The Knicks are coming off their best season since 2012 and their second-best season since the turn of the century, so it feels like an odd time to question whether or not they should fire their coach, but if this team wants to take the next step towards being a championship contender, it might be the right call.
Tom Thibodeau won the Coach of the Year in 2021 for taking the Knicks to the postseason and has done a solid job of elevating some of the team’s younger talent; however, he has also shown rigidity in his strategies, failed to commit to evolutions, buried players like Obi Toppin, and was thoroughly outcoached by Erik Spoelstra in the playoffs.
With the Suns, Bucks, and 76ers already firing their coaches due to an inability to get them to the NBA Finals, it might be time for the Knicks to start thinking along the same lines.
For all of his strengths, the criticisms of Thibodeau are clear.
He has a reputation for being great for getting a bad team to be good but not having the chops to take a good team and make them a champion. After he took Chicago and Minnesota to the playoffs multiple times, he was fired from both jobs when he was unable to take the next step.
Part of that could be that his teams have all played a similar style of basketball that is not necessarily conducive to making deep playoff runs in the modern NBA.
Thibodeau’s teams play slow and don’t shoot particularly well, but they rebound the ball near the top of the league and rank in the top third of the league’s net ratings. They also run offenses that rely far too much on ISO-sets and have little to no ball movement on many possessions.
The Knicks had the 3rd-most isolation possessions of any team in the NBA and ranked 1st in the rate of field goals that were unassisted They finished 28th in assists per game and were 26th in points that came off of screen assists, as the team used the pick-and-roll far less, and less successfully, than most teams in the NBA.
While he was lauded for making a shift to his rotation that helped to turn the Knicks season around, Thibodeau also struggles to make adjustments without weeks of build-up forcing his hand. He never went small against the Heat despite Mitchell Robinson having a rough series and continued to use lineups that featured both RJ Barrett and Josh Hart on the wing, which limited the Knicks’ shooting and made it easier for the Heat to clog the pain and stop Jalen Brunson’s penetration.
What’s more, while Thibodeau has built a reputation as a defensive-minded coach, the results were simply not there for the Knicks this year.
Thibodeau claims that he uses his own metrics and stats to evaluate his defense, but his strategy is not conducive to the modern NBA. The Knicks would aggressively help off of shooters to fill the lane and take away penetration. That caused them to have to rotate to close out to the shooters, which led to a scrambling chaos of Knicks players flying out at the nearest shooter to prevent three-point shots.
Many teams used this chaos against the Knicks during the season, and Miami exposed it again during the playoffs, using ball movement and pump fakes to get Knicks defenders flying past them and hoist up open looks from three.
Opponents attempted 36.5 threes per game against the Knicks, which was the 5th-most in the NBA, and made 13 threes per game against New York, which was the 4th-most in the NBA. The Knicks also allowed the 7th-most catch-and-shoot threes and the 6th most open threes, meaning with no defender within four to six feet, both of which showcase just how often teams had open looks against this defense.
Additionally, the Knicks were not overly impactful off the ball either, ranking 22nd in deflections, which means they don’t get in the passing lanes, and finishing 29th in steals per game with just 6.2.
At the end of the day, even after making some adjustments during the season, the postseason showed that Thibodeau’s philosophy, player usage, and rigid substitution patterns are unlikely to change when push comes to shove.
That’s a problem considering Thibodeau was voted by NBA players as the coach they’d least like to play for, according to an anonymous survey conducted by The Athletic.
The two criticisms the players levied against Thibodeau are ones we’ve heard frequently.
“He plays his guys 44 minutes (a game) all year,” explained one player. “It’s a grind.”
Another player mentioned how hard it is for Thibodeau to change his mind about a player.
“I’ve heard from guys like if he likes you — if you’re his guy — he’ll treat you great. He’ll play you a lot, talk to you, so you’ll f— with him in that sense. But if you’re on the outside, it’s like you’re not getting back in.”
That was no more evident this season than with the usage of Obi Toppin, who stepped up in a starting role when Julius Randle went down and turned himself into a more reliable shooter to help the team but was still never able to earn more than his limited minutes off of the bench.
The Knicks are inching closer to being a true title contender, but there will be difficult decisions to make in order to take those final steps. One of them might just be finding a new person to steer the ship.