Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau sees no problem being boxed as defensive coach but…

Alder Almo
Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks
Oct 14, 2022; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau coaches against the Washington Wizards during the second quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When you think of New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau, the first thing that comes to mind is defense.

You have this dogmatic image of him barking and scowling at the sidelines, imploring his teams to ‘ICE’ the pick and roll.

After all, Thibodeau did it so well that it helped the Boston Celtics win their last championship; it gave the Chicago Bulls their most successful years in the post-Michael Jordan era, it ended the Minnesota Timberwolves and New York Knicks’ long playoff droughts.

But that dogmatic image also undermines his great acumen on the other side of the ball.

“I know how it works in this league, it’s like, everyone wants to put you in some box, right? Get somebody you know, you’re an offensive guy, your defensive guy, your player development guy, whatever it might be, I just want to win. Whatever gives us the best chance to win. I know I’ve been put into this box pattern and I have no problem with it. But I’ve had top five offensive too.”

Tom Thibodeau via Knicks

The Bulls had a top-5 offense and the league’s no. 1 defense during the 2011-12 season, but they bombed out in the first round after losing Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to injuries. His Timberwolves team ended a 13-year playoff drought in the 2017-18 season despite having a 25th-ranked defense. It was anchored on their top-4 offense.

“If you understand defense, you also understand where the holes in the offense are. You know where you can attack the holes in the defense. And that’s one of the advantages I think you do gain.”

Tom Thibodeau via Knicks

Thibodeau has studied the league where it’s heading during his coaching sabbatical. The game has changed a lot since his time in Chicago. He embraced the three-point revolution, which helped him lay out the blueprint of this Knicks’ reimagined offense.

“When I took the [Knicks] job, I saw where we ranked in terms of three point shooting. So the first thing was: okay, right now we’re not giving ourselves a chance to win because we were at such a deficit. We we didn’t take enough [three-pointers]. We didn’t make enough. You know, so like that was the big thing. Let’s close that gap.”

Tom Thibodeau via Knicks

Before Thibodeau took over, the Knicks ranked last in three-pointers made (9.6) and 29th in attempts (28.4). In contrast, the James Harden-powered Houston Rockets led the league in both threes made (15.6) and attempts (45.3).

Despite having a non-shooting starting point guard and center, the Knicks still made a big jump from 30th to 21st in threes with 11.8 per game on 27th-ranked 30 attempts. Focusing on quality over quantity helped them end an eight-year playoff drought. But their limited offense exposed them in the playoffs.

They tried to address that by adding Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier — two solid three-point shooters — to the mix. Fournier’s historic three-point shooting season propelled the Knicks to break into the top 10 (9th-ranked 13.2 3s per game on 10th-ranked 36.9 attempts). But injuries and chemistry issues dragged their defense down and as a result, they did not make the playoffs.

They have started the close the gap.

This season, the Knicks went younger, and naturally, Thibodeau wants to take advantage of that by speeding up the game, not just in transition but on halfcourt sets, too, with quick ball movement, attacking the rim, and spraying out to shooters.

Two games into this season, the Knicks have maintained their top-10 ranking in three-point attempts (37.5) though they are just a middle-of-the-pack three-point shooting team with 12.5 3s made (16th) mainly due to RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley’s poor shooting starts.

“And so when you look at threes, and it’s a race. I’m looking at every day I checked to see who’s averaging how many threes because I know mathematically we have to be at a certain number in order for us to have a chance to win. And so when you look at how teams create threes, that’s usually [in] transition, it’s offensive rebounding… So the more times you can do that the better.”

Tom Thibodeau via Knicks

The Knicks’ pace this season has been noticeably quicker and crisper with the arrival of Jalen Brunson and the return of Rose.

“I don’t know if it’s completely different. It’s probably a little bit faster. I still would like to see us take more threes than we’re taking, and so and I think there’s more [room for growth] for us.

Tom Thibodeau via Knicks

But make no mistake, Thibodeau isn’t running away from his defensive identity. He wants the Knicks to be strong on both sides of the ball.

“Let’s not get this [twisted]. You’re not getting a win because you scored 130 and you give up 140. I don’t care whether it’s slow, fast or medium [pace]. I just want to make sure we have more [points] than them at the end. That’s the only thing we like, I think people get lost in like, ‘okay, well we want to be this [fast-paced team]. Well, know what gives you the best chance to win. I think that’s the most important thing.”

Tom Thibodeau via Knicks

Before Monday’s night home against the winless Orlando Magic, the Knicks have the league’s top 7 offense (115.2) and defense (104.7) — a step in the right direction toward Thibodeau’s goal. He’s taking tabs on stats. But for him, the most important statistic is the net rating which measures a team’s point differential per 100 possessions.

So far, so good. The Knicks are currently fourth (10.5) in that department.

Thibodeau doesn’t care if people put him in a box as long as he checks the box that matters to him — winning.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo