Same system, different team: Tom Thibodeau's coaching doesn't get old

Published June 12, 2021, 3:00 PMChuck Araneta

Tom Thibodeau's unique style of coaching has led him to his second Coach of the Year plum.

On the surface, it seems like there’s a surefire path to success in the NBA. The best shooters, athletes, playmakers, defenders, and leaders will always find a place in the league. Even players who have a limited skillset but are elite at one facet can carve out a long career.

Consider guys like Patrick Beverley, or even Doug McDermott. Both players may not be cut from the same cloth as LeBron James or Luka Doncic, but they’ve been able to stay in the league because of their ability to impact the game in their unique way. Beverley is a rugged defender, while McDermott is a lights-out shooter. They will have a place in the league for many years to come.

It’s not the same for coaches in the league, though. Unlike players that can impact the game on the floor, coaches are at the mercy of their players’ output. Throughout the history of the league, we have seen one-and-done coaches fly through seasons, hardly ever making a lasting impression. 

For coaches, it’s all about finding the right place at the right time. It doesn’t always happen for every single coach — sometimes great tacticians can flame out with a team then find glory with a different franchise.

This brings us to current Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau.

Thibodeau is cut from a different cloth. Ever since assuming head coaching duties a decade ago, he has unabashedly been different. His style, demeanor, and perspective on the game are counter-intuitive to what the rest of the league is doing, for better or for worse.

While most coaches want their teams to push the ball up and down the floor, Thibs is more concerned with slowing the game down to a crawl and dissecting opponents in that manner. While the 3-point shot has become an essential part of several teams’ offense, the Knicks love getting the ball inside, battling and scrapping for rebounds and second-chance opportunities.

And their defense is a throwback to basketball days of yore, with relentless fighting through screens, hustling to recover on pick-and-rolls, dropping on coverage to prevent penetration in the lane. It’s a hallmark of a Thibs-led squad to make each basketball game look ugly and sluggish. And for the majority of the season, that’s what the Knicks looked like.

To be clear - Thibodeau’s basketball philosophy isn’t for everyone and every team. For every successful stop like his tenure with the Chicago Bulls a decade ago, there’s also the disappointing flameout like with the Minnesota Timberwolves. His gruff demeanor and demanding style didn’t work with youngsters like Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins. 

But with the Knicks—a team full of underdogs, castaways, and struggling role players—it was the perfect fit. 

Thibodeau empowers players and challenges them to be the best version of themselves. He recognizes what each player can contribute on the floor and enables them to do just that. Consider what he did with Julius Randle and his growth this season. It’s possible that Randle just needed to grow and evolve as a player, but it’s unlikely he would’ve been this good if Thibs didn’t hand him the keys to the franchise. He saw that Randle could handle from the perimeter, so he let him. And with these newfound responsibilities, Randle blossomed — a career year, the Most Improved Player award, and more importantly, became the guy that led the Knicks to the playoffs for the first time in seven years.

A decade ago, Thibs did the same thing for the Chicago Bulls, another franchise that was going nowhere and merely banking on former glory. But he challenged everyone, kept them accountable, and made the Bulls one of the toughest teams to play with guys like Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and Carlos Boozer.

The Knicks are on the same path, ironically with some players who came from those memorable Bulls squads. Thibodeau winning his second Coach of the Year award decades apart is a testament to his unorthodox and counter-culture style of leadership. With the Knicks, the team that he grew up watching, he has led them back to relevance and got Madison Square Arena rocking once again. May this only be the beginning of more memorable moments to come.