Do the Knicks and Tom Thibodeau have a playoff mandate?

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Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau
Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau.
AP Photo/Nick Cammett

After a messy interview on Fox 5 on Thursday, New York Knicks owner James Dolan went on WFAN on Friday and, in addition to clarifying that he has no intention of selling the Knicks, stated that he “fully expects” the Knicks to reach the playoffs and “that will definitely be a benchmark.”

Coming the day after the Knicks beat the Celtics 120-117 on the road, the statement isn’t entirely crazy, but oftentimes when owners state a benchmark coaches and/or players face the consequences if that benchmark isn’t reached.”

So are the Knicks feeling any pressure?

“It doesn’t change anything that I do or anything that our team does,” said Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau. “Just everyday focus on what’s in front of us. Put everything you have each and every day, and the results will take care of themselves…I like where our team is. If we keep doing the right things good things will happen.”

In their first game after Dolan’s comments, the Knicks lost 122-117 to the Nets without Kevin Durant. That leaves New York Knicks in the 7th spot in the Eastern Conference, 1.5 games behind Miami for the 6th seed. If the Knicks were to miss out on the top six then they would need to win in the play-in tournament in order to qualify for a playoff appearance.

Given that the team will be without Mitchell Robinson for another few weeks and have the second-hardest remaining schedule in the NBA, climbing into the top six could be a difficult task. Not that any of that changes Dolan’s expectations. 

“I think every owner [has expectations],” Thibodeau said. “I mean, that’s pro sports, it’s competitive, you know, so he’s not saying anything any other owner wouldn’t say. You have to have a belief in your team. We have belief.” 

Belief is great, and Thibodeau does have a better winning percentage than 11 of the 12 previous Knicks coaches, with Mike Woodson the only coach who has done better; however, postseason execution has not been a hallmark of the recent Knicks teams. Over the last 22 years, New York has made the playoffs just five times, and only once have they advanced beyond the first round. 

“He owns the team,” explained Thibodeau. “Whatever his expectations are, that’s what the expectations are.”

Knicks owner James Dolan
Executive chairman and Madison Square Garden CEO James Dolan, center, watches during the first half of an NBA basketball game between the New York Knicks and the Sacramento Kings in New York, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019. The Kings defeated the Knicks 113-92. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

With the NBA trade deadline approaching, New York’s ability to add depth to a rotation that has been thin in recent weeks will be crucial to any postseason success. Thibodeau had been playing essentially a six-man rotation before Robinson went down, seemingly unwilling to give Obi Toppin, Miles McBride, Derrick Rose, and Evan Fournier any real minutes and forgetting Cam Reddish even exists on the team. 

Still, the head coach is not going to give insinuation that he doesn’t have the roster to meet his owner’s expectations. “[Dolan’s] been great with us. He’s given us all the resources that we’ve asked for. We just concentrate on exactly what’s in front of us trying to get better each day.”

While it’s clear that New York still needs more resources, and resources that are going to see the court, the directive has been set from the top. 

“In the end, ownership and management make the decisions,” Dolan said. “You may not always like them, but we’re doing that to try and put the best product on the floor.”

While there may be some disagreement between fans and ownership about what the “best product” looks like, it won’t matter at the end of the day. Dolan is the one who calls the shots, and if he expects a playoff appearance then the pressure is on his coaches and players to meet those expectations. 

Or maybe not. 

“I never feel pressure,” said Thibodeau before the Nets game. “I know what I put into each day. I think anyone who puts everything they have into each day, you never feel pressure.”

But what will happen if putting everything he has isn’t enough in the end? Knicks fans hope they won’t need to find out. 

Additional reporting by Christian Arnold

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