Tom Thibodeau, a lifelong defensive guru, was often asked about his schemes in Minnesota and whether they needed tinkering as the Timberwolves’ struggled on that end of the floor.
The head coach would always reply that before you look at changing the schemes, you first have to determine if they’re being executed properly and with the necessary effort — otherwise the same issues would exist regardless of which schemes you used.
Nonsense, many believed. The schemes were at fault. Thibodeau’s were out of date. He couldn’t adapt to the current NBA game — which he only sat out one season of after he was fired in Chicago before taking the job with the Timberwolves. He also couldn’t relate to and coach younger players.
Those were the posited reasons Minnesota’s defense was so horrendous in the 2016-17 season, Thibodeau’s first at the helm. The Wolves ranked 27th in defensive rating that year. So much for that defensive guru label. Hey, sometimes the game just passes you by.
Those conceptions remained glued to Thibodeau, at least locally, throughout his tenure in Minnesota.
And only now, as he coaches a different team, are they being turned on their head. Thibodeau is in his first season as the Knicks’ head coach. And a New York roster featuring a mix of young talent and journeymen players, which wasn’t expected to amount to anything this season, is currently 14-16 — good for the seventh-best record in the Eastern Conference.
More important, the Knicks are third in the NBA in defensive rating, behind only the Lakers and Jazz, who hold the league’s top two records. That lines up much more closely to what Thibodeau’s Chicago teams produced. In Thibodeau’s first season with the Bulls, Chicago sported the NBA’s top defensive rating en route to a 62-win season.
In 2016, Taj Gibson was asked about how that team transitioned so well to Thibodeau’s coaching. He was still with Chicago at the time and Thibodeau was in his first year with the Wolves. Gibson said those Bulls didn’t really need to adjust.
“Because we were already a hard-nosed team. We really bought into the system, bought into what he wanted us to do,” Gibson said. “Not every team is capable of doing that, especially with the way the NBA is, and how players are selfish these days.”
Yes, that is an indictment of those Timberwolves. So, too, is New York’s play this season. Derrick Rose, who played for Thibodeau in Chicago, Minnesota and now New York, was asked Saturday why Minnesota relied on its offense under Thibodeau, while New York is back to playing Thibodeau-quality defense.
“It’d have to be personnel,” Rose said. “His terminology is still the same. I think his approach is still the same. I think it was just personnel, to be honest.”
Which, quite frankly, adds up. As gifted as Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns — Minnesota’s three minutes leaders — were, none of them were good defensively. LaVine still really isn’t today, and only recently did Towns start to truly commit to that end of the floor.
Given the approach of those three, it wasn’t all that surprising to see Thibodeau shift to a veteran-heavy approach around Towns and Wiggins the following season, almost out of necessity. And even with the added veterans around the Wolves’ two young stars, Minnesota was porous defensively when Jimmy Butler wasn’t on the floor.
New York, meanwhile, has already bought into Thibodeau’s approach, much like Chicago did.
“The guys bought in because they believe in him,” Rose said. “They’re seeing they’re out there getting results, and that’s what you want in this league, results and winning games. You can tell everybody bought in and got one common goal.”
Thibodeau said the Knicks made a point this offseason to pack the roster with “gym rats” who would help build the team’s culture.
“The professionalism of the veterans has been terrific, and I love our young guys,” Thibodeau said. “Our young guys are hungry, they’re in all the time, they can’t get enough, they’re students of the game, and that’s what we need. We need everyone working like that to improve.”
New York looks like a playoff team, Julius Randle looks like an all-star and the Knicks look like a team that, for the first time in a long time, is heading in a positive direction. And a lot of the credit for that has been attributed to the head coach.
“I will say this about Thibs, he’s a tough coach if you don’t like to be coached or if you don’t like to play or do things the right way, then he’s tough,” Randle said recently on The Old Man & The Three podcast. “Thibs is a guy that … just expects a certain level of professionalism, he expects you to do things the right way, be prepared and do things the right way on a day-to-day basis, and if you don’t want to do that, then it’s gonna be tough.”
It hasn’t been tough for the Knicks.
“Thibs is dope. Honestly, he’s a players’ coach,” Randle said. “This is the most fun that I’ve had as far as playing in the league, for sure.”