Rotating basketball coaches is a normal occurrence at Madison Square Garden. By making it to training camp, Tom Thibodeau became the first Knicks coach since Mike Woodson to get to his third season. If he makes it to next year’s camp, he’d be the first since Mike D’Antoni.
Add in the stench of last season’s collapse and there are reasons to believe Tom Thibodeau is under pressure to keep his job entering Year 3.
On Tuesday, with his first comments in over five months, Thibodeau launched into a passionate defense of his work while swatting away the idea that he’s burdened by job insecurity.
“I’ve never felt pressure. Ever,” Thibodeau said. “When you put everything you have into your job, that’s all you can do. So I’ve never felt pressure. Others can say this or that. That ain’t’ happening here. Just get ready. I’ve been at this a long time. I approach it the same way. I put everything I have into each and every day. I’m willing to live with that result. There’s no one — NO ONE — who studies this team harder than I do.”
It’d be unfair to criticize Thibodeau’s work ethic, which is renowned as maniacal enough to rob him of a healthy social life. The concerns are mostly about Thibodeau’s patience for a rebuild. Complaints last season centered around his reliance on veterans over prospects, with Obi Toppin’s skimpy playing time drawing the most attention. But after the front office did little to change the roster dynamics in the offseason, it’s unlikely the Knicks, with or without Thibodeau, could undergo the type of youth overhaul that fans have clamored about.
Asked specifically about maximizing Toppin’s impact as Julius Randle’s backup, Thibodeau indicated that optics are unrelated to his coaching decisions.
“It’s based on performance — who fits better,” the coach said. “It’s not fantasy basketball, it’s what makes the group work best. So that’s what we’ll do. I like the way he’s growing. We’ve got to get the best out of everyone.”
The expectation is Thibodeau keeps four of his starters from last season — Randle, Evan Fournier, Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett — while adding newly-signed Jalen Brunson at point guard. That group accounts for 66% of the team’s salary this season.
It leaves questions about how Toppin and Immanuel Quickley can find the court and continue the developments that showed signs of strong promise toward the end of last season.
Team president Leon Rose, who drafted both Toppin and Quickley, said he’s not meddling in Thibodeau’s rotations.
“There’s no edicts,” Rose told MSG Network. “We love our young players, too. Believe me. Thibs is the coach. Thibs decides who plays, how many minutes, what the rotations are. The one thing I know about Thibs — he’s going to make decisions based on who is going to win us a basketball game. That’s his role and I have full confidence in that.”
Part of the Thibodeau conundrum is that he’s wired to win, makes decisions to win, but it’s unclear if the Knicks are built to win. On one hand, they committed hundreds of millions in total contracts to the starting lineup. On the other hand, they’ve accumulated an excess of future draft picks and declined to give up enough of them to acquire Donovan Mitchell.
According to a league source, Thibodeau supported trading for Mitchell and believed a backcourt with Brunson would succeed. Now he’s coaching Year 3 in a historically tenuous position.
“That would be a Leon question,” Thibodeau said about the team’s boatload of future draft picks. “Positioning yourself to get opportunities, that’s what you want to do. We love our young guys. There’s a lot of work to be done. I don’t want to lead you to a place that we aren’t. But if we continue to put the work in, we will get better.”