The Truth Behind Tom Thibodeau: Breaking Down the Biggest Thibs Myths
“Experience is the best teacher.”
That’s basketball lifer and newly minted Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau on a podcast with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowarski last May. He discussed his long, complicated career on the NBA sidelines.
Thibs, who hasn’t coached since January of 2019, couldn’t have known his next stint in the Association would be under some of its brightest lights.
Much ink has been spilled about Thibodeau’s prowess as a head coach. His hard-nosed, old-school style is polarizing in the modern NBA. But there’s one thing you can’t take away from the guy: He’s a tremendous student of the game.
There’s a certain set of assumptions about who Thibs is, and why he may or may not find success coaching these Knicks. Let’s address some of these myths head-on and judge for ourselves if signing Thibodeau to a five-year deal is a step in the right direction or just another blunder by the Knicks.
Myth No. 1 - Thibs isn’t right for such a young Knicks team
It’s so easy to see why this narrative has been pushed. The Knicks were considering coaches like Kenny Atkinson and Jason Kidd - men who have had much more recent and obvious success coaching up young talent. Thibs, meanwhile, is often seen as a creature of habit, or even out of touch. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Back in 2011, Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP in the league under Thibodeau’s watch. Jimmy Butler transformed from a late first-round pick to one of the league’s rising stars because of him. Then the list goes on: Joakim Noah, a one-time fourth placer in MVP voting, Taj Gibson, DJ Augustin, Jamal Crawford, Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Nate Robinson all became productive players with Thibs at the helm in Chicago.
Even in Minnesota, Andrew Wiggins enjoyed the best stretch of his career during Thibodeau’s first season there. Karl-Anthony Towns, admittedly not the biggest Thibs fan, showed tremendous growth with Thibodeau as the Timberwolves coach.
Thibs has made a strong impact wherever he’s gone. Even if his time in Minnesota didn’t end in success, the players clearly had an affinity for their coach. Zach LaVine - who Thibs actually traded to the Bulls - told the Chicago Sun-Times:
‘‘[Thibodeau’s] style works. He’s not a beat-around-the-bush type of guy. Once you buy into his coaching, I mean, look at the track record. It’s pretty damn good.
Look, I understand the business of basketball. Yeah, he traded me, but for that one season he did coach me, he gave me an opportunity. He put the ball in the hands of a 20, 21-year-old kid and said, ‘Go hoop.’ That’s bigger than the business of basketball.’’
Whether we see LaVine back with Thibodeau in the Knicks in the immediate future or not is another story. But make no mistake, young players worth their salt respect how Thibs approaches the game.
Myth No. 2 - Thibs works his players too hard
We’ve all heard Thibs’ scratchy bark during an NBA broadcast. The man is demanding. But to his players’ benefit, not their detriment. Thibodeau’s former mentor Jeff Van Gundy recently explained as such.
“I don’t think players have changed nearly as much as organizations and coaches have changed. You can’t demand less of players and then complain that they’re willing to do less at times. I find it does a disservice to players. I think good players in any era want to be challenged and pushed to be their best and they want to play on teams of significance. This idea that Tom doesn’t know how to pace his team is one of the great slanders that has been perpetuated by the media on a coach.”
Thibodeau has never gotten away from this stigma since his days in Chicago, where Derrick Rose became the poster guy of a player breakdown under his watch. Is this solely on Thibs?
In his first season with the Bulls, Thibodeau played Rose for 37.4 minutes a night, just a slight increase from Rose’s rookie season (37.0) and sophomore season (36.8).
Thibodeau, historically, has played his star players around 36 minutes per contest, well within league average. For context, Damian Lillard logged 36.9 minutes a night in the 2019-20 season, during the age of minutes restrictions.
It’s easy to say that Thibs ran his players to the ground without understanding the context.
Back in 2018, Thibodeau defended his philosophy surrounding playing time. It’s a reaction to the matchups on the floor:
“But if you look in the box scores, there are a lot of teams that play guys [big minutes]. You’re going to always play your main guys more minutes. Now, your depth may change that. Boston is a much deeper team. When you also look at scoring margins, there’s probably more blowouts for them. But in close games, if you look at minutes, your main players are probably going to be playing 35 to 37, somewhere in there.
I think people sometimes get caught up in the wrong stuff. The most important thing is the winning.”
Thibodeau’s track record speaks for itself. In his five years with Chicago, he won 64.7 percent of his games, second only to Phil Jackson among Bulls coaches. This included a playoff berth each season, even with Rose’s assortment of injuries.
In Minnesota, Thibs transformed the maligned Timberwolves into a postseason team. Had his relationship with the club’s front office not soured, he may have built a perennial playoff contender.
Some of Thibs’ former players, meanwhile, continue to have productive, lengthy careers. Clearly the rigor of playing under coach Thibodeau isn’t too much of a burden.
Myth No. 3 - Thibs’ style isn’t compatible with today’s NBA
Thibodeau will turn 63 next season, but he knows he’s still got a lot to learn. He told Woj as such.
“The league never stays the same. It’s always evolving and changing. And you want to make sure you’re keeping up with the times.”
During his time away from the NBA, Thibodeau did his due diligence, visiting teams across the league. He visited teams at different stages and with different philosophies so he could learn more about all the varying perspectives and systems in today’s league.
“The way everyone’s managing with load management and where your team is, sports scientists, so it’s different. And if your team is young and you’re in a rebuild, you’re probably practicing more than an older veteran team. In some cases where the team is mixed, there’s almost two practices going on in one, where your young guys are getting the work they need, and the older vets are in the weight room getting strength and conditioning.”
This might sound familiar. We were given the same story before Thibodeau joined the Timberwolves. In short order he had brought in his former Bulls players, supposedly to help the younger players in Minny accelerate the learning curve. The buy-in from the team’s stars wasn’t as palpable as it had been in Chicago.
Coach Van Gundy would suggest this is more complicated than it seems:
“I have never heard a winning player complain about Tom. Never. The other thing is we address — if the criticism came from Towns and Wiggins, they had their best years under him — not just as a team, but as individuals.
When winning players complain about you, you need to take stock as a coach or at least think about what they’re thinking. When losing players complain about work ethic and demands, you take it with a grain of salt.”
Thibodeau himself acknowledged his mistakes to Woj. He explained he knew he could have done better in Minnesota.
“You learn from your experiences. I think it’s important to ask yourself, what can I do better? You are kind of making a better situation for everybody.”
“We all learn probably more from our mistakes than we do from our successes and I think that’s part of the equation. And so, I think the biggest thing, as I said, is the league is always changing and so you want to make sure you’re adapting as well and then there’s always variables in terms of the style of play could change. You know when in the 90’s, it was a slower game, today it's a much faster game. There’s a lot of threes being shot, you can try to take advantage of the rule changes and things like that and what’s coming next?
You always ask yourself those questions and so I think all those things factor into it, you know you look at people who had gone through different opportunities where you want to be successful whenever you’re going and I think analyzing the team that you have and what’s the best way to move forward with it and then also what’s the best way to manage the group.”
Managing relationships wasn’t always Thibodeau’s cup of tea. His gruff and fiery demeanor on the sidelines may have rubbed some of his former players the wrong way.
What led to his unraveling in Minnesota is the breakdown of communication which stemmed from his dual role as coach and team president.
“Even if we don’t totally agree with each other, you have great respect for each other and I think sometimes we’re all guilty of, you can’t allow the communication to break down,” Thibodeau said.
“That has to continue throughout. That was something that I learned from that and you know I think, in this past year just from travelling around and just seeing how much each organization has grown in terms of how many people there are, from your assistant coaches, developmental guys, interns, video guys, your analytics people, your sports scientists, your strength and conditioning people.
I mean it’s just a very large amount of people so everyone has to be communicating and working together to make those possible decisions.”
Encouraging words for Knicks fans, no doubt. Luckily, Thibs should have a lot more help on the management side in New York. With the Timberwolves, he was both the head coach and the president of basketball operations. With his long-time CAA friend Leon Rose now at the helm in New York, Thibodeau is expected to be singularly-focused on coaching the Knicks.
Rose has built a strong front office with solid scouts, a true analytics team, and a seasoned problem-solver in William Wesley for when something goes awry. Said former Knicks coach Larry Brown of World Wide Wes:
“If you look around the league, anybody who was having difficulty with somebody you could probably call Wes and he can probably help you get through it.”
It’s a lifeline that the Knicks hope Thibodeau won’t ever have to need. Thibs is coming back to New York with an open mind.
But even if he proves to be an old dog who can’t learn new tricks, and the above mythology proves correct, could things really be much worse for New York?
If Rose’s front office does its job, Thibs should have a bit more of a cohesive roster to work with moving forward. From there, at least the veteran coach can perhaps restore a bit of respect and seriousness to what is the laughing stock of the NBA.
James Dolan is tired and sick of being a punchline and he’s going all-in in his biggest bet yet. Only time can tell if he hit the jackpot or he’ll end up borrowing Thibodeau’s words in his next hire:
Experience is the best teacher.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo