Stefan Bondy: Knicks' Tom Thibodeau is a win-now coach given a lose-now roster

By Stefan Bondy, New York Daily News on

Published in Basketball

NEW YORK — The Knicks' moves in free agency, or lack of moves, again places the franchise near the bottom of the league in talent and high up in cap flexibility. On the surface, it makes sense: the free-agent class was underwhelming, the upcoming drafts and free agencies are projected as more fertile, and a pandemic has relieved any pressure to sell tickets or to discourage fans from chanting "Sell the Team."

Why not stink for another year?

But there is an important issue to reconcile: Tom Thibodeau.

In case you haven't read the swaths of profiles on Thibs, he's not equipped for tanking. Patience isn't a strength. In his last 15 seasons as a top assistant or head coach — with the Rockets, Celtics, Bulls and Timberwolves — Thibodeau finished with exactly two losing records.

And what happened after that second losing season? Thibodeau was the team president of the Timberwolves and he traded three lottery picks — Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen — for Jimmy Butler. He's not a peacetime coach like Brett Brown or David Fizdale, or the type to expressively deliver the company's 'rebuilding' message to ease the public's apprehension over losing. Thibodeau is hired to make losing uncomfortable. His history suggests he doesn't play rookies or young players for the sake of development, not unless they're positively adjusting the possibility of victory. This is the same coach who drafted Dunn fifth overall and gave him 17 minutes per game on a 31-win Timberwolves team.

"You have to be patient. But if you're too patient you don't drive change where the culture has to change," Jeff Van Gundy said after Thibodeau was hired. "If you think that all happens without patience, no, that happens with impatience, too. You have to be demanding that these things happen right off the bat."

One of Thibodeau's former players outlined the coach's philosophy regarding rookies and playing time.

"He's going to take the Gregg Popovich approach which is he doesn't really gift minutes. If you get drafted by the Spurs, you earn every second out there," Brian Scalabrine said. "And he'll be quick to put an undrafted guy ahead of you if you ain't doing the right stuff. Thibodeau's the same way. You have to go out there and earn your minutes and you have a short leash as a young player."


As the Daily News reported, Thibodeau was pushing win-now moves ahead of the offseason. The result was a very promising and somewhat polished draft pick in Obi Toppin, and an underwhelming free agency. Leon Rose, the novice team president and former agent, has adopted the posture of endurance over immediate upgrades, using cap space to accumulate stopgaps and future second-round picks.

Rose passed on a Chris Paul trade. He protected cap flexibility. He set up an environment for youth and mistakes. Russell Westbrook still looms as a possibility but that saga is more likely to drag until the trade deadline. We've always felt Indiana's Victor Oladipo is the better play for the Knicks, and there are issues inside the Pacers locker room that can't sustain much losing. Team management met with Oladipo and his agent before the draft, according to a source, and thus far the public message is that he's committed to the Pacers.

The Knicks, meanwhile, are positioned with assets but projected by Vegas bookmakers as the league's worst team.

Although Rose's logic is easy to follow, there's a misconception floating around about his strategy being unique to the franchise. "Building sustained success" and "Building the right way" are old mottos at this point. Knicks fans are understandably traumatized by the short-sighted mistakes of Isiah Thomas and James Dolan, but the team hasn't traded a first-round pick since 2013. They've used five lottery picks in the last six years. Steve Mills constructed his message around patience, and it all blew up because of the losing — because Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving didn't want to join a bad team; and Kristaps Porzingis didn't want to dedicate his prime to the defeats.

Losing is a vicious cycle.

Which brings us to Thibodeau. He's a NASCAR driver given a Kia Sedona. How he handles the slow lane will be an intriguing storyline all season.

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