With the NBA season still going on, Tom Thibodeau finished off the odd "off-season" workout session with the Knicks this week. Only individual sessions with a few stragglers are still ongoing until the October 6 deadline the league and the NBPA set for the teams left out of the league restart this summer.
With no reporters allowed in, no players speaking (the Knicks were the only one of the eight teams left out to make no players available) and just a handful of social media highlight clips by the team to guide you, it might hard to discern any difference between what Thibodeau is hoping to create next season and debris left behind by the regimes heading up most of the last 20 years for the Knicks.
But if you listen to Thibodeau you get the sense that while the talent may be middling, the days of wondering about tanking for draft picks or dumping talent to clear space for some star while losses pile up, are over.
You could hear it in his praise of Pat Riley last week or his respect for his former player, Jimmy Butler, now holding court on the biggest stage of the NBA Finals. You could hear it when he was asked about RJ Barrett not making either first or second NBA All-Rookie last year and he immediately turned the conversation to, "The better a team does, the more recognition the players will get."
Or you could just look at what he has done in every stop in his coaching career. In Chicago, his first NBA head coaching job, he took over a 41-41 Bulls squad and won 62 games in his first season. He never had a losing season with the franchise before being pushed out in a front office power play.
He moved on to the Minnesota Timberwolves and in his first season there he endured the only losing record of his career in a full season, finishing 31-51 with a team led by a trio of 21-year-old players. By the second season the Timberwolves imported Butler to lead the group on the floor, improved to 47-35 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
The Knicks that Thibodeau oversaw during this minicamp don’t have a Karl-Anthony Towns, a Jimmy Butler or a Derrick Rose. But what they do have for once is a coach who seems interested in the now rather than some point in the future - a drastic turn in strategy for the franchise.
Is this the right way? After all, there was a clamoring from the fan base for years to stop trading away picks and young players. There is no indication that is what the front office led by new team president Leon Rose intends to do. Although to be fair, there is no indication of anything Rose is planning to do as he has kept, as he did in his days as an agent, his cards close to his vest.
Thibodeau didn’t reveal much either in his three interviews from the Knicks’ bubble at their Westchester County training center. But he did speak about players like Julius Randle showing up to work even ahead of the time that the coaches were allowed to begin individual workouts. He had Barrett on hand for the entire process, giving him time to work with his most important young player. And he indicated that while the conditions are unusual, the work will not end October 6.
"Obviously, we'd have to follow the protocol that’s set forth by the league, but we will have an opportunity to do the individual stuff with guys that are in the bubble up until October 6," Thibodeau said. "Then we’re waiting on what we’ll be able to do with the guys that are out of the market. So whatever the league tells us we can do, we will certainly do. And if not we’ll find other ways to get to our development piece whether it’s through film, communications with the players. But we‘re planning on spending a lot of time with our players this offseason."
The plans may be uncertain, but the goal does seem set. The Knicks are going to try to win again. Whether they can, that’s another story. The eight teams in the East who made the playoffs are all a level above them talent-wise. Add in the Nets who will have Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving with them this coming season, a talented Chicago team with their own new coach with a winning pedigree and a young and talented Atlanta Hawks roster and it’s a hard path to the playoffs to picture. But with Thibodeau, it seems they are at least trying again.
The NBA deserves kudos for getting through the bubble restart and bringing the season to the end without an outbreak fo the Covid-19 virus - a task that the NFL and MLB have shown is no easy feat, not to mention the nation at large. But there still is a little air leaked out of the bubble to see the NBA Finals seem to be a mismatch that is almost unwatchable at times.
The Heat entered as the surprising underdogs, having ousted Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Boston along the way in shockingly easy fashion. In Game 1 before the pieces began to fall away they were already appearing to be deer in the headlights and once Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic were injured the series became varsity versus JV.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect is that what has carried the Heat this far is the coaching of Erik Spoelstra, orchestrated from above by Pat Riley. But playing undermanned in Game 2 they were also outhustled, outworked and outplayed by more talented Lakers. Some of their defenders might have to hide their eyes watching the game film and even Spoelstra could take some blame for never shifting out of the schemes that weren’t working.