The last time the Knicks put together a run of seasons in which they were among the top contenders, it was Pat Riley who orchestrated the building of the franchise. And as the Knicks embark on their latest rebuild, Tom Thibodeau, tasked with leading the team on the court, is watching another of Riley’s projects reach fruition.
The Miami Heat are one win away from reaching the NBA Finals. Riley built this team around Jimmy Butler (one of Thibodeau’s long-time favorite players) and turned a cast of middle-of-the-first-round picks and unheralded veterans into a surprise contender.
Riley also is an influence on Thibodeau, mostly in a second-generation fashion. When Riley left the Knicks, Jeff Van Gundy stayed on, and when he got his chance as head coach, he hired Thibodeau for his staff.
"The impact that he had, you know, obviously, on Jeff, and Jeff also worked for a number of other great coaches," Thibodeau said. "… But when I came here the first time, I had come from Philadelphia, and it was just so different. He was so far ahead of his time. Jeff carried over a lot of those things and also added some other things that he picked up along the way. And so, you know, I have great respect for that.
"And the fact that Pat did it in L.A. He won a championship there, championships there, and then you know he got the Knicks to the doorstep and then, of course, to do it several times in Miami. He’s rebuilt the organization three or four times. He’s at the top of my list. He’s been great to me over the years, and I’ve taken a lot of things that he’s said to me, I’ve watched their organization very closely. You understand what their core values are. And I’m happy for him."
Mitchell Robinson was at the Knicks’ individual workouts last week but had to pull out of the group sessions at the last minute for what the team called "personal reasons." But Thibodeau was impressed with what he saw from him in workouts. And after a six-month stretch in which Robinson regularly posted videos of himself ballhandling on the perimeter and dropping in three-point field goals, Thibodeau wasn’t ruling out an expanded game for Robinson, who rarely has shot outside of dunking range.
"You know what he did last year was put a lot of pressure on the rim," Thibodeau said. "He’s an incredible athlete. But we don’t want to put a ceiling on him. We want to continue to work on all aspects of his game and develop. He spent some time here earlier in the summer and we’re hopeful that we can get him back in and get to work with him so he can build on those skills, but obviously he’s a very important part of this team."
Thibodeau has been working with his new coaching staff through this period of team workouts — associate head coach Johnnie Bryant and assistants Andy Greer, Mike Woodson and Kenny Payne. But he said on a Zoom call Friday that more coaches are coming.
"I’m thrilled with our staff and we have a number of coaches who are terrific teachers, and that was critical for me," Thibodeau said. "We’re talking about a Johnnie Bryant, a Kenny Payne, a Woody, an Andy Greer. They’re going to be involved in all aspects of the organization in terms of game-planning, player development, their ideas, their thoughts. We have a lot of work to do and all of them have had great experiences, so I’m excited about that part of that. As far as hiring more guys, we do have a few other guys we’ll be adding along the way. So we just we have to be patient and work our way through that. But I’m thrilled with the staff we do have."
Although they are listed on the staff, because the NBA’s suspended and resumed season has not ended, none of the assistants from last season are participating in the workouts.
We raised some anger from our readers on Twitter in the wake of the acrobatic layup by Jamal Murray in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. It got the Denver Post to call it "channeling his inner Michael Jordan," but our point — my point — was that the shot by Jordan that it was compared to wasn’t as good as Murray’s.
In the 1991 NBA Finals against the Lakers, as Jordan floated to the rim, he switched from his right hand to his left and dropped in a layup, but he encountered no defender. Sam Perkins looked as if he might contest it but actually backed away. No one tried to block it.
Murray, on the other hand, drove to the basket with LeBron James in front of him, and as the 6-8 James went up, Murray looked as if he were going to try a one-handed dunk. Instead, he pulled the ball down into both hands and floated past James, spinning it in with his right hand.
Jordan is the best player in NBA history and has enough highlights to load up another 10-part series, including a number of shots that make it look as if Murray has studied his tapes. But this one wasn’t as good as Murray’s.
James may have his own issues with comparisons to Jordan, but let him describe Murray.
"Jamal had it going," James said. "The kid is special."