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Q&A: Tom Thibodeau on defensive rule changes, Derrick Rose and physical play

The Knicks' coach chimes in on the NBA's new defensive rules, how protocols have impacted his team and more.

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau remains one of the NBA’s top coaches.

It’s probably a coin flip whether Tom Thibodeau is the unstoppable force or the immovable object, but in terms of any physics equation, he surely is a constant: Defensive-minded, a barker on the sidelines, grinding to the final horn always and, most of all, true to his basketball values.

Whether cutting his NBA teeth with the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves back in 1989 or presiding as coach for the third time now with the New York Knicks, Thibodeau never strays from the lessons instilled by a string of NBA mentors, including Bill Musselman, Gregg Popovich, John Lucas, Jeff Van Gundy and Doc Rivers.

He has put them to use for a 411-297 (.581) regular-season record in 11-plus years, seven playoff berths, three 50-victory seasons and two Coach of the Year trophies 10 years apart. He has proven himself as a turnaround artist, helping Chicago to a five-year (2011-15) run unlike any since the Michael Jordan era and leading Minnesota in 2017-18 to what remains its only postseason appearance since 2004.

Last season, he and the Knicks ended a seven-year playoff drought. They led the NBA in fewest points allowed (104.7), lowest opponents’ FG percentage (44.0), and lowest opposing 3-point percentage (33.7). New York finished strong, 16-4 in its final 20 games, before falling in five games in the first round to Atlanta.

As someone who has been on the scene as assistant, scout or coach for almost half of the NBA’s celebrated 75 seasons, Thibodeau seemed a good target for a conversation, particularly about defense. The state of the Knicks near the midpoint, as they head into consecutive games against rival Boston, got some attention too.

Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited. So almost at the halfway point, how do you see the league’s balance this season between scoring and, well, stopping scoring?

Thibodeau: When you study the history of the league, you see in different periods there’ve been different styles. In the 80s it was high scoring. The 90s were physical, with power forwards playing the small forward positions — the physicality of the league was so different.

Then in the 2000s when the rule changes came in, speed and skill, a premium was put on that. The hand-checking was gone, the trucking was gone, and then it went to the other side where everything favored the offense.

How much did that change your job as a coach?

There’ve always been different styles but I think the core things that go into winning have always been the same. You still have to be strong on both sides of the ball. You have to play hard, you have to play smart, you have to play unselfishly. And you look at the teams that advance in the playoffs, they do all of that. That part hasn’t changed. The commitment to play as a team, the willingness to sacrifice for each other, the hard work that you have to put into it, all of that remains the same.

The change in interpreting those phony shot attempts this season, as a defense-first guy, how much have you welcomed that?

Most of the rule changes favored the offense and this last year, I think the league did a good job of adjusting.

The players in our league are very, very smart. They understand how the game’s being called and they’re going to take advantage of that. They understood how fouls were being called and they saw a lot of guys getting free throws for not really making basketball plays. In the 80s and the 90s, you had to make a strong, aggressive move to the basket to get two free throws. And then it became, ‘Let’s trick the officials to get to the line.’ I think the league’s done a good job with that.

When you came through Chicago in November, it was early and I asked you about the change then. Some shooters were adjusting better than others — James Harden, Damian Lillard were lagging — at that point. You made a point of saying you didn’t want legitimate fouls to go uncalled.

My thing is, you want good basketball. We all want to see great competition, with two teams going after it at a high level. This was the first time that something has gone more toward defense than offense, and I think it’s been good for the game.

So we are seeing a more physical game this season?

Oh yeah. Yeah. But I think in a good way. And there’s a fine line. Technically, you might call a foul on every play, but the game isn’t meant to be called that way. But if there’s an advantage being gained by someone, you want to make sure you’re refereeing that correctly. While also understanding there’s going to be some marginal contact on every play. But what type of basketball play is it? I think experienced officials have a good understanding of that.

It seems like we’re getting a lot of flagrant fouls called and reviewed, but then, that’s a very unscientific claim I just made. What do you think?

I think the No. 1 job for an official is to manage and control the game. The ability to read and understand what’s going on in the game.

It seems as if replays, even when they don’t overturn a call in a coach’s or a player’s favor, have a calming influence in assuring the guy that the play at least got a second look.

It’s not an easy job. We have world-class athletes. The game is played probably as fast as it’s ever been. These are split-second decisions. I think a big part of that is, your preparation is vital. To understand what type of game it will be before it starts.

This past month in particular takes me back to what your guy Bill Musselman and the late Flip Saunders used to talk about from their days coaching in the Continental Basketball Association: the sudden comings and goings of players. They might have their best scorer yanked up to the NBA in the middle of a playoff series. Now NBA coaches are the ones losing players two, three, four at a time to the Health and Safety Protocols. How challenging is that?

You don’t know on any given day who you’ll have, nor who your opponent will have. So the challenge for everyone is, how quickly can they adapt. Whether that’s finding a new player or moving in someone who hasn’t been in the rotation, you have to adapt quickly because the games keep coming.

When you look at it in a negative light, you might say it hurts you. But there’s also a positive light to it from the standpoint of getting a look at a young guy or a guy you have had in the rotation. They’re working hard, and you need everyone over the course of a season.

You mentioned the CBA. With the G League, they’re used to it. The more we do it, the more we’ll adapt. You understand, ‘Hey, we have several new players. This is the package we’re going to go with.’ You don’t want to give ‘em too much but you want to give ‘em enough so they can function. A lot of these guys are familiar with pro sets and defenses, it’s more terminology. But you want to make the package when they’re in there small so they’re not overthinking.

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau outlines his approach to managing COVID-19 and injury-induced roster turnover this season.

There’s been a domino effect on the G League with having to fill roster spots opened by so many call-ups.  

I think it’s been great for the G League, though, showing there can be opportunities. It’s a big part of every organization now, so from that standpoint, it’s been good for them. And it’s benefiting us. Hopefully we can use it even better going forward.

Having an affiliate nearby seems to be really embraced now.

We do [Westchester Knicks]. And it’s a big part of player development. You draft young guys and you’re working with them, they get there early, and I like them being in our practices and around our veterans — that’s the best way to learn. But you also want them to have playing time. So all the things they’re working on and trying to pick up, they get a chance to do in a game. I think most teams are using [G League teams] that way.

What do you make of the Knicks season? Your record at the moment [18-20] is only one game off last season’s [19-19] at the same point. But did you guys raise the expectation level too high last spring [finishing 22-12], before you were ready for that next big step?

Every year is new and different and you’re going to have different challenges. You go into a season, you’ve got some new players, and it’s ‘How quickly can we adapt?’ We didn’t … with COVID, you have to understand, there’s going to be a lot of moving parts. We have to be ready. That’s probably the biggest thing.

You’ve got other teams that have improved. The schedule’s different, so those are factors you have to look at as well. But we’re in a similar place as we were at last year, and we have to focus on continuing to improve.

But your point guard situation is a mess … 

I like the versatility of our team, when you look at Alec [Burks] and you look at Quick [Immanuel Quickley] and you look at Miles McBride. We’re really excited about Miles. And then we have great veterans in Kemba [Walker] and Derrick [Rose]. And we do run a lot of our offense through Julius [Randle] as well.

We feel like, even though we’ve been nicked up a little bit, we still have the ability to compete. But we have to be consistent and we have to be strong on both sides of the ball.

How many more surgeries can Rose’s spirit — his spirit, not his body — handle? The basketball he’s played before and around his injuries has been strong but doesn’t this wear on him?

Last year, he was a big part of us being successful after we added Derrick and Taj [Gibson]. You hate to see anybody get hurt, and he’s been through a lot of different things, but he understands what he has to go to come back. And hopefully he’ll come back and be able to help at the end of the year.

He’s been through it so many times. He’s mentally tough. He’s handled adversity quite well. And he was playing great basketball, so there’s a confidence that goes with that. Now he just has to take his time, go through his rehab, study his game, study the other teams and be ready when he comes back.

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau is confident Derrick Rose can return from injury once again.

Randle’s game is fun to watch, particularly when he goes old-school down in the low post. But he has taken some heat this season as a ball-stopper, for his contract extension [four years, $117 million] and for his drop-off in shooting overall, 3-point rate and efficiency. He reportedly has been frustrated as well. What do you see?

I think he’s done really well. He’s a phenomenal worker. I don’t think he gets wrapped up in whether it’s praise or criticism. This is all part of it. When the team does well, things go well for everybody. If we’re struggling, it’s going to be the other way. Just be consistent and work. He loves the game, he’s in early every day. He’s got great versatility, he can score a lot of different ways. The way he works at the game, I know his shooting is going to come around.

You’ve always been the focus of the “minutes monitors,” folks who have accused you of overusing your top players to the detriment of their performances and even their health. Do you think you’ll ever shake that reputation?

I don’t pay any attention to that. I don’t think we have anyone in the Top 10. Top 20 probably.

Let’s see: Randle ranks 12th in minutes per game [35.4]. Then it’s R.J. Barrett at 65th [31.2] and Evan Fournier at 94th [28.7]. That’s pretty moderate. So if your players are getting enough rest, how about you? How do you decompress during the season?

It’s weird. I almost feel like we’re back in a self-imposed bubble now. [Laughs]. Just relax, read, watch TV. I really haven’t been out much at all.

How have your players and staff handled the virus upturn?

Our medical staff here is amazing. They’ve done a great job from the start to where we are now. Talking to the players, making sure we’re following all the protocols. It’s a challenge. Just when we thought … everyone was starting to go out again and do stuff, you get knocked back. You just deal with it and make the most of whatever you have.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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