When Tom Thibodeau was hired, there was no doubt he has the coaching acumen to change the New York Knicks‘ identity. The bigger question was will a young Knicks team embrace him?
Sixty-three games later, the proof is in the pudding.
Thibodeau is on the cusp of driving a rugged Knicks team to the playoffs with a 26-year old, first-time NBA All-Star as its engine.
With nine games left, the conversation has shifted from “Can the Knicks make it to the playoffs?” to “Can the Knicks earn a homecourt advantage in the playoffs?”
How did Thibodeau make it work after his unceremonious exit in Minnesota raised questions about whether he could still coach in the modern NBA?
Right time. Right situation.
Thibodeau was precisely what the doctor has ordered for a franchise that has long been searching for identity, for young players looking for accountability, and for veterans yearning for an opportunity.
He came in and molded this team into his likeness — tough, workaholic, and puts winning above everything.
“I give a lot of credit to Thibs. He’s our leader, man,” Julius Randle said in an interview with Knicks die-hard fan and legendary hip hop artist Fat Joe on Instagram. “He came in from the very first day and said, yo, this is who we’re gonna be as a team. He established who we are. Every night, this is what we’re gonna do.”
Shortly after Thibodeau’s hiring was announced, he said he would build the team’s foundation around defense, rebounding, low turnovers, and sharing the ball.
The Knicks currently have a top-four defense. They are sixth (45.4) in rebounding despite losing starting center Mitchell Robinson twice to serious injuries and seventh-best in the league in terms of taking care of the ball with just 13.2 turnovers per game. It’s only on the assist department that they are not hitting the mark as their 21.4 ranks 29th in the league. But that can also be argued when you look through the lens of the Knicks playing at such a slow pace that they are battling teams possession-for-possession in a playoff-type of basketball every single night.
With the NBA evolving into a three-point shooting league, Thibodeau also laid out the ideas of what goes into winning in the modern era of basketball.
“If you’re getting layups and you’re getting to the free-throw line, and obviously you’re trying to create as many corner 3-point attempts as you can — that’s how you win,” Thibodeau said on the Michael Kay Show back in August. “And then defensively, obviously, you try to take those things away and get your opponent to take long twos.
“So you have to figure out what gives your (team) the best chance to win and try to approach it that way. You just don’t want to shoot high-volume threes that are not good threes. When you look at Milwaukee, they take very good threes. If you look at Golden State, they’re similar.
“Sometimes, if you’re taking high-volume bad threes, you’re going to get beat. It’s going to compromise your defense. I think the type of threes, the type of shots, understanding the value of shots, that’s an important part of winning.”
Thibodeau took it one step at a time, focusing on establishing the Knicks identity on defense during the training camp and at the beginning of the season.
What struck opposing coaches when they play the Knicks? They have answered in unison: “They are a physical team.”
The Knicks have become one of the best defensive teams in the league by leveraging their physicality, forcing their opponents to take tough long twos, and closing out on the three-point line with playoff effort.
Their opponents are attempting half of their shot attempts from 15 feet away (50.2 percent frequency) and holding them down to just 37.3 percent in that zone, which ranks no.2 behind four teams — the Bucks, Utah Jazz, Charlotte Hornets, and the Los Angeles Clippers — tied on top with 37.2-percent clip.
Match that with their league’s top three-point defense (33.8%), and the Knicks have hovered around the top three defensive net ratings for most of the season before regressing to the top four in the last month. But despite a slight dip in their defense, their offense has started to catch up thanks to the Knicks’ Thibs-like workaholic mindset that often leads to late shooting nights even on the road.
Thibodeau made an emphasis on the corner threes, the shortest distance (22 feet) in the three-point line. The Knicks responded by jumping from 25th (36.5%) last season to 9th (40.9%) this season in corner three-point accuracy, per NBA.com stats through April 30 games.
They are above the Warriors and just two spots behind the Bucks — the two teams Thibodeau looked up to in the offseason. The Knicks’ 8.8 attempts from corner three rank seventh in the league.
Last month, when the Knicks went 11-4, including a nine-game winning streak that catapulted them into the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, they led the league in three-point accuracy with 42.4 percent. They shot 42.3 percent of their corner threes, tied for seventh with the Hornets. They were hitting 4.4 out of 10.4 attempts, a three-point bump from their season average of 3.6 out of 8.8 shots. The volume of corner threes the Knicks took during that stretch was just behind the Jazz (11.2) and the Miami Heat (10.9).
The Knicks have jumped out in ESPN analyst Kirk Goldsberry’s efficiency landscape, ascending into no.2 in net rating, no.3 on both offense and defense in the last 15 games.
Just when almost everybody thought the Knicks would regress, they found a second wind, banking on the winning habits Thibodeau has instilled in them.
“Every day, we go in like we’re super prepared. Every team we play against is like a playoff game for us. That’s how prepared we are,” Randle added. “That’s how detailed, and he’s (Thibodeau) on top of everything from shootaround to practice, whatever it is, we are super prepared. It’s something about being prepared that breeds that confidence. Every time we go in, we feel like we’re going to win.”
That’s exactly how Thibodeau has transformed the Knicks from the league’s favorite whipping team into a playoff-contending team in such a short time. He came with a precise idea of how they are going to play every night.
But it takes two to tango.
As much as Randle credits Thibodeau for establishing the Knicks’ identity, the whole team should also take credit for matching that with playoff intensity. Every single game.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo