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

Tired of trying something new, New York decided to try something old. Rather than watch the cycle of failure repeat itself, it’s time for fans to look elsewhere for basketball fulfillment.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I suppose the good thing about Tom Thibodeau eventually ruining all of my favorite team’s young prospects is that I never had much faith in my favorite team’s young prospects anyway. (Except for Mitchell Robinson, who rules.) The Knicks are reportedly finalizing a five-year deal with Thibodeau, the franchise’s second attempt at re-creating the success of the early-2010s Bulls. (Their first attempt came in 2016, when they traded for Derrick Rose and gave Joakim Noah $72 million to score a total of 244 points.) But unlike their first Bullsification, and unlike their previous three coaching hires (none of which lasted two seasons), it seems unlikely that Thibodeau’s tenure with New York will end in a quick disaster. Still, the decision to hire him remains another misguided step for a generally misguided franchise.

Thibodeau’s stints with the Bulls (2010 to 2015) and Timberwolves (2016 to 2019) showed some obvious patterns that will surely repeat themselves. 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 through Scorsese-length practices and an insistence on playing his five favorite guys 43 minutes per night. It’s a strategy that simultaneously upsets the players whose bones are being ground to dust and the ones who are being covered in cobwebs. He 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. As previously noted, those picks haven’t looked great in their young careers (except, of course, my beloved alley-oop god Robinson), but you still have to figure that New York’s rebuild involves hitting on those picks. Even if it does, Thibodeau could stunt those players’ growth.

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. In his final two seasons with Minnesota, the Timberwolves were dead last in 3-point attempts per game. In case you’re wondering whether teams that don’t shoot 3-pointers can be effective, consider that the Knicks ranked 29th in 3-point attempts and dead last in makes before failing to qualify for the bubble.

It’s almost more disheartening to see the Knicks hire someone largely viewed as a competent coach compared to some of their recent head-coaching flameouts. This was new team president Leon Rose’s chance to put his mark on his team. Instead of putting the Knicks in the best position to win, he hired one of his former clients from when he was an agent. Tired of trying something new, the Knicks decided to try something old. We know it won’t work, but it might look slightly more respectable, and sometime in a few years I’ll be writing about the Knicks’ next attempt at climbing out from the depths.

The right answer for what Knicks fans should do about the sad state of the franchise has always been “stop being a Knicks fan,” but that’s never really been an option. There’s a pandemic going on that canceled all sports and I’m still thinking about Mitchell Robinson. (Did you know he is leading the NBA in field goal percentage this year? It’s true.) The easy answer would be to root for the Brooklyn Nets, the team that plays in the same borough as my last four NYC apartments and accomplished the Knicks’ longtime goal of signing A-list free agents last offseason. (Actually, they accomplished it twice!) It would be perfectly reasonable to start rooting for a team that could make me happy rather than a team that has always made me sad. Unfortunately, something is screwed up in my brain, and I somehow ended up as a person who would rather cut off their nondominant hand than switch rooting interests in sports.

However, this past weekend has presented an alternative: The New York Liberty. As the WNBA returned to play this past week, the Liberty played their first game with Sabrina Ionescu, the top pick in the 2020 draft. And look at this person play basketball:

The Liberty lost, in part because the Seattle Storm, the WNBA’s title favorites, began double-teaming Ionescu even in the backcourt. But the Liberty are all the things the Knicks are not: They have seven rookies, including three first-round picks from last year’s draft. The Knicks could have a lot of young players, but they can’t be young and fun, which the Liberty are and will continue to be. They hired a new head coach this past offseason, but one described as a “development guru” who insists on the team taking oodles of 3-pointers.

And perhaps most importantly, the Liberty have a big “NO LONGER OWNED BY JAMES DOLAN” sign on the front door. Dolan owned the team from its inception until 2019, when he sold the team to Nets owner Joe Tsai and the Liberty moved to Brooklyn. As with the Knicks, Dolan was a bad WNBA owner: He complained about the team’s finances and hired failure magnet Isiah Thomas as the team’s president a decade after his disastrous stint as the Knicks’ general manager and head coach, during which a jury ruled that he sexually harassed a former team executive. Now, the Liberty are free.

The Liberty have spectacular individual talent, great ideas about how to win, and obvious potential. Watching them makes me hopeful instead of hurtful, which is how sports should feel. It’s unfair to talk about them as the B story to the Knicks’ new brand of failure, so I’m going to start thinking about them as the A story to my future sports joy.