed him to a one-year, $5 million deal once Thibodeau had been hired.
Payton is a defensive specialist (in theory), and he seemed like a logical veteran backup point guard as the team felt its way through their first season under one of the premier defensive minds in the game.
Once this underdog group turned into a playoff team, though, Payton had no business being on the court. Nothing personal, but his I.Q., defensive chops, and subtle passing simply don’t make enough of an impact to warrant big-game minutes.
Thibs may be more of a fan of Payton than #KnicksTwitter, but he did heed their call and benched him mid-Hawks series. I don’t think Thibodeau will campaign too strongly on his behalf, and he won’t be alone.
Pinson is amongst the most jovial cheerleaders in the league who consciously balances Thibodeau’s gruffiness with his own levity.
“So I try to make sure everyone, even coach (Tom Thibodeau), I try to make sure he puts a smile on his face,” Pinson told the Daily News. “Because sometimes, when you get in the thick of things and you start putting more pressure on yourself, it just stresses you out a little bit, and sometimes you just got to realize (it’s important to have fun).”
Great stuff. Give me another year of Pinson on the sidelines.
Ahh…the $100-200 million question. Heading into the playoffs, I would have optimistically predicted and advocated for locking down Randle with a maximum possible extension this summer: four years, $106 million. (In fact, I did.) A magnificent playoff run would have warranted the max.
But…yeesh. Even the most forgivable defenders of Randle’s playoff struggles have to acknowledge that didn’t prove himself to be a centerpiece of a contender. That doesn’t mean he can’t be or isn’t a valuable long-term piece, but there are suddenly more questions than answers.
From a pure business perspective, paying a guy top dollar after his performance shockingly dipped in the biggest moment is simply nonsensical. The 2020–21 Most Improved Player of the Year may need to show it all over again.
Ironically, this first-round series could be a profitable disaster for Randle. The Knicks can now pick up his $20 million option for 2021–22 and be open-minded to an extension next year when he’s eligible for a $201.5 million max.
And, let’s remember: Randle is an unabashed Thibs Guy. He’s undergone the revolution.
“I craved Thibs’ coaching,” Randle told J.J. Redick. “Him pushing me, challenging me. Because I know it’s coming from a good place. We want to win. I kind of feel like we’re one in the same person. We do the same things. We like to work hard. We love the game of basketball.”
“What you think goes into winning and that’s the hard work, the discipline, the sacrifice, playing for each other, and that was the best thing about our team,” Thibodeau said on TNT after winning Coach of the Year. “Every day you look forward to seeing them. Sometimes we fell short, but the next day they came back with great determination and their willingness to play for each other was special.”
Yeah. More guys like that.