Now that Tom Thibodeau has been put in place as the next head coach of the Knicks the stories have been revived about what went wrong in his prior two stops.
The numbers will tell you he was successful both in Chicago and Minnesota. With the Bulls, he took a team that was underachieving and in his first season won 62 games and earned NBA Coach of the Year honors. He never won fewer than 45 games in his five seasons in Chicago, but was dismissed at the end of a 50-win season. He went to Minnesota and in his second year there he brought the Timberwolves to the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons. But just 40 games into the next season he was fired.
His defenses were, as expected, stellar. He’d built a reputation as an assistant coach who spent countless hours devising defensive game plans culminating in a championship in Boston. While his defenses ranked in the top 10 in opponents points per game five times in his eight years as a head coach, his offensive schemes were underrated, too, as he forged efficient production that ranked in the top 10 in offensive rating three times.
But what went awry were relationships. In Chicago there was a contentious relationship with the front office. Maybe if Gar Forman had studied his history — The Last Dance documentary came too late — he’d have seen the misfortune that followed a front office that split with jealousy between the coach and executives for credit over wins. In Minnesota there were young players who bristled at the workload and taking a secondary role to Jimmy Butler, who Thibodeau had imported from his days in Chicago.
Was Forman right to bring in the coach he’d wanted in place in Fred Hoiberg? The number — 42 wins, then 41, 27, 22 and 22 — would tell you no. How about Minnesota, where Glen Taylor cleared out Thibodeau as president and coach and put in place Ryan Saunders, the son of Flip Saunders? They won 19 games this season. Both the Bulls and Timberwolves, like the Knicks, are left outside of the NBA restart.
But the why is what matters as Thibodeau now gets another shot, this time at what he maintains is his dream job coaching the Knicks. And if relationships were the issue then at least in New York Thibodeau has the template to succeed. It’s not the lessons learned from Chicago and Minnesota as much as it is the relationships in place to allow him to do what needs to be done.
Leon Rose, before taking over as the Knicks president five months ago, was an agent and in running CAA’s basketball division Thibodeau has been a client for decades. William Wesley, brought on as executive vice president, has been a Thibodeau confidante for nearly as long.
“Just to be clear, going into this search we had an open mind,” Rose said. “There are other coaches in this search that I and others in our group have had relationships with over the years. No question going through the process and going through all of this affirmed thoughts that I’ve had about Tom and feelings that I’ve had about Tom as a coach. That’s why we had to do the process, that’s why we had to go through all the things that we went through in order to make the final decision of the group.”
“I think that’s part of the equation obviously, my relationship with them,” Thibodeau said. “I’ve known them for over two decades. They’ve been involved in just about every major decision that I’ve made. As I mentioned, it’s always been my dream job. So the fact that it’s my dream job and those guys are there, it just seemed to make a lot of sense to me.”
Here’s the thing with Rose and Wesley — it would be a huge shift in their history if they seek any of the spotlight. Appearing on the Zoom news conference marked the first media session that Rose has conducted since taking over — a decision he made to remain silent. And while plenty of agents are happy to be visible, Rose has rarely engaged in more than small talk, holding plans and secrets close to his vest. Wesley, while a powerful figure in basketball at every level, is a mystery to most.
It will still come down to players though and that is where Rose and Wesley will find their greatest challenge. In his previous stops Thibodeau never had the best roster in basketball, but he had a star to focus his plan around and players who fit his style. The Knicks roster right now is nearly a blank slate. With a lottery pick and three selections among the top 38 in the upcoming draft as well as a roster that is primed for an overhaul, finding that player who he can implement as the leader will be important — a player with the talent to carry a team and the mindset to get the rest of the players to follow.
“It’s your only chance for true success,” said Jeff Van Gundy, who hired Thibodeau as an assistant in New York in 1996. “You’re not going to see everything the same way, that’s fine. You do have to see the big things the same way. You don’t have to agree on everything, but you have to value — work, practice, unselfishness, we value internal improvement — you have to see those big things the same. … To me hiring Tom is a great step. But it’s the roster that ultimately needs to be improved. 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 GM make the difference. It still comes down to roster.”
A five-year contract has given Thibodeau time. In Rose and Wesley he has partners. Now the work begins.