It is hard to argue with the record that Tom Thibodeau has put up in his two head- coaching forays — 352-246 with playoff appearances in all but one of his seven full seasons with Chicago and Minnesota.
But even before Thibodeau signed his contract to become the next coach of the Knicks, there was a whisper of criticism among NBA insiders and fans that his hard-driving style doesn’t fit in today’s NBA. He has had success, but his detractors point to the minutes he put players through and the injuries that accumulated in the wake of those wins, and they decried him as old school.
In New York, he inherits a roster that is not close to contending. So making the most of what he has is what could be a first step for the Knicks, where there is a hope he will push the players who were part of a 21-45 team into respectability. And Jeff Van Gundy, who worked with him with the Knicks and Houston, thinks the critics are way off base.
“This idea that Tom doesn’t know how to pace his team is one of the great slanders that has been perpetuated by the media on a coach,” Van Gundy said in an “NBA on ESPN” conference call Monday. “And I think all coaches have to learn to adapt and adjust to the slights and not fight them because you can spend a lot of time trying to fight against some slanderous stuff that is said by really the unknowing. It’s not like people have gone into Tom’s practices and watched. Not the only time you pace a team is during games and not every minute is the same for every player.
“Bill Parcells said this long ago and it’s so true — one of the most important jobs of a coach is to pace his team correctly. That doesn’t just go to game minutes. It goes to practice minutes. It goes to how much contact you do in practice. It goes into a lot of things. And I think unfortunately for Tom, since they couldn’t get him on the results, they tried to get him on other stuff.
“When you look at the factual nature of it, it’s just not true. Guys played more minutes back in those days. You look at Tom in Minnesota, their guys didn’t play as much. If you want to win as a player, you’re going to do the things that it takes to win. I think as coaches, we have to give them the chance to be pushed and be challenged and not subjectively say that players aren’t the same and they’re not willing to do as much.”
Even before Thibodeau’s arrival, the Knicks’ previous leadership was willing to put their young centerpiece on the floor for extended minutes. As a rookie, RJ Barrett played at least 35 minutes 16 times, including topping 40 minutes three times. For all of their struggles, Barrett, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson have never been criticized for an unwillingness to work.
Van Gundy said demanding hard work from players is not unrealistic and that winning players want it. “Even when I was coaching in the NBA, I think it’s always been said, ‘Players are hard,’ ” he said. “I think that does a disservice to players. Some players are hard and it usually is about not wanting to work or not wanting to commit to the sacrifice that it takes to win at a high level.
“But I don’t think players have changed nearly as much as organizations and coaches have changed. You can’t demand less of players and then complain that they’re willing to do less at times. I find it does a disservice to players. I think good players in any era want to be challenged and pushed to be their best and they want to play on teams of significance.”
Former Knicks player and Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson, on the same call, pointed out that while it may take a while for the Knicks to contend, Thibodeau will push them to be their best right now.
“You don’t want to be too patient because that becomes contagious, and what you don’t want to be patient on is the exact things that Coach just finished talking about — the things that put you in position to win,” Jackson said. “The realistic point is they have to upgrade their talent. But you can defend, you can compete, you can play hard. And there’s no way that you can be patient about accepting anything short of great effort, energy and passion on both sides of the floor. Those things will put you in position to change your culture and begin to see results. And Thibs is more than qualified. He’s proven it. And I’m sure he’s going to put them in position to see brighter days.”
“He took over the worst team in basketball in Minnesota,” Van Gundy said. “He’s not afraid of the challenge. I think they had the longest non-playoff streak and they broke that. So I think you want a coach that’s both patient and impatient.
“The roster is not his issue. But they’ve got to do something about getting more better players, right? But as they build that roster, he’s got to build their confidence, give them a plan that allows them to be put in the best position to be individually successful and team-wise be more successful. But also be demanding that we’ve got to guard on a nightly basis. We’ve got to pass it on a nightly basis and we’ve got to play harder than people on a nightly basis.
"And if you think that all happens with just patience? No, you’ve got to have some impatience to you, too. You’ve got to be demanding that these are things we can do right off the bat. And I do believe that Tom is imminently qualified. He rebuilt Chicago, he rebuilt Minnesota and now has a hard task in rebuilding the Knick team.”