It’s 20 minutes after the New York Knicks completed a must-win 112-103 Game 5 win against the Miami Heat to extend their Eastern Conference semifinals series, and coach Tom Thibodeau, dressed in a black pullover, sits behind a small table inside the Madison Square Garden press room with a smile cracked across his face. Not only did his team find a way to claw out a win it had to have, it did so in a way that brought Thibodeau back to his roots as guards Jalen Brunson and Quentin Grimes played every second of the 48-minute game.
The veteran coach has long been the face of the old-school mentality. His philosophy, based on more than three decades in the league, has been that players train for the heavy workload. So the Game 5 victory not only provided his team some more oxygen on its season, it allowed the 65-year-old coach, who signed a five-year contract with the Knicks prior to the 2020-21 season, the platform to defend his favorite coaching position — one most other teams (and players and training staffs) have decried of late.
“The thing about our team, we have a bunch of gym rats,” said Thibodeau, answering a question about Brunson and Grimes. “So I know, you give them an off day, they’re in there all day. They’re going to lift, shoot, watch film, so I know that’s who they are. And when you have guys like that, you know they’re ready … these are world-class athletes. So if you condition yourself to handle that type of workload, you’re going to be fine. But if you don’t condition yourself that way, you may be deconditioned and you may get injured.”
This is Thibodeau distilled in his purest form. Even after a season-ending 96-92 Game 6 loss to the Heat on Friday, the Knicks stretched their campaign to the second round for the first time in 10 years. But in doing so, Thibodeau, as he has done so often throughout his career, shortened his playoff rotations, revealing the players he trusts the most, and in turn, exposing the ones who struggled to live up to the moment in the process.
In the midst of this latest postseason run, there was a not so subtle changing of the guard regarding the face of the team as Brunson, thanks to his torrid offensive numbers this postseason, became the heartbeat of a Knicks team in ascent. How far they will be able to climb now centers around the development of several key young players behind Brunson and Julius Randle.
As the Knicks navigate an offseason that begins later than most expected, they do so starting with three fundamental questions that will determine their future standing in the Eastern Conference.
Have the Knicks hit the Thibs ceiling?
New York is at a familiar tipping point in the Thiobdeauean coaching cycle. After three seasons, Thibodeau just orchestrated the team’s best finish in years — but in doing so he also opened up the same question that has appeared in his past two stops. Is this as high as this group can climb? After leading the Bulls to the Eastern Conference finals in 2011, Derrick Rose’s knee injuries in 2012 and 2013 changed the course of those Chicago Bulls teams for years. Despite the injury setbacks to several players, Thibodeau got the Bulls to the postseason in each of his five seasons at the helm, but was fired in 2015.
The story repeated itself during Thibodeau’s two and a half years coaching the Minnesota Timberwolves. After a rough first season, Thibodeau, with the help of newly-acquired All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler, brought the team to the postseason for the first time in 14 years in 2018, but Butler asked for a trade after the season and Thibodeau was fired a few months later.
Now, the Knicks, much like the Bulls before them, have a roster full of players who are wired just like their coach — willing to do anything to find ways to win. But will they be able to clear the hurdles that have stunted Thibs’ teams in the past? A quick look at the numbers indicates Thibodeau’s best teams have similar qualities.
Thibodeau’s six best teams, spanning Chicago, Minnesota and New York, including this season’s Knicks group, were all in the top 11 in net rating during the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. All six ranked in the bottom half of the league in pace. None of the six ranked in the top 10 in effective field goal percentage. Five of the six ranked in the top five of offensive rebounding percentage.
They also share perhaps the most important similarity: They’ve never made it to the Finals.
Thibodeau teams will outwork teams on a regular basis, but there always seems to be a shelf life to his teams, without top-tier — and healthy — stars.
2. Do the Knicks have players and assets to lure a disgruntled star?
Yes, with caveats. Recruiting a star to New York City hasn’t exactly been easy (or fruitful) over the past decade. But the assets and players are there. What remains to be seen is two-fold: Which stars might become available this year, and how much would Knicks president Leon Rose be willing to part with if and when it happens?
As ESPN’s Bobby Marks notes, while the Knicks don’t have their own pick in the 2023 draft, they will get the Dallas Mavericks’ pick if it falls outside of the top 10. The Knicks also have their own first-round pick in the next six drafts, plus four additional first-rounders from prior trades. Young stalwarts such as RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes and Mitchell Robinson could be enticing trade options for teams as well. Josh Hart fit into Thibodeau’s rotation nicely after a February deal brought him to the Knicks. Now the organization must decide how much it’s worth to bring him back for the future, after he decides what he will do with his player option. The Knicks have the picks and the players, and Thibodeau has, at least temporarily, shored up the team’s reputation.
3. If Brunson is your top player, how far can this team realistically go?
Thibodeau and Brunson have quickly found a basketball kinship that appeared written in the stars. For his part, Thibodeau is convinced that the 26-year-old guard has the ability to continually improve because of what he calls “winning characteristics.”
“When you look at who are the guys that improve year after year, they have great dedication to their craft,” Thibodeau told ESPN earlier this year. “The work ethic is there, the toughness is there, the competitiveness is there, the ability to think on your feet is there. And those have always been his strong suits. He’s not going to wow you with his athleticism, although he’s a better athlete than he’s given credit for, I always say he doesn’t necessarily look the part, but he is the part.”
Brunson racked up career highs in points (24.0) and assists (6.2) this season, shooting almost 42% from 3. And, in more than 40 minutes per game this postseason, the former second-round pick averaged 27.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists.
“It’s been amazing,” Brunson told ESPN. “This team welcomed me with open arms. The coaches, the players, the staff, all that. It’s been great and I think the best thing about it is that we’re always continuing to work and work and work, and we want to keep that mindset. Everyone wants to win here, so we all have that in common.”
Both Thibodeau and Brunson believe better days are ahead — and his growth on the floor is a huge key in the calculus of trying to figure out how much better this team can be.
“I just think it’s the right type of guy,” Thibodeau said of Brunson. “When you look at what he stands for, that’s what we want our team to stand for. You want the right guys in the organization, you want the right players, what do they stand for? We want a whole team full of guys like that. And I think that’s important. I always felt like the thing that we needed more than anything, our first year was a terrific year, we fell short, then last year our point guards were hurt … the number one job of a point guard is to control and manage the game and he’s brought that to us.”