With nearly one-third of the NBA's coaching jobs open this past summer, Tom Thibodeau might have had his choice of jobs. But before the bubble restart was complete and the vacancies opened up, Thibodeau opted to sign on with the Knicks.
And with good reason: He grew up in nearby Connecticut, where his family followed the team, and he grew up in the NBA as an assistant coach during the last era of glory at Madison Square Garden. Add in a new front office with longtime ties to him, and it made sense.
Except for one little detail — that he was inheriting a teardown of a rebuilding plan that might challenge the length of his contract and his patience.
For all of the new faces in the front office and on the coaching staff, the Knicks’ efforts to reshape the roster mostly came up empty. So Thibodeau, with a win-now reputation, enters the season with the remnants of a 21-45 team and another hollow free-agent chase.
"I think the things that are appealing for me is the great challenge of it," he said. "I like the guys we have and you don’t do anything by yourself. It’s the group. And it’s the front office. It’s ownership. It’s the players.
"We’re going to need everyone pulling in the same direction and doing everything we can each and every day to improve. At the end of the day, we really only answer to ourselves. Only we know if we’re putting everything we have into something. [If so], anything is possible. So if we keep concentrating on that, we will get better and we will see good things in the end."
The Knicks came into the offseason armed with more cap space than any other team and a pair of first-round picks, including the No. 8 overall selection. But after all that, the odds are that opening night will feature three players who were starters last season — Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton and RJ Barrett — along with one-year contract placeholders Nerlens Noel and either Alec Burks or Reggie Bullock.
Lottery pick Obi Toppin comes with athleticism and enthusiasm but still needs to find minutes because Randle, who plays the same position, is the team’s top returning scorer. Immanuel Quickley, taken No. 25 overall, has shown some promise.
But are any of the new acquisitions difference-makers? The answer is obvious from Thibodeau’s conversation about stars this past week.
"I think every day, [attracting talent] has to be a priority for the organization, to seek out those opportunities," he said. "When you look at what’s going on in the league, things can change very quickly. You work every day with your player development, try to improve through the draft, you have free agency and you have trades. I think you have to be very aggressive in each area. Sitting back and waiting sometimes is not a good thing."
The best chance for the Knicks to get a proven quality player might be in a trade, and to that end, it is up to Thibodeau to create some trade value for the pieces currently on the roster. The Knicks still have cap room and can absorb a star contract, but their roster is slim on the talent that another team would need in return for a top-shelf player.
Could Mitchell Robinson be traded? While that might upset fans, he has value and a high ceiling. Who else draws attention from other front offices? That's answered by the Knicks’ inability to get even a draft pick back for Dennis Smith Jr. or Frank Ntilikina.
So this season’s hope goes back to what Thibodeau spoke of in his introductory Zoom media conference — not skipping a step. If the player development-centric coaching staff can make something of Kevin Knox, RJ Barrett, Smith or Ntilikina, the Knicks might at least have a piece to include in a trade package. But as far as competing at a high level with this group, reality likely will set in quickly.
"It’s not just the individual development, it’s the team development," Thibodeau said at the start of camp. "And I think we have some guys who have a big upside when you look at a guy like RJ and look at a guy like Obi and Immanuel Quickley and Kevin Knox and our point guards. We have several players there.
"And I like that there’s competition. Nothing will be given to anyone. You’re going to have to earn your minutes. And those decisions on rotation will be based on performance and what gives the team the best chance of winning.
"A player is not just going to get minutes just to get minutes. You have to impact winning, you have to put the team first. There has to be sacrifices made. And that’s what we’re going to strive for every single day.
"We have a very strong staff. The focus is going to be on teaching and work. We know there’s a lot of work to be done. If we look at where we stood last year, there’s a lot of ground to be made up. When you look at the rosters of the teams we’re competing against, the challenge will be how together we will be. The degree [to] how together and how smart [we are] is going to be critical for us."
While Tom Thibodeau has been a hard-driving, win-now coach, this team seems a long way from contending in a deep Eastern Conference. Anything better than last place in the Atlantic would be a huge upset and the team seems bound for the top of the Ping-Pong ball chase in next summer’s draft. As long as COVID-19 doesn’t stop the season, the Knicks will be in for a long one.
Projected record: 24-48.