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There’s Joy in Tom Thibodeau and the Playoff-Bound Knicks

When New York hired Thibs in 2020, I thought it was the latest doomed move for a franchise long defined by futility. I couldn’t have been more wrong—or more delighted by what’s happened since.

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

As the New York Knicks have ascended to their first playoff berth in eight seasons, I have repeatedly returned to an article I wrote last July, after Tom Thibodeau was hired as the team’s head coach. It is the wrongest thing I have ever written—perhaps the wrongest thing anybody has ever written. It’s like a slow-cooker chili of wrongness: The longer it sits, and the higher that the Knicks have climbed in the standings, the more new flavors of wrongness have emerged for me to savor.

I was wrong with my general premise: I argued that the Thibodeau hire was the latest in a seemingly endless string of poor Knicks decisions, when in fact it seems to have been the decision that jolted the franchise out of the doldrums and back to relevance. I was also wrong with my reasoning, as many of my predictions were wildly inaccurate. For example:

The idea is that he’ll make the team better with his defensive genius and an emphasis on hard work. That’s not even necessarily true—Minnesota had the third-worst defensive rating in the league while Thibodeau was its coach. But even if he succeeds, he will eventually alienate every meaningful player on the roster.

Wrong! Thibodeau’s defensive genius has clearly shined through, as the Knicks have allowed just 104.7 points per game, the fewest in the league. The players don’t resent their coach’s fetish for hard work—rather, they’ve bought all the way in. They refuse to give up on any game or play, and seem genuinely thrilled to have the opportunity to ruin somebody else’s night. “This is the most fun that I’ve had as far as playing in the league,” Julius Randle said on JJ Redick’s podcast in February. “This is the first time I’ve been on a team where we’ve got multiple dudes, like damn near the whole team, coming to the gym, putting in extra work, putting in extra shots, and Thibs loves it.”

I also thought that Thibodeau would hurt the development of young players, which has been proved wildly, wildly wrong.

[Thibodeau] is particularly unfriendly toward young players, which is troubling for a team that has added three top-10 picks in the past three years and will land a fourth when the 2020 NBA draft takes place … Thibodeau could stunt those players’ growth.

A huge part of the Knicks’ success has come from the year-over-year improvement of RJ Barrett. Barrett was inefficient and aimless as a rookie; now, he seems like a budding star. He averaged more points, rebounds, and assists this season than he did last season, and he’s shooting at a far more efficient clip. And then there’s Immanuel Quickley, the 25th pick in last year’s draft who deserves a spot on the NBA’s All-Rookie team. He’s done a little bit of everything, including hitting just shy of 40 percent of 3s since February—which brings me to the next way I was wrong.

Maybe most alarming for Knicks fans is that Thibodeau’s preferred philosophies have become obsolete in the modern NBA. As 3-point prowess has clearly emerged as a critical factor, Thibodeau remains stubbornly resistant to change.

The Knicks’ 3-point shooting has actually been one of their biggest strengths. Last season, they finished 27th in 3-point percentage (33.7 percent); this season they’re third in that statistic (39.2 percent). Randle, who entered this season as a career 29.5 percent shooter from deep, is converting 41.1 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. Barrett, who shot 32 percent from 3 last year (and 30.8 percent at Duke), has made 40.1 percent of his 3s on the season and 47.9 percent since March 31. Reggie Bullock and Alec Burks are both averaging career highs in made 3-pointers per game and are shooting better than 40 percent from deep; Derrick Rose, a career 31.1 percent shooter, is connecting on 41.1 percent of his 3s for New York; even Frank Ntilikina, whose role has waned, is hitting 47.9 percent of his 3s after shooting a dismal 31.1 percent in his first three NBA seasons. If one player improves as a shooter, that’s probably a sign he put in work. If six players improve simultaneously? Well, the team may have something to do with it.

But the wrongest thing about that article from July? The headline:

There’s No Joy in the Knicks’ Hiring of Tom Thibodeau

Quite the opposite. I’m a Knicks fan, and no matter what happens in this season’s playoffs, rooting for this team has been one of the great joys of my sporting life.

The past few decades of the Knicks have been defined by stagnancy. It’s not just that they have the worst record in the NBA since 2000—although they do, at 734-1028—it’s that even as they bottomed out they seemed to lack any plan to build toward future success. Time and again, the team’s long-term strategy was not to develop young talent or put together useful pieces, but to wait for the moment when a franchise savior would choose the Knicks in free agency. Time and again, superstar free agents signed elsewhere, putting more stock in the franchise’s recent history of futility than the allure of playing in Madison Square Garden.

This strategy appeared to hit its nadir in 2019, when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving both signed with the Brooklyn Nets, passing over the Knicks to join the more competently run franchise in the same city. The Knicks had traded away talent and cleared cap space so they could bring in an All-NBA-type player like KD ... and then spent that cap space on Julius Randle, who had never previously made an All-Star team. Then, after missing the cutoff to play in the NBA bubble last season, the Knicks basically didn’t change their roster whatsoever. Their biggest move last offseason was giving a one-year, $6 million contract to Alec Burks.

I wasn’t alone in assuming that a group that finished 21-45 in 2019-20 and made no outward moves to improve would remain bad this season. ESPN’s preseason power rankings slotted the Knicks at 29th out of 30 teams. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor was even more pessimistic, putting the Knicks in dead last. FiveThirtyEight projected the Knicks to finish with the league’s third-worst record; meanwhile, Las Vegas sportsbooks gave the Knicks an over/under win total of 21.5, tied for the lowest in the NBA.

But while past Knicks teams were defined by stagnancy, this team has been defined by growth. Randle will be named the NBA’s Most Improved Player, and deservedly so. He showed promise earlier in his career, but when the Knicks signed him, he was coming off a stint as the third-best player on the 33-49 New Orleans Pelicans. Now he’s the fulcrum of a playoff team, leading the NBA in minutes while leading New York in points, rebounds, and assists. He’s emerged as a spectacular shooter, an artful passer, and a menacing defender. Any of these developments would have been impressive; all of them happening at once has been breathtaking.

And he’s not alone. I’d argue that five players on the Knicks roster are having the best seasons of their respective careers: In addition to Randle and Barrett, there’s Bullock, who’s emerged as a 3-and-D specialist; Burks, who’s put together some stunning fourth-quarter shooting performances; and Nerlens Noel, who leads the NBA in blocks per 100 possessions (4.6). Even some players not having the best years of their careers, like former MVP Derrick Rose, have made big improvements. Four years ago, Rose was an inefficient third option on the Knicks, behind Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. I thought he was cooked. Since being acquired via trade in February, though, Rose has been an energetic, effective scorer off the bench. He’s nominated for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award.

The Knicks have also grown during the season. They opened 9-13 and were 25-27 at one point; they went 16-4 in their final 20 games, including going on a nine-game winning streak. About 30 games in, I was excited about the Knicks potentially fighting for a playoff spot—and then they clinched the damn fourth seed. They are a total rebuke to the last decade of Knicksdom. They didn’t wait for somebody great to show up. They made something great happen right here by themselves.

I had lost all faith in the Knicks. It was hard not to, after watching them make bad signings, bad trades, bad draft picks, and bad coaching hires. I had convinced myself that any choice they made would inherently be bad. The Knicks seemed so poisoned that they could hire someone like Phil Jackson—maybe the preeminent basketball mind of his generation—and my initial reaction was, Well, this probably won’t work. (It didn’t.)

So it was when the Knicks hired Thibodeau, a former Coach of the Year who had led two different franchises to the playoffs and was an assistant on the great Knicks teams of the late 1990s. I immediately began searching for flaws, certain that any Knicks decision must be doomed.

I didn’t believe in the Knicks. That’s why I keep going back and reading my wrongness. I want to savor how aggressively I underestimated this coach’s smarts and these player’s hearts—how I once doubted the players I have now come to love. These Knicks have proved that it’s possible for a team to transform itself. I’ll always cherish the way this crew made me believe.