‘We have great teachers’: How the Knicks are laying the foundation of a rebuild

New York Knicks, Tom Thibodeau

The New York Knicks are back in the gym. But it feels more like they’re back to school.

After a week of individual workouts, the Knicks have advanced to voluntary team sessions that consist of drills, team practice, and intra-squad scrimmages sprinkled with sitdown, class-style sessions in between.

Tom Thibodeau, a basketball lifer, doesn’t look like the gruff taskmaster, which every naysayer depicted him to be.  The photos on the Knicks’ social media accounts project him more of a teacher, just like how he wanted it.

During his zoom call with reporters earlier this week, Thibodeau expressed how pleased he is to have been surrounded by a “group of teachers.”

Thibodeau regaled the media with a story on how he came away left impressed with associate head coach Johnnie Bryant during his visit to Utah. He also noted his close relationship with Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari that led him to get to know Kenny Payne.

“For us to have the opportunity to hire both of those guys (Bryant and Payne) I think adds a lot to the staff,” Thibodeau said.

While he doesn’t have a prior working relationship with the returning Mike Woodson (Knicks coach in 2012-14), he’s heard a lot from their circle.

“I’ve known Woody for a long time,” Thibodeau said. We have a lot of mutual friends. Getting a chance to be around him on a day to day basis has been great and I love the experience that he’s bringing to our staff. Having Woody and Andy Greer, I’m very pleased. I think we have great teachers on our staff.”

This is how Thibodeau has envisioned it.

In the months leading to his appointment as the Knicks head coach, Thibodeau had a revealing interview in The Platform podcast. He talked about how critical is the coaching staff to help him build a winning culture.

For the first time in so many years, the Knicks have synergy from top to bottom.  From Leon Rose and William Wesley down to Thibodeau and his staff, they share the vision of culture setting and player development.

“The best leaders bring out the best in everyone they’re around. That’s what you want, a team of leaders. It’s like a team when you put a staff together. You have to have chemistry. You don’t want to be all the same,” Thibodeau said in the podcast.

Bryant, Payne, and Woodson fit Thibodeau’s criteria.

“Also, who they have been around. It’s different for different people like when you played in the league, you are a great player so let’s start there: have you been around with great coaches? Who is your high school coach? Who is your college coach? What pro coaches have you played for? If you are currently an assistant coach, what great coaches have you been around, and have you won at a high level? At least these things factor into it.”

Bryant is the young up-and-coming coach who has been associated with a perennial playoff team in Utah. Payne has been Calipari’s right-hand man and the acknowledged best assistant coach in college before he came aboard. Woodson has led his past teams to the playoffs and has won an NBA championship with Larry Brown in Detroit.

Thibodeau wants his staff to mirror his team — full of diversity and versatility.

“Just like in a team, you wouldn’t want all older veterans…You’re trying to get different opinions in guys who see things like maybe you want the experience of a long-time assistant, you want the experience of a guy who played in the league maybe in the last three to four years, you want to get a lot of different thoughts.”

With such a young roster and no star in the foreseeable future, the Knicks have finally figured out. The past regime was right when they started to build through the Draft.  But what they seemingly forgot is that it’s only half of the equation.  Player development was neglected.  So when they started to pivot to star-chasing, their empty chest of talent couldn’t draw the stars to come to New York.

It feels like ages ago since the Knicks were relevant, having a playoff team built around stars Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. But it was also around that time when their long-time conference rival Miami Heat were entering the peak of the Heatles (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh).

The Knicks were never the same again after Anthony and Stoudemire left. In contrast, the Heat are now in the last phase of their rebuild.

How have the Heat done it? By having a culture that has been as steady as a rock, and through player development.

The steadying influence of former Knicks coach-turned executive Pat Riley has empowered Erik Spoelstra to stay afloat during the rebuilding years.

It was that culture that led them to attract a proven star in Jimmy Butler.  It was that solid scouting and player development that enabled them: to have late lottery pick Bam Adebayo rise as an emerging NBA star; to have pushed last year’s 13th pick Tyler Herro to perform like a veteran and to unearth undrafted players Duncan Robinson, and Kendrick Nunn.

The Heat found luck in finding players. But certainly, their stunning development wasn’t out of pure luck.  They have adapted to the cards they’ve been dealt with, and now they are on the cusp of reaping the reward — a return trip to the NBA Finals.

The Knicks, on the other hand, are currently back to the drawing board. They have long ways to go before having a playoff team like the Heat. But if it’s any consolation, they are now laying the foundation of what looks like a real culture.

“I think that’s a big challenge in the NBA — how quickly can you adapt? — because things always change in the league, whether it’s trade, free agency, an injury,” Thibodeau said during the zoom call. “You have to adapt quickly. So for us, the focus has to be on the guys who are here. And that’s what we’re doing.

“So everyday we’re thinking about how we can improve as a team and how we can improve individually. And we want that to be our focus. We want to stack days together. We know it starts with fundamentals. We have to build that base and then we’ll take it from there.”

Going back to school is what the Knicks should have done a long time ago.  But it’s better late than never.  Just ask their two-way player Kenny Wooten, Jr.

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