The New York Knicks are stuck in a Thibs time loop

Tom Thibodeau

The phrase “Knicks for clicks” is relatively unknown outside of New York Knickerbocker fan circles. It’s a pejorative term to describe mainstream media’s calculated dissemination of anti-Knicks content for the sake of traffic and views. When the Knicks are mentioned in any segment on ESPN or FS1, it’s usually to scoff at their 20-year ineptitude under James Dolan, even if things have been relatively competent since Leon Rose took over as president of Basketball Operations in 2020.

But to those who live and breathe New York basketball, those who bleed orange and blue, the highs and lows of the current Knicks team are debated daily in every possible area. The most polarizing and contentious topic is the head coaching job of Tom Thibodeau, who is the 31st head coach in franchise history, the 20202021 Coach of the Year, and the 11th all-time winningest Knicks coach. Thibodeau’s job on the sidelines has split Knicks fans down the middle, initiating verbal fisticuffs between brothers, life-long friends, podcast hosts, and complete strangers.

What Thibs has done well

First, the good: Thibodeau is without question the best Knicks coach in the last 20 years. He is elite at establishing identity, culture, and habits. He has the Knicks playing ferocious defense, as he’s known to be dedicated to coaching, spending countless sleepless nights calculating his pre-game preparation. As a result, the Knicks — through 51 games — rank fifth in opponent field goals made (40.4), third in opponent’s field goal percentage (45.3), and fifth in opponent three-point percentage (34.9).

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He’s also an underrated developer. This trait can be traced back to his time in Chicago, where he developed Derrick Rose to the youngest-ever MVP, as well as developing Joakim Noah into an elite defensive stopper and expanding the games of Loul Deng, Carlos Boozer, and Taj Gibson.

He’s continued that in New York, where he has contributed to the growth of RJ Barrett, Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley, Miles McBride, Jericho Sims, and especially Mitchell Robinson. He has also unlocked “star” level abilities in free agent acquisitions Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson. The Knicks are back in the playoff hunt — currently seventh in the East through 51 games — after a disappointing season that saw the team rise and fall under the mental fragility of Randle. They’ve exhibited powerhouse defensive performances in stretches, winning eight games in a row in December, behind the preparation and motivation from Thibodeau.

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Thibodeau has maximized the potential from his eight-man rotation and gotten them back to playing competitive basketball in 2023. Unfortunately, that’s where this story’s positive trajectory ends.

Where Thibs fails

“Thibs,” as he is known to fans of all three franchises he’s coached, has an expiration date. Usually, it arrives around Year 3, when he has fully maximized the positives he brings to a formerly downtrodden franchise. That’s the case with the Knicks. He took the team from the depths of NBA hell and made them respectable again. But he has never been known as a competent in-game adjuster, a skill more pivotal than ever in a head coach. He’s also the most rigid head coach in the Association. He’s arrogant when it comes to minute distribution, rotations, game planning, and offensive playcalling. These faults usually lead him to burn out his starters, with the best players on the last three teams he’s coached routinely leading the league in minutes played. Thibs apologists will point to only Randle being in the top 20 minutes per game. But when you look at the metrics from the point in December when Thibs shortened the roster to a nine-man rotation, Barrett, Brunson, and Randle all skyrocketed up the list.

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He also depends on two schemes phased out of the NBA by modernity — drop defense by the center position, and isolation offense. Even with the NBA evolving into a product where the three is king, Thibs consistently emphasizes protecting the paint. It’s led to role players from almost every team in the league getting hot on the Knicks, torching them from the perimeter because Thibs demands his center hedges toward the paint against the pick and roll while his guards pack the paint, leaving the perimeter wide-open. It’s even worse on offense, where Thibs leaves the playcalling up to his best player. For the last two years, that’s been Randle, a power forward. This season it’s been Randle and Brunson, both of whom shoot first and prefer to over-dribble on an island before heaving difficult isolation shots. Under Thibs, the Knicks are third worst in assists per game (22.4), second worst in assist ratio, and fourth worst in pace. This reveals Thibs’ antiquated half-course offense, predicated on isolation players and guys standing idle in the corner.

Far too often, under Thibs, the offense breaks down in the fourth quarter. The Knicks typically move the ball much better in the first half. For some reason, when the pressure tightens up in the fourth, Thibs allows Brunson and Randle to go iso as much as they want, with zero change in scheme or benching either of them when it’s out of hand.

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What makes it all the more insufferable is we’ve seen it all before. If anyone knows this, it should be Rose, who was Thibs’ agent before he was his boss with the Knicks. He was there in Chicago and then Minnesota. He watched as Derrick Rose’s knees turned to dust. Thibs has lost playoff series after playoff series from a lack of offensive creativity and under-utilizing his bench. He left Chicago with a .402 winning playoff percentage, just .001 better than his overall playoff record. Things got worse in Minny and New York, where he made the playoffs just once with both teams, winning just one game in both first-round trouncings.

Thibs supporters continue to shake ass for mediocre benchmarks like effort, team defense, and making the Play-In, metrics Thibs excels at as a head coach. But for the Knicks to take advantage of their high-upside young core, they will need to hire someone better than Thibs at adjusting to the modern game. To take the next step, they need someone who is an elite in-game adjuster and willing to divert from their game plan when it stops working. Thibodeau’s biggest enemy is himself. Unfortunately, with his best friend and former agent, Rose, his boss with the Knicks, it’s unlikely to happen. Thibs will play out his five-year contract — not because he deserves it, but because Rose likely doesn’t want to deal with the optics of firing his splashiest hire, a clear admission he chose the wrong guy. It’s been almost 25 years since James Dolan was handed the Knicks on a silver spoon, and still today, cronyism continues to rot MSG from the inside out.