New York Knicks: Why Tom Thibodeau is worth the risk

Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks candidate (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks candidate (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

As the New York Knicks consider a new head coach, Tom Thibodeau fits a strategy that’s actually worked.

The New York Knicks were once a defensive power that made life hectic for every team that entered Madison Square Garden. That reputation traveled decades, enabling New York to be a perennial contender in both the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s, with a pocket of bliss in the 1980s.

Since the Knicks abandoned that defensive-minded approach to the game, however, it’s been a steady path to borderline irrelevance.

New York’s woes are well-documented at this point—four playoff appearances in 19 years, no title since 1973, no Finals appearance since 1999. A fair explanation as to why this has transpired is that New York has blown through an astonishing number of coaches since the turn of the century.

Thankfully for Knicks fans, team president Leon Rose appears to be in favor of taking a different approach to the long-running rebuild: Finding a proven basketball mind.

In case you haven’t heard, Tom Thibodeau is the early favorite to become head coach of the Knicks for the 2020-21 season. New York could have competition in the form of the Houston Rockets, per Marc Berman of The New York Post, but that’s another conversation for another day.

Targeting Thibodaeu is an admittedly polarizing proposition, but one can’t help but look at the key to his candidacy: He’s nothing like New York’s recent coaches.

Three important exceptions aside.

Including interim tags, the past five head coaches of the New York Knicks have been: Derek Fisher, Kurt Rambis, Jeff Hornacek, David Fizdale, and Mike Miller. Fisher and Fizdale were both first-year head coaches, and Miller was in his first season as an NBA-level assistant when he took over.

Hornacek and Rambis had been head coaches before, although Hornacek had never made the Playoffs, and Rambis lost in Round 2 during his lone appearance.

With Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Glen Rice in a lockout-shortened season.

This isn’t to discredit those coaches, as many are bright basketball minds who are capable of more than they showed in New York. Hornacek, for instance, won 48 games with the Phoenix Suns in 2013-14 and had the team on pace to make the Playoffs in 2014-15 before Goran Dragic was traded.

Upon arriving in New York, Hornacek was subsequently asked to run a system that he was unfamiliar with and was supplied with a roster that didn’t fit his ideology.

You can trace that back even further and note that the Knicks never made the Playoffs under Isiah Thomas, nor Don Chaney—who had the experience, but had also been out of the NBA for six seasons when New York hired him. A recipe for disaster.

The common theme during the only four Playoff appearances that the Knicks have made since their first-round exit in 2001: An experienced head coach has been present.

Without exception.

Hall of Fame head coach and player Lenny Wilkens took over a 15-24 Knicks team in the middle of the 2003-04 campaign. Although he resigned during the 2004-05 season, the team went 24-19 under his watch in 2003-04 and was 17-22 at the time of his resignation.

New York went 16-27 the rest of the way.

Mike D’Antoni wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but he ended a seven-year postseason drought during the 2010-11 campaign. This followed D’Antoni’s five-year run in Phoenix, during which the Suns made two Western Conference Finals appearances.

The very next season, D’Antoni was replaced by Mike Woodson—a coach who led the Atlanta Hawks to three postseason appearances and a 50-win season.

Woodson turned a troublesome season around in 2011-12, helping New York make back-to-back trips to the Playoffs for the first time since 2001. He then led the Knicks to 54 wins in 2012-13, which marked the franchise’s highest win total since 1996-97.

One could mention Larry Brown, but it’s common knowledge that his tenure was impacted by factors that occurred off the court, as much as it was by what transpired on it.

Thibodeau is far closer to a D’Antoni, Wilkens, or Woodson than a Fisher, Fizdale, or Hornacek. He’s coached two different franchises, leading both to drought-ending postseason appearances—an appealing truth to a Knicks team that’s gone seven years without playing a game in the Playoffs.

Thibodeau also has three 50-win seasons under his belt, including a 2014-15 campaign during which four different full-time starters missed at least 15 games.

Thibodeau led Chicago to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010-11. He also overcame the absence of Derrick Rose by leading the 2012-13 Bulls to an improbable appearance in the second round, during which the team even stole a game from LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

To strengthen his résumé, he led the 2017-18 Minnesota Timberwolves to the Playoffs—thus ending a drought that dated back to 2004.

Thibodeau’s philosophy can be polarizing, as he’s shown a propensity for playing his stars big minutes. He’s spent the past year traveling the world and studying basketball from different vantage points, however, and is eager for another chance.

Considering he’s proven time and time again that he knows how to win in the NBA, an open-minded version of Thibodeau sounds rather appealing.

Perhaps Thibodeau comes to New York and does the same thing as he did in Minnesota: Makes the Playoffs and loses his connection with the locker room the very next season. That wouldn’t be the most ideal turn of events, but even that would be a step up for the Knicks.

If Thibodeau proves that his run in Chicago can translate to a franchise that’s been all-in on defense at every stage of its past success stories, he’d be a savior.

Dangerous as that word may be.

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There are certainly reasons for skepticism, but the New York Knicks can revisit a past strategy that’s worked far better than the recent approach by hiring Tom Thibodeau.