Tom Thibodeau had an unsuccessful tenure as the Minnesota Timberwolves’ head coach. He has, however, been the New York Knicks’ saving grace in his new position as head coach.
Thibodeau was hired by Minnesota to turn a young, talented team into a title contender. While it seemed he would succeed at first, the team began to splinter when forward Jimmy Butler requested a trade and then forced his way out in spectacular fashion. The Wolves sputtered out of the gate at the start of their next season, and Thibodeau was fired. So, when the Knicks hired him this offseason, the move was met with mixed reviews. But 21 games into his tenure in New York, the reviews are anything but mixed.
The Knicks are off to their most promising start since the 2012-13 season, and a lot of their success has to do with Thibodeau. Last season, New York was ranked No. 23 in the league in defensive rating and No. 28 in offensive rating, leaving it with the NBA’s 26th-best net rating overall. Not great.
While the offense has only improved slightly since last season, the Knicks have vastly improved their defense. With nearly the same roster as last season, the Knicks boast the league’s eighth-best defensive rating and 18th-best net rating overall. Some of this success has to do with offseason improvements by forwards Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, but even more of it has to do with Thibodeau’s coaching.
Thibodeau’s first change as head coach was committing to slowing down the game. Last season, the Knicks were ranked No. 26 in the league for pace. This season, the team has doubled down, now sitting at dead last in the league for pace. Knowing their team doesn’t have the firepower to keep pace with opponents most nights, the Knicks lean into their defense, limiting both their possessions and their opponents’ possessions per game. This strategy allowed them to hide some of their offensive flaws and keep them in games with more talented teams.
Thibodeau’s second adjustment was creating a more modern defense. This season, the Knicks allow the fifth-most three-point attempts per game and hold opponents to the worst three-point percentage in the league. While this is somewhat lucky, it also has to do with the types of threes the Knicks are allowing. Today’s best NBA defenses allow above-the-break threes in lieu of high-percentage corner threes, and the Knicks have been doing that.
Finally, Thibodeau instilled a new team culture in the Knicks for the first time in years. Off-season improvements by Randle and Barrett have been essential on both offense and defense, but Thibodeau is the one who got them to really buy in this year. Not only that, he has accelerated the defensive development of young center Mitchell Robinson.
In his first two NBA seasons, Robinson showed flashes of being a defensive anchor, posting block rates of 10% and 8%. But he had trouble staying out of foul trouble, averaging around five fouls per 36 minutes. This season, that number is down to 3.4 per 36, allowing him to average a career high in minutes at 29.3, well above his previous mark of 23.1.
Having a long, athletic shot blocker like Robinson patrolling the middle is a huge plus for any defense, and Thibodeau and his coaching staff have unlocked Robinson by limiting his fouls. While his block rate is down, he is having an excellent defensive season. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR has his defense as a +1.8, putting him in the vicinity of defensive stalwarts Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green. Robinson has been a huge reason for the Knicks’ improved defense, and Thibodeau is a big reason why he has improved.
Clearly, the Knicks’ defense has been one of the best in the NBA this season, and as such, not even their poor offense has held them back. Furthermore, even though the Knicks lack significant offensive talent and reliable shooters, Thibodeau has countered this by limiting the number of threes New York takes and giving the ball to players who are part of the Knicks’ future.
Randle is having the best season of his career, averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists. Barrett is showing marked improvement in his sophomore campaign, displaying signs of being a lead scorer and playmaker. Then there’s rookie Immanuel Quickley, who has been a spark plug off the bench. Quickley has had some monster games this season and will eventually supplant Elfrid Payton as the team’s starting point guard, but for now Thibodeau is content to let him come off the bench and provide instant offense.
In the past, the Knicks have relied on aging, overpriced stars and overwhelmed young players. This year, everything seems different because of Thibodeau. This Knicks team plays with more grit than any team I have seen in my lifetime as a Knicks fan. Starting out 9-13 may not seem impressive, but the defense, young guns and wins over quality opponents have been nothing short of awesome.
A significant portion of that success is thanks to their head coach. Tom Thibodeau is giving Knicks fans something they have had no right to have in almost a decade: hope. Let’s see if he can keep it going.
Tim Brennan is a first-year in the McDonough School of Business. Around the Association appears online every other week.