Knicks: A new portrait of Tom Thibodeau

There is this long-held portrait of Tom Thibodeau as a draconian and gruff coach who runs his players to the ground.

It’s hard to fault anybody who pictured Thibodeau that way after his messy exits in Chicago and Minnesota.

A Karl Anthony-Towns’ no holds barred interview after Ryan Saunders replaced Thibodeau as the Timberwolves coach in 2019 only exacerbated it.

“We think we have the best coaching staff possibly in the game right now from talent, experience, and just culture standpoint,” Towns told WCCO’s Cory Hepola at that time.

Towns added that he was very happy to introduce their then rookies to a family culture, taking a shot at Thibodeau’s all-basketball-and-nothing-else approach to team building.

“You know, I don’t think the situation before it would’ve been very beneficial for them, and that’s a disrespect and a slap in the face to their development, you know, and I want to make sure that they develop not only as players but as human beings and as men. And, uh, you know, that’s what we’re here to do,” Towns added.

“And in Minnesota, the thing, one of the biggest things where Ryan and with me is like, we have to make sure our culture is not based on just basketball. This is a family atmosphere. Everything we do here in Minnesota has to be able to have a family. A family backing and a family thought process. And building people’s personalities, characters and showing them more of themselves. And you’re more than basketball.”

Fast forward to 2021, and Thibodeau has reinvented himself and was back in the playoffs, ending the New York Knicks‘ eight-year playoff drought during his first year. But unlike his flameout in Minnesota, no drama developed. Only a family atmosphere which Towns craved.

Thibodeau did a soul searching following his ugly ending in Minnesota. In an interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, months before he assumed the head coaching post in New York, Thibodeau sounded like he’s changed.

“You learn from your experiences. I think it’s important to ask yourself, what can I do better? You are kind of making a better situation for everybody,” Thibodeau told Wojnarowski.

“We all learn probably more from our mistakes than we do from our successes, and I think that’s part of the equation. And so, I think the biggest thing, as I said, is the league is always changing, and so you want to make sure you’re adapting as well.”

There were trepidations that it was just a mirage. That Thibodeau can’t be the right coach for a young Knicks team. That an old dog can’t learn new tricks. But Thibodeau went into his latest coaching job with an open mind. He embraced analytics. He adapted to the modern style of play, searching for ways to increase three-point opportunities.

But more than the style of play, the change in his approach and management style without sacrificing the long-held beliefs that he dearly valued endeared him to this team. He commanded the total buy-in that he failed to get in Minnesota.  

Derrick Rose blossomed into the youngest MVP in the league a decade ago under Thibodeau’s demanding style. Then he developed into a solid sixth man during their reunion in Minnesota. He found a kindred spirit in Thibodeau.

Rose lived his early years in the fast lane, breathing and eating basketball until injuries changed his perspectives. Now he clocks in the gym and still leaves everything on the court. But once he clocks out, he enjoys his time with his family, especially his kids.

Thibodeau has no family. Basketball has become his wife. His life revolved around basketball. That’s why players who come at night for a shootaround find the lights in Thibodeau’s office still on.

Younger players, who were playing under Thibodeau for the first time, naturally gravitated towards Rose. But even Rose has noticed the not-so-subtle changes in his old coach.

“Yeah [younger players ask me about Thibs], but he throws me off sometimes too,” Rose said with a chuckle. “Like you never know. If anything, I think guys are saying a different side of him this year — seeing him actually crack jokes or like to open up like you know when he doesn’t like you if he’s not talking to you.”

Evan Fournier has extensive experience playing under a demanding coach like Thibodeau. After all, his former coach at Orlando Magic, Steve Clifford, is a good friend of Thibodeau and both coaches came under the coaching tree of Jeff Van Gundy.

“I think he’s exceptional in the work ethic that he installs in practice like the spirit,” Fournier said of Thibodeau. “We’re all tired. We’re all working really hard, but he somehow makes it fun. He knows when to f—k around, joke, smile, and bring a good and positive attitude.”

“And he knows when to be tough, makes sure we go harder, makes sure we understand what he wants from us, and he really demands us to give everything we have on each drill. And when he senses that, you know, not that we’re going through the motion, but we’re not necessarily going after it, that’s when he kind of stops and either asks us to do it again or talks to us and makes sure we go harder.”

Thibodeau has somehow found the balance that was long missing in his coaching.

There was a time when Thibodeau held practices past the traditional two-hour window. Van Gundy once told ESPN’s Ian O’ Connor, now a New York Post columnist, about the longest summer league practice ever. Thibodeau, an assistant coach at that time, was tasked to coach the Knicks Summer League team in the 2000s.

Van Gundy said the practice was scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon, with the second one from 4 to 6 p.m. But Thibs held the first practice until 3:15 p.m. before yelling at players to “Get off your feet. Get some rest. Get something to eat.” Van Gundy was like, “Tom, it’s 3:15. They’ve only got 45 minutes.”

Two decades later, that would make the players revolt against the coach that could lead to dismissal. In an era when the league has become younger and player empowerment has grown so much bigger, Thibodeau has shed his old skin to get buy-in.

“So for him to open up,” Rose said after Friday’s practice. “And just like he ended up practice. We were still supposed to be on the court for like another half an hour or hour. But he cut it short just so that guys can get recovery. Back in the day, he wasn’t doing that. He was trying to maximize all the time that we had on the court because he wanted to win so bad. So it’s great to see him actually like adjusting, learning, and just knowing that it’s just a different league now.”

“The kids in the league now, they’re different. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just that basketball is in a different place. You look at the tempo of the game, it’s changed. So guys need that recovery, and you need that energy to go out there and play the way that the game is being played right now.”

During his second sabbatical, Thibodeau visited teams around the league and learned something new from his coaching fraternity. He couldn’t believe when Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers head coach at that time, was holding practice for their young guys while the older guys were getting treatment and recovery.

“The league never stays the same. It’s always evolving and changing. And you want to make sure you’re keeping up with the times,” Thibodeau said in Wojnarowski’s podcast.

Thibodeau looked in the mirror and had an awakening. He realized his mistakes and vowed to be better when the next coaching opportunity came. And he made good of that promise evolving into a warmer and friendlier coach in his return to New York.

“Him being aware of it, that’s the biggest thing. Like sometimes you know how it is you want something so bad that you overlook the little [things], the nuances of like what got you there. And for him to be aware of it and to be able to catch it like that’s huge. I think it’s huge for the team,” Rose said.

But some things never change. Thibodeau’s trademark maniacal work ethic is still there, which this Knicks team has fully embraced.

Immanuel Quickley is one of the young guys in the team whom Thibodeau said the Knicks player who’s spending the most time in the gym.

“Every time I come here at 9 o clock, 10 o clock, he’s always in his room waving to me. So it’s great to have somebody to have a coach that’s putting just as much as time spending just as much as you. You want somebody that’s dedicated to their craft, who’s going to push the group to be the best as they can be and as individuals to be the best they can be. And that’s a big thing why we appreciate him,” Quickley said after Friday’s practice.

Mellowed by time and softened by experience, the new Tom Thibodeau has managed to push the right buttons to accelerate the Knicks’ timeline. It’s the old school and new age of coaching intersecting in between Seventh and Eighth avenues from 31st to 33rd Street that made Madison Square Garden a basketball paradise again. It has rejuvenated both the franchise and Thibodeau’s career.

“A lot of people think Thibs is crazy, but you know he’s more normal to me coming from coach Cal (John Calipari),” Quickley said, which elicited laughter from reporters. “So you know it’s great to have somebody like I say all the time, that pushes you, challenges you mentally, physically every day to be the best you can be. That’s what you want especially coming in the first year, second-year guys.”

“I think more of the coaches around the league are more you know kind of subtle how they come to the game or maybe like kind of relaxed but coach Thibs is going to push you to the max and that’s what you want.”

Perhaps it’s time to change Thibodeau’s long-held portrait to a liberal and friendlier coach who pushes his players to reach the summit.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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