It looks as though Tom Thibodeau will have a range of potential head coaching opportunities next season, with Brooklyn and Houston joining New York in pursuit of him. But is he worth the chase?
If the Knicks don’t bring back interim coach Mike Miller next season, team president Leon Rose will look to sign Thomas Joseph Thibodeau according to Marc Berman of The New York Post. Berman goes on to report that the Nets and Rockets are also interested in the 62-year-old.
The Nets fired their coach Kenny Atkinson mid-season (technically it was the end of the season, thanks COVID-19) and the Rockets already have one of the best coaches in the league in Mike D’Antoni but with his assistant coaches being pulled out from underneath him and his GM Daryl Morey likely on the way out, Houston is currently experiencing a weird Last Dance of their own.
When we think of Thibs we can all hear him yelling “ice” loud enough that it comes through the sideline commentator’s headsets or think back to those early Derrick Rose teams that didn’t achieve much success at a high-level thanks to matters outside of their control.
But those teams are almost ten years old and since then, Thibs has had another chance as a head coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves. So let’s look at that.
In three seasons, the team amassed a total record of 97 wins and 107 losses and just scraped into the playoffs on a game 82 play-in win against the Nuggets. Then Jimmy Butler… how do you say, ‘didn’t connect with the young players on his team’?
But let’s zoom in on that one playoff season and arguably Thibs’ best in Minny, the 2017–18 season. Karl-Anthony Towns was in his second year, Jimmy was putting up a very respectable 22/5/5 with two steals and Wiggins… well, people didn’t know he was a lost cause yet.
The Timberwolves finished eighth in point differential, fourth in offence and 23rd in defence according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s pretty weird for a guy known for his defensive prowess.
It’s amazing that, in today’s NBA, the Wolves finished as high as they did despite being in the literal bottom of the league in percentage of corner threes and total threes taken.
In the seasons since Thibs left Minny, KAT’s three-point volume has skyrocketed, going from 22 percent of his shots with Thibs, to 25 and 41 the seasons following. We now know that Towns has elevated his Unicorn status and can literally take and make step-back three-pointers.
Would we still see KAT take those shots if Thibs is the coach today?
Those Bulter Wolves were hyperefficient at transition baskets, scoring 143.4 points per transition opportunity off steals and 128.4 points per 100 transition plays, both marks second in the league. Compared to this season, that total number would rank third behind San Antonio and the Lakers while their off steals mark would be second only to Dallas.
The problem was that they didn’t do it often, ranking 27th in frequency of transition baskets that season.
So where did the bulk of that fourth-ranked offence come from?
They were fourth in the accuracy of shots at the rim and in the mid-range and took one of the highest marks from that dreaded area of the court, tailoring perfectly to their best player, Jimmy G Buckets. That’s defensible, isn’t it? Playing to your best player’s strengths is a thing coaches should do even if their strengths happen to be a bit gross sometimes.
When Jimmy was on the court that season, the team was +13.5 points better (Towns was +14.2!) and there were clear improvements on both ends of the court.
This moves into another key trait of Thibs the coach; he plays his main guys a lion’s share of the minutes, or as critics might say, he plays them into the ground.
In 2017–18, Jimmy played 37 minutes per game, Andrew Wiggins 36, KAT 36, Taj Gibson 33 and Jeff Teague 33. In 2010–11, Thibs first year with the Bulls, MVP Derrick Rose played 37 minutes per game, Luol Deng 39, Joakim Noah 33 and Carlos Boozer (there’s a throwback) 32.
Deng famously led the league in minutes per game twice and if you ignore his rookie season, in Chicago, Deng averaged 37 minutes per game from 2006 to 2013. AVERAGED. If he never played basketball, Deng would’ve been a fucking marathon runner.
While he made progress on the minute distribution front in Minnesota, Thibs was still wary of dipping too far into his reserves and his reliance on old staples he brought to Minny with him in Gibson, Rose and even Deng hampered the opportunities for younger or different bench guys like Tyus Jones, Nemanja Bjelica and Gorgiu Dieng.
I’m not sitting on a hill crying for Thibs to give Marcus Georges-Hunt or Justin Patton a bigger opportunity, but it’s hard to tell what your young prospects can give you when they don’t even get a chance.
In each of his stops, Thibs has had some quality players on his team that he could rely on, like Rose, Butler, Noah, Towns. Who are his quality players in New York? Can he play RJ Barrett 37 minutes a game and expect to win? Same for Frank Ntilikina?
One of the reasons Minny fell apart was because Jimmy Butler wanted out and didn’t get what he wanted, so he teamed up with the third-stringers and played one of the most infamous practice games.
Kyrie Irving isn’t known for rational thinking and being the easiest player to coach. How can we be sure Thibs, who was the coach when the third-stringer practice happened, would be able to stop a potential Kyrie chemistry bomb?
A potential saving grace is that Thibs has spent time on Team USA and both Kyrie and KD “like and respect” the coach.
Houston currently employs Mike D’Antoni as their head coach, why would they move on from one of the greatest offensive minds in basketball? That smells a little bit more of Tillman “Dirty Fingers” Fertitta than anything else, but can Thibs play the Russell Westbrook-at-centre lineup as effectively as D’Antoni did? Can he play without a traditional centre, let alone two bigs?
Conversely, if the Rockets do swap out D’Antoni for Thibs, I’d very much like to see the father of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns with Kyrie or KD on his roster.
Thibs in the recent past has said to The New York Post that he “needs to keep adapting as time goes on”.
He doesn’t say exactly what that adjusting is, but is it enough to keep him relevant in today’s NBA? Can he coach a team like the Knicks without any star power?
There are a lot of questions regardless of the team he’s linked to but when I read a line from Berman’s report that says “[Leon] Rose, who knows [Thibs] old-school ways with players — and likes that toughness,” I’m not exactly brimming with excitement.