One of the many criticisms about New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau was that he would be unable to adapt his eat-breathe-sleep basketball ways to a new wave of young players. But after being fired by the Minnesota Timberwolves in January 2019, Thibodeau is at the start of a third basketball act that many thought wasn’t possible.
New York wasn’t expected to win much in Thibodeau’s first season, but as was the case in his first year with the Chicago Bulls in 2010-11, the team has exceeded expectations.
As the Knicks head into Thursday’s second-half opener against the Milwaukee Bucks with a surprising 19-18 record — good for fifth in the Eastern Conference — they’ve won the same way so many Thibodeau teams have succeeded in the past: playing hard and coming together on the defensive end; the Knicks are second in the league in defensive rating, behind only the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Thibodeau is a basketball lifer whose identity has always been wrapped up in the game he loves. He’s gruff, he’s hard to please and he’s demanding — but he is loyal to those who have been loyal to him over the years.
That was evident in his first stop with the Bulls, when he brought along trusted veteran players like Kurt Thomas, Keith Bogans and Brian Scalabrine, and assistants like confidants Andy Greer and Ron Adams to help teach The Thibs Way to younger players like Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah.
Over a decade later, Thibodeau, who still has Greer and longtime right-hand man Daisuke Yoshimoto by his side, has come full circle, bringing in Rose and Gibson as the veterans for a team full of young players learning how to win in the NBA.
The 63-year-old coach spoke recently with ESPN about the lessons he has learned throughout more than three decades in the league, including nine as a head coach, how they’ve shaped a career renaissance in New York and why he’s excited about the direction of the Knicks’ young roster.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Has the identity of a Tom Thibodeau-coached team changed through the years?
Thibodeau: Your core beliefs of what it takes to win, I don’t think those change. I think what you learn along the way, maybe you can do something a little bit better. You always want to add that to it. But the big thing is, what goes into winning is probably the same: being serious-minded, tough, hardworking, smart, together — those are the things that you want to stand for. You take care of all the little things, and the results will take care of themselves.
Given all the emotions invested into those years with Rose in Chicago, what does it mean to you to be reunited with him at this stage of both of your respective careers?
Thibodeau: I think his career has been very unique, in the sense that we saw it in the beginning when he was having an MVP year at 22, and then to go through the injuries that he had, to be able to overcome all that adversity, and then to come out of it on the other end where he’s had a strong year previously in New York, where he averaged 18 points a game, then he goes to Minnesota and averages 18 a game, then he goes to Detroit and he has a strong year there, and just to see where he is as a person, how much he’s grown.
I love the way he complements our team. He still can do a lot of things very dynamically on the floor, but he’s always played for the team first. And when you look at the winning that he’s done throughout his career, whether it be high school, Memphis, the Chicago years, it says a lot about who he is. And then to know him as I do as a person, to me, obviously when you go through things like we’ve been through, there’s always going to be that trust in each other.
Like Rose, Gibson has been with you at every stop of your head-coaching journey. Why was it so important to reunite with him?
Thibodeau: Taj is an important piece for us because I wanted to have the right veterans here, and you could include Alec Burks and Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton, they’ve been terrific for our young guys so it’s a great blend of players. But I think with Taj and Derrick, the fact that they’re familiar with the system, and they’ve always been team-first guys. I love the role that Taj is in: You could start Taj, you could bring him off the bench, or he could just be a mentor. And he’s been invaluable to us with [Knicks center] Mitchell Robinson.
Thibodeau’s entire basketball life has been defined by loyalty. He demands it of those around him and offers it only if he feels that it’s being reciprocated. It has to be built up over a number of years and can be torn apart in an instant if there is a communication breakdown, which was apparent at the end of both stints with the Bulls and Timberwolves.
As he did during his sabbatical year after getting fired from the Bulls, Thibodeau traveled around the country after getting fired by the Timberwolves — visiting various teams and coaches across the country to see how they operate and stay close to the game.
As Thibodeau reflected on his previous stops, the coach often pegged for his stubbornness offered an acknowledgment of responsibility for his own previous mistakes and identified areas in which he feels some personal growth.
What’s the one thing you feel like you’ve learned from Chicago and Minnesota that you brought to the Knicks?
Thibodeau: I think you learn from every experience, and you have to continue to adapt. And when you study the NBA, you realize and know that the NBA is never staying the same. It’s always evolving, it’s always changing. And you have to make sure you still can have your core beliefs, the things that you believe in.
The style of play changes, and we’re seeing that with the way teams are shooting the 3. Different types of read-and-react type offenses, so you have to adjust to that. You have to continually adjust your schemes.
But I think the big thing is also to understand the players that are coming into the league. They’re a lot younger, and you have to make sure that you’re connecting. You never have it all figured out. You’re always trying to learn. There’s always better ways to do things.
Some might hear that and think, “So it is possible for Thibs to change.”
Thibodeau: I think you have to. My team in Minnesota was a lot different than my team in Chicago. I think it’s important to reflect at the conclusion of each season. That should never change, in terms of how you evaluate yourself. You really only answer to yourself, and you need to be honest with yourself. “These are the things we did well, these are the things that we didn’t do as well as I would have liked. What could I have done better?”
“I look back at Chicago, that was a great experience for me — 85 to 90 percent of it was very, very positive. No job is going to be perfect, and I’m not going to be perfect.”
What is something you’re doing differently with the Knicks compared to your past coaching stops?
Thibodeau: The biggest thing is with [Knicks VP] William Wesley and [Knicks president] Leon Rose. We talk almost daily about everything. Whether it’s what we’re doing with the team, what the future looks like, so I’d say that communication. Also, it’s the understanding of how big the staffs have gotten — whether it’s your analytics, player development, sports science — and their benefits in developing your team. It requires more managing, so you have to spend more time with it, there’s more personalities involved. How do you determine how to utilize all that information? You’re talking about staffs that are maybe two times or three times as large as they were five years ago.
Do you feel like you’re more open to the entire staff?
Thibodeau: I always think there’s different things you can do. I think you learn how to communicate effectively. The more people you have, the more meetings you have to have. And so I think by doing that, you’re getting more input, but you’re also — it’s important to make people feel like you appreciate what they’re doing. You can take it for granted, because you can get wrapped up in the schedule, because the games and practices keep coming.
We’re not going to get every decision right, but we want to have a process in which everyone’s included, and everyone’s voice matters. And then ultimately Leon’s going to have the final say. And so then we’ll move forward. So we can debate things, we can disagree, but once the decision is made, we all align.
Some might hear that and think “Thibs is going to let somebody else have the final say?” You’re comfortable with that?
Thibodeau: Yeah, I am. And I’ve always been comfortable with that. I just always wanted to have a voice. So I think that’s the important thing. Look, as a coach you have to understand you could have blind spots. And you want people to give you their honest opinion. With Leon and Wes, I trust them completely.
The Knicks job was one Thibodeau had thought about for decades, ever since serving as an assistant on Jeff Van Gundy’s staff in the mid 1990s. He knew that coaching inside Madison Square Garden was different, and he relished an opportunity to lead the struggling franchise back to prominence. When Thibodeau needed a coaching lifeline, Rose and Wesley were there to provide one.
The pair had known Thibodeau for years — Wesley represented Thibodeau when he finally signed with an agent, Rose’s CAA, prior to inking his Bulls deal. The trust never wavered. It’s a major reason Thibodeau has been able to hit the ground running and feels comfortable with Knicks general manager Scott Perry.
After watching his relationship with former Bulls executives John Paxson and Gar Forman erode and watching his tenure as both coach and president of basketball operations implode with the Timberwolves, Thibodeau has found a kinship with the Knicks’ new front office that he believes will last.
Why take the Knicks job knowing, at least on paper, you were farther from contention than at previous stops?
Thibodeau: The upside of the job, also being familiar with Leon and Wes — those were critical components. I had worked for [Knicks owner] Jim Dolan before, grew up in Connecticut, there’s a lot of factors that weighed into it, but the most important part were the players that were here, and also the draft picks and the cap space.
I think when you look at New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, those three cities are a lot different. And so I know what the Knicks mean to New York, I love the challenge of it all, and so it’s been very enjoyable for me.
Why do you think things are clicking so well — and so quickly — with the Knicks?
Thibodeau: I don’t know if they’re clicking so well. But I like the young pieces that we have. Julius Randle is an All-Star. Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett have really come on. And then we have some good young players with the right veterans. Our veteran leadership has been really strong. Our young guys, Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin, are just gym rats — they keep getting better and better every day.
But it’s a really good mix of guys and they’re playing hard, they’re playing for each other and I think when you have a team that’s committed like that, there’s going to be some nights where we’re going to fall short, but the next day they come in, they’re ready to go, get better and fix things.
What has the transition been like coming from teams built more around veterans?
Thibodeau: I think the important thing when you take a job is to really study where you are, or what type of team you have. I know when I went to Boston as an associate head coach, you look at it and say, “This is a veteran team that has a chance to win a championship.” And then going to Chicago, it was a young team that was trying to find its way. It was roughly a .500 team and so that challenge was different. Minnesota was totally different. That was a team that — a lot of young guys had not been in the playoffs in 14 years, and so that was a great challenge. And then New York was a different challenge. I think having been here before and understanding New York was probably a big plus for me. And then to look at what our potential would be, I saw a good pathway to move forward.
Do you see any comparisons between Randle’s emergence and what you were able to get out of Luol Deng with the Bulls?
Thibodeau: Totally different type of players, but I felt the same way from coaching against them. When you played against the Bulls, Luol was a guy that, if you didn’t pay attention to him, could really hurt you. And I thought he had great value in that, that he did a lot of things that weren’t measured necessarily by statistics, but could help your team win. And I think with Julius, the same thing: You always saw that he played hard, he had the ability to go off the dribble, he could play back to the basket, always a pretty good midrange shooter. Then adding the 3, and then his defense has really improved.
But also, his playmaking. He’s playing very, very unselfishly. And he loves to be in the gym; he’s a great worker, but to see where he’s gone — obviously his numbers speak for themself, but his impact on winning has been huge.
What have you seen from Barrett so far, and how do you think his game has expanded since you’ve gotten there?
Thibodeau: The thing that I saw this summer was his commitment, his attitude and his approach, and once we got to work when he came in, I just liked his upside from the beginning. He’s got great size, he can put the ball on the floor, he gets into the paint, he’s finishing a lot better. He’s starting to really shoot the ball. His all-around play, his growth has been terrific. And I think he’s going to continue to get better and better, but he’s strong on both sides of the ball, and he’s really added a lot to the team as well.
“When you have a team that’s committed like that, there’s going to be some nights where we’re going to fall short, but the next day they come in, they’re ready to go, get better and fix things.”
Tom Thibodeau, on the Knicks’ young roster
How would you define the Knicks’ plan heading into the March 25 trade deadline and playoff push?
Thibodeau: I think the important thing for us was building our foundation and understanding how you improve your club. If there’s something that makes sense for us, we’ll consider it, we’ll weigh it and then we’ll try to make a good decision. But I think when you look at the teams that are successful in this league, that’s what they do. I love the position that we’re in, we have good young players, we have draft assets, we have cap space, we’re positioned really well moving forward.
Some of your past disagreements with ownership are well documented. What’s it like learning how to adapt to different ownership styles?
Thibodeau: I know [Dolan] is always committed to the team, and when I was here as an assistant, the way he treated me when I was an assistant coach, I felt very strongly about that. He treated me great and I was just an assistant coach, but he took time to talk to me and things like that, and that went a long way. And I know how important this is to him, and I know what the Knicks mean to the city, I thought it was just a good match all the way around. I know Wes and Leon, how strongly I feel about those two guys as well. So I was excited about the possibility.
With Wes and Leon — do you think this is the most in sync you’ve felt with a front office in all your time as a head coach?
Thibodeau: Whether it’s ownership or a front office, you’re not going to agree on everything. No one does. But looking back, most of my experiences, most of the time, were very positive. I look back at Chicago, that was a great experience for me — 85 to 90 percent of it was very, very positive. No job is going to be perfect, and I’m not going to be perfect, so I understand that.
But when you look at it, you can’t overlook all the positives in each job. I think the one thing in traveling around and visiting with different teams, you understand that the issues are the same virtually for every team. So it’s understanding that, OK, we all have problems to solve, and that’s what really working is and we’re all fortunate to be doing something that we love. And so I think maybe that’s given me a better perspective this time around. And hopefully I continue to learn and grow, I never want to stop learning.
What would it mean to you, after many said you would not get another job, to lead this team back to postseason success?
Thibodeau: There are many steps to take along the way and I think part of the time when I was out, what you miss the most is the camaraderie of the staff and a team, and everyone working together. I’m enjoying that part of it and understanding the commitment that it takes, the sacrifice that it takes, what goes into winning. I felt the last time I was here we were on the cusp, we were right there at the door, and unfortunately we fell short.
But I know the commitment that team made and that was a championship-caliber team — great players, great coaches, great organization — and I’d love to get it back to that level again.