The New York Knicks have improved. But so is the rest of the East.
Miami Heat picked up what they perceive as their missing link in Kyle Lowry, a championship-savvy point guard. Chicago Bulls have added more ammunition to the pair of Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic with DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball. Boston Celtics have regrouped with a defensive-minded new coach in Ime Udoka and brought veteran Al Horford back. Championship-level coach Rick Carlisle rejoined the Indiana Pacers, and he is hoping to coach a healthy lineup to the postseason.
These are the reasons why the oddsmakers, general managers, and naysayers do not see the Knicks duplicating their fourth seed run in the East despite adding four-time All-Star point guard Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier.
But it is hard to bet against a Tom Thibodeau-coached team.
In his second year as the Knicks head coach, Thibodeau is ready to add more layers to their evolving identity that he hopes would be harder for the opponents to peel away.
“So much of what you do is based on the personnel that you have. So, I think it’s important to understand the value of shots. The important thing is to be efficient and what gives you the best chance to win,” Thibodeau said after Monday’s practice.
During their undefeated run in the preseason, Thibodeau rolled out a more dynamic offense that averaged 41 three-point attempts per game, sixth in the NBA, but still a dozen attempts behind league-leader Golden State. Nevertheless, it’s still quite a big jump from last season when the Knicks finished 27th in three-point attempts with 30 per game. Despite that uptick in three-point attempts, the Knicks remained their top-three accuracy (38.4 percent).
Walker and Fournier accounted for 10.7 attempts, while mainstays RJ Barrett (6.3) and Julius Randle (6.0) continue to lead the team.
In that small sample size in the preseason, the Knicks had a top-two offense (113.4 offensive rating) and a top-10 defense (101.5 defensive rating).
It’s the kind of game that Thibodeau wants the Knicks to achieve — strong on both ends of the ball.
“I’ve had teams that were in the top five in offense, and it was because they played to their strengths,” Thibodeau said.
“Derrick, for example, has always been a great downhill player. He’s always been in the paint and strong in the restricted area. He’s always shot well from the corners. Jimmy Butler was a guy who drew fouls and got to the line a lot, and there’s great value in free throws. There’s great value in layups.”
That is the reason why his Chicago and Minnesota teams were not too keen on attempting many three-pointers.
But towards the end of his tenure in Minnesota, Thibodeau showed glimpses of his evolving offense. In his first season with the Timberwolves, they ranked last in the league in three-point attempts with only 21 per game. By the time he was fired in January 2019, the Timberwolves had jumped to 23rd with 28.5 three-point shots per game.
Thibodeau has always admired the Golden State Warriors championship teams who revolutionized the game with the power of the outside shot. And on the other end, their stout defense was anchored by small-ball center Draymond Green and ran to perfection by Steve Kerr’s lead assistant Ron Adams, who was part of Thibodeau’s coaching staff in Chicago.
“When they made the commitment to defense, they went to an entirely different level,” Thibodeau said in a 2017 preseason game in China against the Warriors. “Not only were they great on offense, they were also great on defense. That’s what makes them so special. With all the success they’ve had, they’ve remained very hungry.”
Four years later, after an unsuccessful run to emulate that with the Timberwolves, he’s starting to replicate the Warriors’ bold strategy — perhaps not in style but substance — with a young Knicks team he inherited last season.
Thibodeau stumbled on an untapped strength in their preseason finale against the Washington Wizards, resembling the small-ball Warriors, who pushed the pace and played with space and a scrambling defense.
A six-minute stretch of small ball lineup featuring a Randle-Obi Toppin frontcourt fueled the Knicks’ comeback win against the Wizards, producing 29 points on the back of 5 for 8 shooting from deep and a spirited defense that only allowed 14 points.
Toppin’s growth will only make Thibodeau bolder in deploying that lineup in stretches against teams with slower pivot men.
Thibodeau added veterans like how the Warriors surrounded their then young core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Green with Andre Igoudala, Shaun Livingston, and David West.
“That’s what makes [Warriors] who they are; [they’re] all unselfish,” Thibodeau said. “They’re all hard playing. They’re all high character. The new guys come in and become part of the culture,” Thibodeau said in 2017.
In New York, he did the reverse. The Knicks’ young core became part of Thibodeau’s culture, learning the ropes from his most trusted veterans Rose and Taj Gibson.
That was further solidified during Thibodeau’s visit to the Warriors’ practices when he was exiled from coaching. He saw how Kerr married old-school tenacity with outright fun, the new age of coaching that connects well to the younger generation of players.
“Every year, you want to learn and grow. Every time I step away from the game, I try to visit different teams,” Thibodeau told Stephen A. Smith last May. “It can be in any industry. It’s about leadership. Players are getting younger. I’m getting older. So I looked for ways that I can continue relating to players.”
Throughout the training camp, Fournier, Rose, and other players testified how Thibodeau has changed from a creature of habit to loosening up a bit at practice.
That was not the only thing he learned during his coaching sabbatical.
Learning new load management methods from Doc Rivers during his visit to Los Angeles when the latter was still the Clippers’ coach, Thibodeau has managed his top players’ health well. Randle and Barrett, who led the league in minutes last season, withstood the rigors of a cramped 72-game schedule without breaking down. Barrett played all 72 games. Randle only missed one game.
“There’s a lot that goes into it (load management). You know, it’s easy to pick up a box score and say this guy played 38 minutes. And oftentimes, that guy played 38 minutes because the other wing played 38 minutes. You’re matching guys up. And then no one sees what you’re doing in practice. Do you have contact or what are you doing in practice,” Thibodeau explained.
Thibodeau, a master in game planning and meticulous in details, said on Monday that he maps the season once the schedule comes out, identifying when the team takes a day or days off during the course of a long season. The hard practices have become short, and walkthroughs have become common, especially when the team is on the road.
Taking a page out of Warriors’ template, Thibodeau pushed for more shooting. Walker and Fournier bring that to the team on top of their playmaking abilities. Rookies Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride also have that in their arsenal aside from their reputation as stout defenders in college.
The Knicks have employed the famed 100 shooting drill in finding players who can shoot and are mentally tough. Pete Mickael, a former Knicks reserve back in the 2000s who worked under Thibodeau in Minnesota as a scout, saw that drill for the first time in a Timberwolves practice in 2017.
“It’s kind of a workout after practice where guys shoot 100 three-pointers from different areas on the court while they are always moving. I’ve seen it where it [was done] full court, as a group of guys at the same time, and also seen it where guys taking turns to take the 100 shots. So there are different versions of it,” Mickeal told Empire Sports Media.
Utah Jazz, where current Knicks assistant general manager Walt Perrin came from, have been using that 100 shooting drill to evaluate prospects. Perrin said it was a drill that former Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey brought with him from San Antonio.
Vrenz Bleijenbergh, who is now playing in Spain after going undrafted last June, told Empire Sports Media that he did the drill after his Knicks workout. But he’d also seen different versions of the drill with all the teams he visited during his pre-draft workouts.
“I think the Knicks [100 drill] was my worse shooting [display], and it was like around 60. Mostly, I was around 70,” Bleijenbergh said.
The 100 shooting drill plus the addition of a four-point line in the Knicks’ practice facility and the Noah Basketball shot tracking system have boosted the Knicks’ three-point shooting stock.
“So, whatever the strengths of your teams are, you want to try to take advantage of that. The game has changed, so there’s been a lot more of a premium put on shooting, but I think the biggest thing is just understanding the value of shots, and we’re trying to get there,” Thibodeau said. “So, I think the more shooting we add, the better it is for us.”
As the real games begin Wednesday night against Boston Celtics, Thibodeau already has a baseline to his rejigged lineup’s limitless potential.
The Knicks have the continuity, flexibility, and synergy to thrive in the regular season. The playoffs will be another story.
But unlike last year, when their offense got stalled in long stretches and relied heavily on the predictable Randle isolation plays, they now have multiple players who can shoot and make plays. They have assembled a deep lineup that can withstand any potential injury hit. Thibodeau can dig deep up to his 12th, 13th man in the roster in case of emergency.
“His first year was establishing the culture. But once he gets the players that he needs, the Knicks will be a lot better. Look for him to stamp his signature on the team and find ways to win,” Mickeal said. “That’s the greatness of Tom Thibodeau. He’s a winner and has dedicated himself to studying the game.”
The most valuable NBA franchise (according to Forbes) will enter the new season as one of the most stable organizations in the league, something that has been unheard of in New York for the longest while.
They have all the ingredients for sustainable success — a winning coach and a combination of a talented young core, tradeable team-friendly contracts, and a deep war chest of assets. They have six first-rounders and nine second-round picks across the subsequent four drafts that they could dangle in a big swing for a superstar in a mid-season trade.
So, even if the rest of the East has gotten better, the Knicks are poised for another playoff run and have set themselves up for a bright future.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo