For Tom Thibodeau haters, this was a banner year of watching his flaws get in the way of any sustainable success. If you type Thibs into the Twitter search engine, you’ll find allegations of gross incompetence. It’s hard to blame them. I’ve seen him play Alec Burks and Evan Fournier together – a pairing that is so dull it makes Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog feel like another In The Cut. I’ve seen the team trade for Cam Reddish, only for Thibs to not play him citing “he has to earn it in practice first.” I’ve seen him play Alec Burks over Immanuel Quickley to the point of exhaustion, then criticize fans who question his rotations by saying “everyone likes the backup quarterback until he has to start.”
Once upon of time, the coach of the Knicks was about the only thing New Yorkers could agree on. Pat Riley and his Armani suits were beloved until he decided to run a paramilitary organization in Miami. The image of Jeff Van Gundy grabbing the legs of Alonzo Mourning in order to protect Larry Johnson is indefinitely planted in the Knicks faithful’s mind. Now you can’t spend two minutes on Twitter without someone being grumpy about Thibs. You can’t spend two minutes with me without me telling you that Thibs has to go.
So, why do fans dislike Thibs so much? For one, our standards have changed. We’re less interested in a coach who does it his way.
Even last year when the Knicks surprised to a fourth-place finish in the East, Thibs was awfully frustrating, starting a charade of a point guard named Elfrid Payton for undisclosed reasons. Thibs said there were things Elfrid brought to the team that was not on the stat sheet. This is normal: There are many things that go on in professional sports that we have no idea about. Theo Pinson’s appearance – as comedy, provocation, and symbolism – struck me as a morale booster. It was for the fans. I don’t doubt that we miss his antics on the bench. But, the notion that Elfrid Payton, someone who couldn’t shoot, cheated in the passing lanes, and was thoroughly outplayed by guards on the bench needed to be given minutes felt on flat ears to me. It was banal Belichick coach-speak. Thinking that you have to be coy for strategy only works when there’s lore attached to your reservations.
There is being a coach who knows your team and being a coach who is unable to adjust because they are too stubborn. Thibodeau has never been able to find the subtle but significant difference between those two thought processes. Thanks to Julius Randle, the Knicks beat the “unserious” accusations — at least for a year. His use of Derrick Rose was imaginative; often putting him with Quickley to create an environment of controlled chaos that both men thrive under. Whatever Thibs was doing last season, for the most part, it worked. The Knicks were also lucky. Everything that you pay for Nerlens Noel for – his herculean length, his timing, and his nose for rim protection – happened last season. Every reason why you shouldn’t pay Nerlens Noel – his lack of attention on offense and his brittle bones – has also happened this season. What hasn’t changed this season is Thibs’ inability to change.
The Knicks have a tendency to put clumsy rosters out onto the floor. The central pillar of Knicks fandom in the Dolan era is a disjointed roster of rogue players or stars that are an awkward fit. Even Mike Woodson’s team was predicated on the floor general abilities of an anemic Jason Kidd. The Thibs supporters will tell you that this is because of the front office. They have years of evidence to back them. This is, however, nuanced: There are multiple reasons for failure and it starts with the coach.
The first frustrating thing about Tom Thibodeau is that he isn’t necessarily a bad coach. Teams can win with him. He coaches hard in the regular season and believes in a core value of defense, conditioning, and a point guard who can get to the basket. He believes that structure is the most important aspect of coaching. For years, the Knicks had no structure. The David Fizdales or Derek Fisher would lead the players out there with no plan or strategy. Yes, the Knicks have a plan out there every game. There are ready to go. They’re very competitive team. Something deeper is missing too, though.
When it comes to talent evaluation, Thibs is poor
He clearly thinks that Burks is better than Quickley. Burks is a solid player as a change and pace scorer off the bench. As a point guard, he’s lost and timid; like he is an actor who is too scared to curse on camera. Quickley has a tendency to make mistakes but he’s a buzz in the opponents ear and a sniper. His herky-jerkiness is perfect, and would be a good match with Fournier. In his past 15 games, Quick is averaging 15 points. Per 36 minutes, it is going up to 21 points.
Thibs’ supporters will say that it is because he is trying to win games. The problem is – this year – playing the young kids would have helped win more games.
The Knicks have a roster that is deep but not elite. It’s a bunch of solid, at best, players. There isn’t one player that is that much better than the other. On his good days, Julius Randle is not that much better than Obi Toppin. Thibs needed to understand that the team needed to be tinkered with, to lean into weird lineups, and to use its youthfulness to its advantage.
Coaching isn’t only about what your philosophy is — it’s about adjusting your core values to fit your roster. Thibs, no matter how hard he coaches, does not adjust. That means that he has to go.
Every problem with the team — an uninspiring star player, veterans that aren’t great athletes, and two injury-prone players in Rose and Noel — have been magnified by Thibs’ inability to understand his roster. The Knicks had four players who scored 40 points this season. There was a solid team in here. Coach Pop of the San Antonio Spurs is just as ornery as Thibs. For all the fans of their dynasty over the years, Kawhi Leonard decided that Pop’s demanding style wasn’t meant for him. Even Duncan was thinking about leaving for the Magic before Doc Rivers allegedly botched it. But, Pop is an expert at talent evaluation. He knew when it was time for Tony Parker to go in favor of Dejounte Murray.
In the way that Thibs is overreliant on his structure, Pop understands that talent evaluation matters more. I don’t think that a new coach would suddenly make the Knicks problems disappear. All decisions they make baffle me. We aren’t saddled with all the amenities that Knicks fans deserve.
Thibs is the main fault of our stars this season
Thibs has spent this season presenting a superficial structure in the name of culture, but it’s shallow when you can’t coach with any fluency. This year’s Knicks were messy big-budget movie that played with the optimism of NBA fandom. It’s best to be cynical in this league. But all of that doesn’t mean that you can’t pick up the pieces. The team is good enough to compete for a playoff spot and will be in the future. A coach that would be interested in picking up the offensive pace would go a long way. To bring Thibs back next season would be giving him a benefit of the doubt that is not supported by any historical record.
Thibs is a coach that has always treated every game like a Game 7. He isn’t someone who can identify talent for short-term fixes or long-term needs. This means, that no matter how much you value continuity and positivity, Thibs has to be fired. Don’t you think that Obi and Quickley’s rise deserve a coach who believes in them? New York is the city that doesn’t sleep but they deserve a coach that understands something better than that: Work ethic is not a substitute for innovation.