With approximately one-third of the NBA head-coaching positions open during the offseason, Tom Thibodeau opted to sign on to what he called a dream job, taking over as the latest hope for the Knicks.
Now, as training camps begin to open Tuesday in preparation for this shortened season, he might be experiencing just a slight tinge of uncertainty about how that dream will play out.
Thibodeau joined a front office that he has a long history with; he had relationships with team president Leon Rose and senior consultant William Wesley. He didn’t hesitate to come back to New York, where he’d served as an assistant coach for seven years. Four months after he officially was named Knicks coach on July 30, though, it’s hard to see how his task has gotten easier.
As he begins camp, the promise of salary cap space that provided flexibility for signings and trades has come and gone, with no fate-changing help arriving.
The Knicks added promising young players in the draft in Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley, but they will start camp with a team that doesn’t look better than the team that cost two coaches their jobs. Perhaps the Knicks aren’t even as good as they were a year ago at this time, given the in-season departure of Marcus Morris from that 21-45 squad.
If there is a master plan, it hasn’t been disclosed, with Rose’s only public discussions about the team coming in an appearance on the team’s network and during the Thibodeau announcement.
A point to watch will be how Thibodeau handles this season, which has the makings of a transitional year. No stars were brought on board to a roster that didn’t have an All-Star or an all-rookie or all-anything member and has not had a winning record in the last seven seasons.
Thibodeau is tasked with turning that around and doing it with a short window to implement his system. The Knicks have not played a game since March 11, when the season was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They were one of eight teams left out of the bubble restart. Now Thibodeau will get less than a week of full workouts before the Knicks take the floor for their first preseason game.
A source of optimism could be first-round picks Toppin and Quickley, but the rookies will not have the benefit of summer league or a full training camp to try to acclimate to the NBA. Added to that, Julius Randle, the Knicks’ highest-paid and arguably best player, plays the same position ideally as Toppin.
There are contrasting goals for Thibodeau, who certainly would like to see the team improve and become an attractive destination for free agents. And with just two losing seasons on his coaching resumé, he has little interest in tanking for the 2021 draft.
Developing the young players and finding out who is worth keeping is vital, but the Knicks also have loaded the roster with short-term veteran contracts, as they did last season, when they hoped to be able to flip them at the trade deadline. They were successful in doing that only with Morris.
So do they give extended minutes to the likes of Elfrid Payton, Nerlens Noel, Austin Rivers and Alec Burks, all on one-year guarantees, to increase their value at the deadline?
The questions are there. The answers will begin to take shape Tuesday.