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Can Tom Thibodeau Take A Defense-First Knicks Team To The Playoffs?

In the NBA, most turnarounds are credited to a star acquisition, a newly minted Big Three or a long-awaited return from injury. For the New York Knicks, who entered the All-Star break ranked fifth in the East with a 19-18 record, much of their improvement can be attributed to someone who was out of the NBA a year ago.

The seven seasons preceding Tom Thibodeau’s hire as Knicks head coach tie the franchise’s most between playoff appearances (1959-66). In the time since New York’s last postseason berth (2013), Thibodeau led both Chicago and Minnesota to the playoffs, snapping a 13-year drought with the latter.

In both stops, the 2010-11 Coach of the Year established a culture centered on defense, maximizing possessions and trusting the next man up. He’s doing the same in NYC.

New York Knicks defensive ranks during the team’s playoff drought over the previous seven seasons vs. this season

Previous 7 Seasons This Season
Rebound rate 22 8
Def. efficiency 29 4
Opponent true shooting % 23 2

2020-21 stats through the All-Star break.

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

After a season-plus hiatus from the sidelines, Thibodeau has gained rave reviews this year for his work with New York’s roster, which sports the NBA’s lowest payroll at just $94 million, per Spotrac, and returned seven of its nine players to log 1,000 minutes in 2019-20. That core finished 21-45 last season, ranking outside the top 25 in both offensive (27th) and defensive efficiency (23rd). This season, they’ve jumped to 12th in 3-point percentage after ranking 27th last season. They’re up only four spots in offensive efficiency, but their scoring improvement has been enough to rank third in clutch-time net rating. As a result, they’re doing a much better job staying in games.

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Players credit Thibodeau and his staff for those strides. “Our coaching staff has been drilling guys from the beginning of the summer up to this point,” veteran forward Taj Gibson said last month. “The preparation beginning at shootarounds has been outstanding. It’s always tough to play 48-minute games, but the way we all huddle around each other, everybody top to bottom, hangs out, works out late with each other. Everybody understands the stakes. And guys want to win.”

In just over half the games they played last season, Thibodeau has the Knicks two wins shy of matching that total by renewing the team’s defensive focus. Thibs has remained true to form by finding the players most capable of executing his strategy.

According to NBA Advanced Stats, the Knicks sport the NBA’s third-most-used lineup: first-time All-Star Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock. Over that unit’s 391 minutes together, its defensive rating (103.6) ranked eighth-best among 46 lineups to have logged at least 100 minutes.

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New York has been without Robinson for nearly a month since the NBA’s No. 5 shot-blocker over the past three seasons broke his right hand on Feb. 12. Despite missing such a vital interior presence, the Knicks allowed a league-low 41.4 points in the paint over that 10-game stretch, during which they sported the NBA’s fourth-best win percentage (.700, 7-3 record). 

Under Thibodeau, the Knicks defense has clamped down on all different shot types, according to data from Second Spectrum. The team has stymied opposing shooters on jump shots, layups and post-ups and in isolation and transition. This defense is the only one in the league to rank within the top five in field-goal percentage allowed on jumpers and layups. Key to that has been the Knicks’ quick reaction when opponents attempt to create open looks, whether via isolation or creating shots for one another. 

The Knicks have clamped down defensively

Opponent field-goal percentage on different actions and shot types against the New York Knicks during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons

2019-20 2020-21
Action Opp FG% NBA Rank Opp FG% NBA Rank
Jump shots 38.6% 22 35.5% 1
Out of isolation 39.9 6 35.9 1
Layups 60.1 19 56.5 3
In transition 59.5 30 52.0 5
Post attempts 41.3 9 40.5 7

2020-21 stats through the All-Star break.

Source: Second Spectrum

So far, New York has held opponents to a league-low 42.8 percent shooting on assist opportunities after ranking 27th in such situations a season ago. Such improvement in cohesion illustrates the trust Thibodeau has earned from a cast of players who have been excited to play meaningful hoops in the Big Apple.

“Honestly, man, he’s not as much of a hard-ass as people think he is,” Randle said last month of his new coach. “The dude is super cool, like you can talk to him. He’s gonna kill me if he sees this, but he really is soft. You can talk to him. Thibs is dope. Honestly, he’s a players’ coach. This is the most fun that I’ve had as far as playing in the league, for sure.”

New York’s success has centered on its young talent, draft capital and cap flexibility. And unlike at his prior stops, Thibs isn’t expected to control front-office choices, leaving him more room to focus on maximizing possessions while trusting the next man up. Fortunately for Thibodeau, it’s easier to trust the next man up with familiar voices in the fold — such as that of Derrick Rose, who leads the Knicks in assists (4.9 per game) and has knocked down 45.5 percent of his 3-pointers since the team acquired him from Detroit on Feb. 8. 

In Chicago, Thibodeau led arguably the most successful era of Bulls basketball since Michael Jordan, finishing his tenure with a regular-season win percentage (.647) that trailed only Phil Jackson’s (.738) for the best in team history. That’s where he first coached Rose, who became the NBA’s all-time youngest MVP in 2011, at 22 years old, though he spent more time coaching the Bulls without Rose (213) than with him (181). Missing such a valuable piece for an extensive period is challenging for any coach, especially when reigniting championship expectations in a title-starved hoops city. Though Thibodeau never led the Bulls to the Finals, they sported the NBA’s fourth-best record and peaked with an Eastern Conference finals appearance (2011). By the end of his five-year run, Thibodeau’s disagreements with Chicago’s front office over basketball decisions led to the team firing him.

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Upon transitioning to Minnesota, Thibodeau worked some playoff magic, but several layers of disconnect shortened those strides. Despite being noted for his defensive prowess, Thibs wasn’t able to enact his ideal scheme with the Timberwolves; though they snapped their playoff drought on the strength of a top-five offense, per NBA Advanced Stats, their defense ranked just 25th that year. He was fired midway through the 2018-19 season. 

As for the Knicks, their coach remains focused on the present, despite their turnaround and playoff pace.

“One, I’m never happy,” Thibodeau said after New York surpassed the .500 mark in late February. “Two, I always think we can do better. It’s a proud organization. I was here during the 1990s. That doesn’t have anything to do with today. Just like I don’t want us looking ahead, I don’t want us looking behind. Our focus has to be exactly on what’s in front of us.”

Per FiveThirtyEight’s classic Elo forecast, the Knicks currently have a 58 percent shot to snap their seven-year playoff drought, with a projected 35-37 record that would mark the team’s highest win percentage since its 2013 playoff run. 

New York’s most practical path to making playoff noise is improving against good teams, as evidenced by its 5-10 mark against teams .500 or better. Coming out of the break, the Knicks will face tall tasks against the Bucks, Nets and 76ers, the top three teams in the Eastern Conference, in three of their first four games. 

New York’s climb is far from over, and we’ll find out exactly what it can do in the second half of the season. But so far, Thibodeau has the Knicks well on their way. 

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James Jackson is a Florida A&M graduate from South Florida. He has covered the NBA since 2014 with stops at ESPN and other platforms. He firmly believes a good baseline fadeaway can solve just about any problem.