The New York Knicks under Tom Thibodeau have taken fans on that sort of ride the past three seasons. In his first year on the job, 2020-21, the Knicks shot from 21 victories and seven straight lottery finishes to 41 and a playoff berth. Then came a backslide to 37-45, folks back in Madison Square Garden post-Covid for the doldrums.
Last season, though, New York won 47, climbing from 11th in the East to fifth. With Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, R.J. Barrett and others on the young team learning quickly, they needed just five games to oust Cleveland before losing in six in the conference semifinals to Miami. Now they hope to go higher, or at least longer.
During the recent National Basketball Coaches Association meetings in Chicago, Thibodeau spoke with NBA.com about the thrills that might come from this season’s ride.
Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.
NBA.com: How are you feeling about the Knicks’ offseason?
Thibodeau: Continuity’s important, and we’re going into Year 4. We’re young – that’s the best thing about our team, that you can continue to get better. We’re looking forward to the development of the guys we do have. Getting the experience from last year was very beneficial to us, but we have to understand it’s a new year and we start over again.
Adding Donte [DiVincenzo] is great for us. He’s a great team guy and he’ll fit in seamlessly.
Building on last season and the postseason, what do you think that will mean for guys such as R.J. Barrett, Quentin Grimes and Immanuel Quickley?
Trial and error is a big part of learning so the more experience you get in big games the better it is for you. I’ve seen the growth from two years ago – you take every experience and move it forward. Now when you go into the offseason, you’re preparing for them and that’s a great motivator.
Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart, meanwhile, added the experience of playing with Team USA this summer. How can that translate to help the Knicks?
I think it’s great for younger guys when you look at the history with the Olympics, the World Cup and Team USA. When Derrick Rose came back, that year he won the MVP. He was 22 years old. The fact that it’s a different style, I like that too, because you’re adapting. You can learn from playing that way and playing against international players. It allows you to hit the ground running in training camp, too.
The benefits far outweigh whatever negatives there might be. No one is being taxed to the point where he’s playing 40 minutes. You’re playing roughly half a game. And every player on your team is a great player, so you’re practicing against the best. And doing things you probably wouldn’t be doing in the summer. Yeah, you’d be shooting, you’d be conditioning, but you probably wouldn’t be playing.
What update can you give on Julius Randle, who had ankle surgery in June?
Just steady progress. He’s had a very good offseason. He’ll be fresh and ready to go.
Your first job in the NBA was in Minnesota in 1989 with the expansion Timberwolves. What changes in the league since then stand out to you?
The ‘80s were high-scoring, the ‘90s were slow-paced and physical, the 2000s it changed and the 3-point shot has changed the game in some ways. It’s a faster-paced, more skilled game, but a lot of that was by design by the league, to put more skills and speed back into the game. And it’s been good. You have to adjust. And I think each generation gets a little bit better learning from the previous generation.
The athleticism of the players is off the charts, but there have been great players for a long time. That’s what makes sports so fun. You have the debate of ‘Is this guy better than that guy?’ when they never competed against each other. People talk to their parents or older relatives or friends — it’s their generation. We’re all guilty of what we’re associated with. But that’s the beauty of our game.
The game has really grown globally and I think everyone is taking things from everywhere. I’m excited about it. It’s going to keep growing. I love where our game is. We have centers doing things that guards are doing. It’s beautiful to watch.
It’s not like before when people wondered who was going to take Michael Jordan’s place. It’s clear that great players have been backfilling the talent pool just fine.
Everyone’s aware of who’s coming up, who the best high school players are. It’s changed with college, as far as one-and-done and transfer portals. So you keep track of everything. There’s interest in the international game, in high school. It’s a game that a lot of people can identify with.
Then coaches like you end up with more raw material than polished players, not the same if they had stayed in school for three or four years, right?
To some degree. A guy who stays in college probably has had more development off the floor and the foundation. But if a guy can play, he can play. When we got Quickley – now he was two years in college – you could see from the moment he started, he could play. That holds true if a kid is 19 and he’s out there in the preseason and he plays well, you’re going to keep playing him. You’re not going to sit around and wait.
How have you changed since your first season as a head coach, in Chicago in 2010-11?
It’s important to try to learn and grow. You never want to stay in one place because the game’s not staying the same. In the ‘90s, a wing pick-and-roll was played basically one way. Now there’s spacing, there are slips and go-screens. You have to adapt to how the game is changing. And defensively, you understand what’s hard to guard, so you implement that into your offense. And then, does it fit your personnel? That’s what you have to identify first. What are the strengths of my players? Then you build your system around that.
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