Tom Thibodeau photo

Previewing the Knicks’ inevitable Tom Thibodeau hiring

Photo credit: Tom_Thibodeau.jpg: Keith Allison from Owings Mills, USAderivative work: Chrishmt0423 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Against all odds and maybe conventional medical wisdom, we’ve got basketball again, AND Tom Thibodeau could be back.

Congratulations to the 22 eligible teams. They head to Orlando for what’s likely to be an insanely odd Thunderdome-style end to this postponed season. Further congrats to the 8 eliminated squads, who avoid meaningless games but can always point back to getting excluded from this as the reason why 2020-21 went so poorly for them.

One of those eliminated squads? The moribund, perpetually inept New York Knicks.

Why do I say inept?

Failing to address the moment properly

The Knicks somehow managed to bungle a “anti-racism” corporate statement. This franchise, so petty that they’ve issued press releases on feuds with Spike Lee and jokes by Richard Jefferson, can’t work up the courage to denounce racism, police brutality, and inequality in a statement.

Don’t do that! Take this time to listen thoughtfully and support actively. I thought this piece from Vox offered a great roadmap from black activists and leaders on how to be a useful and thoughtful ally right now. This powerful video from Emmanuel Acho is the first in a series on this very topic.

There’s a ton of organizations that are doing great work like Color of Change that are well-worth your donations.

Who will the Knicks actually hire?

These same Knicks now look to hire their newest coach after firing David Fizdale mid-season. They reportedly have Tom Thibodeau at the top of their coaching candidate list.

No stat nerd will ever need to translate Knicks production into per-36 numbers if Tom Thibodeau gets the job.

Thibodeau, last seen coaching the 2018-19 Minnesota Timberwolves, carries a reputation for hard-nosed defense, success with the early 2010s Bulls, and…running his star players into the ground with insane workloads. 

Per Basketball Reference, a Thibodeau player finished in the NBA top three in minutes per game in all but one of his seasons as a head coach. For four consecutive seasons from 2011 to 2015, his players led or tied for the league-lead in that year.

What do these workloads look like?

His players hold five of the top fifteen minutes per game seasons in this time-frame, highlighted below in orange.

You may notice Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler popping up multiple times. Both players saw their careers, production, and accolades dramatically improve under Tom Thibodeau’s guidance. Yet, they also had to play ungodly amounts of minutes every night. Deng went back-to-back seasons with over 39 minutes a game. Butler put up nearly the same totals in 2013-14 and 2014-15. 

Look at the sheer number of 40+ nights Deng faced in 2011-12 alone.

You might be saying “you only made this graph to write The Denger Zone.” 

You would be right.

In an era of load management and thoughtful analysis around workload and mitigating risk, Thibodeau must resist his archaic insistence on only playing his starters. 

RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, get your ice ready

I had this assumption that Tom Thibodeau exclusively played Taj Gibson at the expense of every young prospect—around here we call that the Mike Miller special. I pulled the minute allocation from Basketball Reference for every Thibodeau team based on three age buckets. 

The buckets break out players under 25, 25-30, and the old vets above 31. With the majority of the core Knicks players under 25, I was curious to see if Thibodeau had any experience playing and cultivating young talent.

While he barely played younger guys during his tenure as the head coach of the Bulls—Derrick Rose took up most of the early season share as an under-25 player—Thibodeau showed a change in perspective once he took over the rebuilding Minnesota Timberwolves. 

In fact, he over-indexed in minutes allocated to young guys compared to rough estimations of league averages.

This shift in philosophy bodes well for the young Knicks. While some of his hand might have been forced with the Wolves roster, he still resisted the impulse to bench all the prospects.

Did these young players develop?

Minutes are one thing, but I’m curious if these players improved under Thibodeau’s tutelage. Per Basketball Reference, I found four players who played at least three seasons in a row for Thibodeau, with their first year coming under age 24. I looked at how their PER changed year-to-year. PER isn’t perfect, but for our purposes, it will help isolate any major changes in performance.

None of the three showed sustained improvement, with Andrew Wiggins actually demonstrating a consistent decline over three years under Thibodeau. Karl-Anthony Towns entered the league as a productive star and remained at that level, but didn’t take the leap.

To be fair to Thibodeau, in Jimmy Butler’s fourth season, his PER skyrocketed from 13.5 to 21.3. Butler’s the clearest example of a young player cultivating and growing under Thibodeau’s leadership. Yet, there seem to be few other examples to support the idea he’s ideal for a developing squad like the Knicks. Players like Mitchell Robinson might thrive with increased workloads.

Has anything changed in 2020?

Tom Thibodeau claims now—while unemployed and job hunting—that he’s a changed man. Mike Vorkunov’s great overview in The Athletic analyzes a variety of ways that a Thibodeau hire would play out for the Knicks. His piece includes a brief recap of a talk Thibodeau gave at the Sloan analytics conference. 

The whole article is worth a read, but this part stuck out to me:

Thibodeau goes on to list the different ways to mitigate usage and load on his players. He suggested that it’s possible to minimize wear on a star by subbing for them in practice or making them do player development in practice instead of a conventional session. Or he could do a walk-through before a game instead of a shootaround. He mentioned the importance of monitoring sleep but hard to measure.

What Thibodeau would do as a Knicks coach with that would be worth watching. David Fizdale raised red flags early on this season with his choice to play RJ Barrett long minutes, even in a blowout. The Knicks will continue to have young players who need proper development or could add stars at risk of injury or with a history of them and Thibodeau would be under the spotlight.

This sounds less like a man changed and more like an interviewing candidate bullshitting his way through a problematic gap in his resume.

I’m not sure thibodeau has actually changed

Look at his comments in 2018. Another NBA scribe called him out on his brutal workloads for his starters. Steve Aschburner’s piece highlights the minute allocation for the Minnesota Timberwolves starters at that time. He frames Thibodeau’s inability to adjust to modern rotations as a willful disregarding of conventional wisdom.

Aschburner writes:

Some coaches want to ration out their best players’ exertions. Others feel that limiting court time also limits undue exposure to injuries. Then again, coaches like Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr aren’t dragging around 13 consecutive seasons in Lotteryland as the Timberwolves are.

“I think people sometimes get caught up in the wrong stuff,” Thibodeau said Thursday. “The most important thing is the winning.”

Dismissing scientific and medical evidence of your wrongdoing behind a flimsy “just win” mindset, with minimal examples of cultivating young talent?

Tom Thibodeau really would be the perfect Knicks coach.

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