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The Five Steps to Every Tom Thibodeau Coaching Cycle

From the initial buzz to the inevitable burnout, the Thibs timeline is pretty well-known at this point. Will we see it again in New York?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Him again. The New York Knicks want Tom Thibodeau. He’s “atop the list of targets,” according to The Athletic. It’s not entirely surprising, even after his shaky stint with the Wolves, which felt like a reality TV show—let’s go with 90 Day Fiancé, a show built on forced cohesion—coupled with a viral fail video of a kid hitting his face on a diving board he sprung off of two seconds earlier. Still, it appears NBA front offices continue to revere Thibodeau. He’s innovative, dedicated, and gruff in a way you just can’t find with most modern coaches who take their guitars on road trips and speak to their players at a moderate volume. Thibs was (as in, is no longer) a defensive trailblazer, the kind of guy who, according to his former athletic director at Salem State, once broke off an engagement because, “There’s no room in my life for a woman if I’m going to be a basketball coach.”

And it’s the Knicks. They tend to overlook things. (Past performance, current performance, etc.) Thibodeau’s two previous gigs as head coach in Chicago (2010-2015) and Minnesota (2016-2019) had eerily similar timelines. First, there was buzz. Eventually, there was burnout. In between, there were locker room issues, some success, tension with the front office, injuries, lots of promise, lots of yelling, and practices that seemed to go on for months. This timeline, basketball’s own Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, might repeat once again if New York decides he’s the right coach for its latest rebuild. With that in mind, here are the five steps to every Thibs coaching cycle, in order:

1. Toasting the Hire

Fan bases are thrilled when Thibodeau is brought on! Chicago, for example, adored its new workaholic, knowing that after 21 years as an assistant, Thibs was eager to prove he was capable of going it alone. The Bulls had advanced past the first round of the playoffs only once since MJ left. Brand new was necessary—and Thibs’s reviews were sparkling after his defense helped the Celtics win the 2008 title. Thibodeau was expected to “cure the Bulls of their underachieving ways”; the move was called “in and of itself a great maneuver”; owner Jerry Reinsdorf was personally thanked by President Barack Obama’s senior advisor David Axelrod and later applauded by the Chief himself. “The first thing [Obama] said to me was, ‘Great hire.’”

The reception in Minnesota was similar, though considering the Wolves’ playoff drought—at the time, one missed postseason short of tying the longest streak in history; the next year, of course, they tied it—anyone not named Sam Mitchell who’d watched a couple of YouTube scouting videos would’ve been enough to please the weary fans.

Thibs’s arrival was a relief. The year before, Mitchell had become Minnesota’s interim coach after Flip Saunders was diagnosed with cancer. Many Minnesotans worried owner Glen Taylor would keep Mitchell for good, settling for what was in front of him once again. The reactions to Thibs’s hiring were overwhelmingly positive.

Knicks fans aren’t as eager. Yet. This New York Daily News article stating that Thibodeau would be a “good hire” is the only endorsement I could find online. Surely they’ll come around. It seems many fans want former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson to fill the position over Thibs, an opinion I don’t fully understand since Atkinson is known for developing players, fostering good culture, and turning previously incapacitated rosters into fun League Pass teams with upside, while Thibodeau can do cool things like alienate an entire roster and go weeks without seeing the sun. I mean, what the hell?

2. Auspicious Beginnings

This part is easy! Rallying around Thibodeau is fun at the start. (The start of anything—his overall tenure or an individual season. Probably at birth, too. Seems like he’d have been a robust baby.) He coached the 2010-11 Bulls to 62 wins in his first year—21 more than the season before. Even in 2014-15, the season that led to his firing in Chicago, the Bulls won 25 of their first 35 games. Minnesota also had its share of encouraging starts. During the 2017-18 season, after Thibodeau traded for his former Bulls star Jimmy Butler—the third piece Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns needed—the team won 10 of its first 15 games and finished 47-35. It was the first time the Wolves ended the season above .500 since 2004-05. In Chicago, where Jordan left in the ’90s and took all joy with him, and Minnesota, where preteens had grown up never knowing a postseason, these strong starts bought Thibs time and clout before the losing came.

3. The Playing Time and the Practices

In Julio Cortázar’s The Southern Thruway, drivers on their way back to Paris find themselves stuck in a days-long traffic jam. Without any clue as to when it’ll end, time melts and relationships grow. Eventually, the motorists form minicommunities and minilives, helplessly stuck, exhausted, overheated, malnourished, begging for water, forced to reckon together with their unending inability to leave. This is how I imagine a Tom Thibodeau practice.

Once, when Luol Deng came to the Bulls practice facility to “get a few shots up” alone, he unexpectedly ran into Thibodeau. His new coach put the unsuspecting Deng through “one of the toughest workouts I’ve ever done.” In 2017, the Wolves took a 14-hour flight to China for a worldwide training camp as part of the preseason. Upon landing, Thibodeau called for a practice. “We didn’t even really have time to unpack,” Taj Gibson said.

Thibs’s sessions are notoriously long and unrelenting and have earned him two reputations: a coach who cares about winning above all else, and a coach who runs his players into the ground. His players logged so many minutes in Chicago that the front office was forced to intervene. In three of Thibs’s five years with the Bulls, either Jimmy Butler or Luol Deng led the league in average minutes played. When Deng was traded, one scouting report literally said he’d been run “into the ground” by his coach. His injury (and Derrick Rose’s multiple injuries) are often blamed on Thibodeau’s tactics.

Rather than learning his lesson, Minnesota was somehow worse. Wiggins and Towns played more total minutes than anyone else in the league in 2016-17; Zach LaVine was actually on pace to finish ahead of both, but tore his ACL in February. Bench players were more suggestions than rotation fixtures. I’m still not convinced Thibs ever learned Kris Dunn’s name.

During this stage, the players get exhausted, the promising starts begin to spoil, and the frustration starts to boil over once Thibodeau’s teams no longer have the energy left to compete when it matters. The regular season is supposed to be preparation for the postseason. But pacing never occurs to the man who power walks into the practice facility before the sun rises and leaves long after it sets. It was a celebration when the Wolves clinched their first playoff berth in 13 years in 2018, but they were deflated and quickly dismissed against the Rockets in five.

4. The Meeting

So the time has come for a “team meeting.” Or, even worse, a “players-only meeting.” The media leaks the story, fans panic—not sure what you expected after losing six of your last nine—and the whole thing is either denied by Thibodeau or spun into a constructive light. The infamous Bulls team meeting came from the top down. It was January 2015: Rose, frustrated by playing such heavy minutes without more positive results, told reporters, “Everybody has to be on the same page. Until then, we’re going to continue to get our ass kicked.”

The day after, according to ESPN’s Nick Friedell, players were expecting a day off after playing four games in six days. Alas:

Thibodeau told the team they’d be in the gym. Then, miraculously, a meeting was scheduled in lieu of practice. The same day, a report dropped claiming Thibodeau was on the hot seat.

In October 2018, he canceled practice again, this time with the Wolves. A players-only meeting was called by Jimmy Butler, which is weird for a couple of reasons:

  1. He had demanded to be traded for weeks.
  2. When that trade didn’t materialize, he essentially quit on the team.
  3. It was just one day after The Practice, when Butler barged into the gym, played with the B-team to challenge Towns and Wiggins, berated them endlessly, screamed “You fucking need me! You can’t win without me!” to GM Scott Layden (though, again, Butler was the one trying to leave), and left everyone in the gym “speechless.” (Jimmy Butler as a teammate has its own five-step cycle.)

Might I remind you that Butler was Thibodeau’s right-hand (arm) (man) in Chicago. This was his guy. Thibs and Butler made each other, forming a bond over their incorrigible intensity and desire to win—a bond so strong that Thibodeau traded for Butler after only two years of separation. That Jimmy felt the need to call a meeting speaks to how badly their relationship had deteriorated and how much Thibodeau had lost the locker room.

5. The End

The cycle inevitably concludes. Chicago executives waited 13 days to can Thibs after the Bulls were eliminated in the 2015 playoffs (by a Cavs team without Kevin Love and an injured Kyrie Irving). Reinsdorf released a statement accusing Thibodeau of causing “a departure from [a winning] culture,” which, since we’re being petty, it’s worth mentioning that Thibodeau was the winningest Bulls coach since Phil Jackson, whom Reinsdorf also played a part in losing. The release was uniquely harsh compared to the typical “We want to thank [Coach You All Know We Hate] for his time here.”

“There must be free and open interdepartmental discussion and consideration of everyone’s ideas and opinions,” Reinsdorf wrote. “These internal discussions must not be considered an invasion of turf, and must remain private. Teams that consistently perform at the highest levels are able to come together and be unified across the organization.”

Minnesota’s brain trust, meanwhile, walked into Thibodeau’s office after a 22-point win over the Lakers in January to tell him that he was fired. The timing was odd. Even when a firing is as imminent as Thibs’s was, it usually happens after a particularly brutal loss. Not after a blowout victory and back-to-back wins. Maybe it’ll be easier with the Knicks, who rarely see either. Regardless, prepare for an end as ruthless as the man being sent off.