It was nearly five months from the time that Leon Rose took over as team president before he finally came to an agreement with Tom Thibodeau to serve as the head coach of the Knicks.
But Thibodeau, who is expected to sign the contract early this week, with an official introduction to follow, and Rose now face a much more daunting task: assembling a roster that Thibodeau can mold into a contender.
Though he has been successful at every stop in his career, Thibodeau is well aware that no matter how good the coach, it is the players who make the difference. And the Knicks, who were 21-45 when the season was suspended by the COVID-19 pandemic in March, don’t have a roster ready to win.
“For me, hiring Tom is a great step, but it’s the roster that ultimately needs to be improved,” former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “It comes down to, you’ve got to pick the right guys, you’ve got to play the right guys, the right guys have got to play the right way. But I think it’d be a mistake to think a coach in and of itself or a president or a general manager can do it. It still comes down to roster.”
As David Fizdale, who was dismissed with a 4-18 record this season, and Mike Miller, who went 17-27 as interim head coach, can attest, the Knicks have a long way to go.
There is no star on the roster, no can’t-miss youngster ready to blossom. There are eight potential free agents, veterans who were signed as placeholders last summer when the franchise’s dreams of a superstar haul in free agency came up empty.
The best the Knicks have right now is RJ Barrett, who was the No. 3 overall pick last summer, and though he had an erratic rookie season, he has the toughness that Thibodeau will love and the intelligence to be a leader in any plan. Mitchell Robinson has drawn raves for his athleticism, but the 7-1 center is raw and unpolished. There may be no player who would benefit more from Thibodeau’s arrival — if he buys into what the coach demands.
Kevin Knox, after a disappointing sophomore season, remains a player whose potential outweighs his trade value. Frank Ntilikina might benefit from Thibodeau’s emphasis on defense.
When Van Gundy was the head coach and Thibodeau an assistant on the last consistently contending era for the franchise, the coaching staff openly admitted that one of the best things they had going for them was that the best player on the roster, Patrick Ewing, was the hardest worker. That provided accountability for the rest of the roster.
“It’s your only chance for true success,” Van Gundy said. “You’re not going to see everything the same way. That’s fine. But you do have to see the big things the same way. You don’t have to agree on everything, but you have to value [the important things]. We value work, practice, unselfishness. We value internal improvement. You have to see those big things the same. That’s what was so fortunate for me, and that it was a Hall of Fame player to boot, that gives you a chance.”