The New York Knicks shocked the NBA last season by finishing as the fourth seed in the 15-team Eastern Conference. Head coach Tom Thibodeau received much of the credit for the team’s resurgence, earning the 2020-21 NBA Coach of the Year award. Thibodeau appeared to have re-established himself among the league’s best coaches and was expected to build on last season’s performance following an offseason of roster improvements.
Despite an expanded arsenal, Thibodeau has failed to make the most of the talent on the roster. The Knicks’ record currently stands at 12-13, a sub-.500 showing only good enough for 11th place in the Eastern Conference. This disappointing start demonstrates the flaws that separate Thibodeau from the NBA’s elite coaches.
Impulsivity that ruined the homecoming ceremony of a native son
The Knicks’ off-season signing of four-time NBA All-Star guard Kemba Walker was a compelling story. A Bronx native? Check. Grew up a Knicks fan? Check. Team-friendly contract? Check.
Knicks fans likely dreamt of Walker turning back the clock and hitting game-winning buzzer beaters at Madison Square Garden as he had for the University of Connecticut in 2011 against the University of Pittsburgh. That shot was the highlight of Walker’s iconic performance in the Big East Conference Tournament that year on the way to a tournament victory.
A decade later, fans were hopeful that the former Boston Celtic could bring some much-needed playmaking and scoring ability to the team. However, since the start of his Knicks tenure, Walker has been just average on offense, offering only 11.7 points per game with a 43% shooting percentage. This mediocre offensive output certainly doesn’t make up for how awful his defense has been. In response to Walker’s performance, Thibodeau announced that he would be removed not only from the starting lineup but from the playing rotation as a whole. That’s right — after only 24 games, a hometown hero has been relegated to the bench in his own backyard.
While Walker has struggled, to call Thibodeau’s move an overreaction would be an understatement. This situation highlights the stubbornness and impulsiveness that keeps Thibodeau a tier below the league’s best coaches like Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra or Nick Nurse. There’s no justification for Thibodeau’s refusal to move Walker to the second unit or to give him more time to adapt defensively. His impatience and stubbornness are pushing a potential major Knicks contributor out of the city.
Trust issues stunting youth development
Whenever forward Obi Toppin or guard Immanuel Quickley are checked into the game, the Garden erupts with excitement, and it’s clear why. Both players bring the energy, youthfulness and confidence that the Knicks need. With these two on the court, the Knicks seem to play with an increased urgency on both offense and defense. However, despite becoming more experienced and adjusted to the league, both Toppin and Quickley have seen only a marginal increase in minutes played since their rookie seasons.
This decision-making highlights a major Thibodeau flaw: a hesitation toward giving playing time to young players. Thibodeau’s handling of Jimmy Butler during his Chicago Bulls coaching tenure is a prime example — in the future NBA All-Star’s rookie season, he averaged only 8.5 minutes per game. While this figure jumped to 26 minutes the following season, Thibodeau still didn’t give Butler free rein to take shots.
The Knicks are clearly a better team when Toppin and Quickley are on the court. Truly elite coaching means trusting younger players to step up when needed. Thibodeau’s coaching style conflicts with the team’s best long-term interests.
Refusal to embrace reality
In the modern NBA, a coach’s most important quality isn’t a comprehensive understanding of modern defensive schemes or the creativity to develop a high-scoring offense — it’s the ability to manage a group of emotionally turbulent grown men. Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash’s most impressive feat as a coach isn’t related to X’s and O’s, but rather to keeping the locker room intact amid the giant egos of superstars Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.
The NBA is no longer an old-school league where coaches have all of the authority and act like military generals. While Thibodeau’s coaching style can turn an average team into a good team, it will never turn a good team into a great team. He’s too stuck in his ways to accept the reality of today’s player-centric NBA.
Thibodeau lacks the personality type that players gravitate toward. He also refuses to adopt load management, a strategy that prioritizes long-term player durability through the tactical resting of healthy players. Great coaches are great recruiters who respect the superstars. They understand that if the stars are happy, the team will succeed. Thibodeau’s cold glares certainly aren’t helping.
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