New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has been a polarizing figure in his every stop.
He is admirable as a two-time NBA Coach of the Year, maximizing his flawed roster in each season he won the award. But there is also the version of him wearing out his welcome, leading to abrupt firings.
Will he survive his five-year contract in New York?
Entering his third season as the Knicks head coach, Thibodeau is adamant he feels no pressure.
“I’ve never felt pressure, ever. See, 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, that; that ain’t happening here. Just get ready (to play).
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.”
Thibodeau did his magic in his first year as the Knicks ended a seven-year playoff drought, making a big leap from 21-45 in the previous season to 41-31 record and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
But last season, the magic was gone as COVID-19 and injuries to his veterans (Derrick Rose and Nerlens Noel) robbed him of the roster depth that fueled his playoff push. Fans vilified him for sticking to one of the worst five-man lineups early in the season and his lack of playing time for some of the Knicks’ young players.
To be fair, Thibodeau adjusted and sacked Kemba Walker. But starting veteran Alec Burks over Immanuel Quickley became a sticking point among the fan base. Then there was the Obi Toppin-Julius Randle conundrum. But again, to be fair, he also let the kids play toward the end of the season after they failed to qualify even for the play-in tournament.
Despite an uneven performance, Thibodeau still enjoys the full confidence of Knicks president Leon Rose.
“I don’t see it that way (added pressure on Thibodeau) at all. I see it as we are continuing with the plan. We’re not making any excuses for anything that happened last year. We’re just, I love Thib’s phrase: ‘we’re going to win or we’re going to learn’ and we have to learn from the things we have to learn from and we’re not going to make excuses.
Everybody has things that don’t work out during the course of the season. But as far as I’m concerned, we’re going to continue with the plan. We’re going to continue to get better every single day. We’re going to develop, we’re going to be opportunistic, we’re going to be aggressive, we’re going to be looking to get better at any way, shape, or form. We can.
Thibs has been a guy, who two years ago, was Coach of the Year. He has been twice Coach of the Year in his career. You know, I’m so excited about this team and you know about starting [last] Tuesday and one of the reasons I’m so excited is having to Thibs lead the group.”
While he has Rose’s vote of confidence, there are still influential voices in the Knicks organization who are keenly watching Thibodeau and reportedly expect a better performance than last season.
“Heading into the All-Star break [last season], team president Leon Rose was given the autonomy from ownership to part ways with Thibodeau, if that’s what he chose to do. Rose, obviously, stuck by Thibodeau; the Knicks finished the season 9-5, bolstered by strong performances from some of their young players.
But internally – at least in some influential corners of Madison Square Garden – there is a concrete expectation that this team takes a step forward in 2022-23. Thirty-seven wins without a clear direction won’t be easily digested in those corners of MSG.”
Even after missing out on three-time All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell, the Knicks have plugged their holes. They have a player on the rise in Jalen Brunson as their lead guard and picked up a more durable backup center who can spread the floor in Isaiah Hartenstein.
The Knicks are banking on those two key additions and the internal growth of their young core led by RJ Barrett. But more than anything, they are banking on Thibodeau to push all the right buttons, despite facing a rotation logjam again, to steer the Knicks to the playoffs in undoubtedly the deepest Eastern Conference field in years.
Thibodeau may not feel the pressure. But his seat will quickly warm up if the Knicks have a slow start with their young players not getting the playing time to develop.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo
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