October 3, 2022

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The Sports Fanatics

Knicks on troubling trajectory with Tom Thibodeau’s tired ways reinforced yet again in blown lead against Nets

Last week’s NBA trade deadline — and all the change it engendered across the league — further eclipsed a painfully true reality for the New York Knicks: The honeymoon period between Tom Thibodeau and his latest team is very, very over.

The Brooklyn Nets made a big move, landing Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and picks. The Philadelphia 76ers, in that same trade, acquired James Harden. The Mavericks bolstered their Luka Doncic-led squad with Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans. CJ McCollum is now a Pelican, Serge Ibaka a Buck, Montrezl Harrell a Hornet.

And the Knicks? They’re just still the Knicks. They didn’t change at the deadline. They tend not to. A fact, unfortunately, that particular long-hapless organization has in common with their hard-charging, overly demanding, talented and — inevitably, always — disappointing head coach. 

In their past 16 games, the Knicks are 3-13. The latest setback came when they blew a 28-point lead in Wednesday’s 111-106 loss to the Nets. In fact, it was the third time this month the Knicks have lost after leading by 20 or more. They’re 25-34 overall, putting them 12th in the Eastern Conference. They look tired and depleted. The Thibodeau Paradox — both excellence and failure guaranteed, in rapid succession — is already at play.

The Knicks are bad, yes, for a myriad of reasons. And the mirage that Thibodeau was the answer has given way to reality. 

Some things in today’s NBA are nearly certain. Kyrie Irving’s drama will threaten to derail a locker room. LeBron James will carry a team. Erik Spoelstra’s Heat will play tough, focused, defensive-minded basketball. Steph Curry will hit a ton of 3s. Harden will want out. And Thibs, eventually, will take a promising start and grind it, and his players, down to dust.

“He just can’t help himself,” said one league source who knows Thibodeau. “He can’t change. He can’t stop. It’s just who he is.”

And that has consequences.

He’s stuck in a 1990s basketball paradigm in which minutes are things to be extracted from players rather than managed, and practices are physical and constant ordeals rather than low-key affairs that offer a shot at balancing out a long, already grueling season. One could imagine, almost, that if Thibodeau were the commissioner, he would push for back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-backs just for the sheer nonstop basketball of it, the consequences be damned.

The Knicks trajectory under Thibodeau is not new. Early on, his teams improve, and play hard and show real promise. They did in Chicago — a stretch of four largely successful seasons that still trended downward as the Thibodeau years bore down.

Yes, Derrick Rose went from the youngest MVP in league history to an injury-diminished version of his former self. But Jimmy Butler was also on those teams, and still the Chicago Bulls — good but not great — often ran out of steam.

Thibodeau moved on to the Minnesota Timberwolves, where they, too, shone in his second season as head coach. They went 47-35, made the playoffs and seemed to have turned a corner. But turning a corner has little value if you’re so worn out and ground down you have nothing left once you do it.

After another Thibodeau regression — and another quickly-severed honeymoon period — Thibs came to New York City.

Things started very well.

The Knicks played Thibodeau basketball, fighting for every loose ball, battling, being physical — competing. Last season, Thibodeau’s first in New York, the Knicks boasted the league’s third-best defense. A lackluster offense notwithstanding, Julius Randle flourished and a playoff berth arrived with bated breath for Knicks fans sure they, too, had turned a corner.

But the inevitable always arrives, especially for Thibodeau teams. This time it came in the form of a first-round loss in five games to the Atlanta Hawks. An exhausted Knicks team, without the offense needed for the playoffs or the energy to compete against a team that had one, were overmatched. 

In fact, since Thibodeau and Rose led the Bulls to the Eastern Conference finals in 2011, Thibodeau teams are 9-14 in the playoffs. Those teams have won just a single playoff series.

The world — the NBA — has changed. Thibodeau has not. Players are not robots, nor gladiators, and this is not the 1980s. LeBron James — and, beyond hoops, Tom Brady, Rafael Nadal, etc. — understand an athlete’s body has to be carefully managed and protected to maximize both excellence and longevity. That’s a fact Thibodeau has never accepted, and a big part of the reasons the Knicks this season are an afterthought.

Take Randle, a walking avatar for a Thibodeau team. He thrived last year, the primary offensive weapon on a team focused on defense. His 24.1/10.2/6.0 season and 41.1 percent shooting on 3-point shots in 2020-21 made him an All-Star for the first time, earned him an ill-begotten comparison to Hall of Famer Chris Bosh, and brought him the Most Improved Player Award.

The regression has been fast.

Randle’s 3-point shooting efficiency has cratered to 30 percent. His scoring, of course, has also fallen to fewer than 20 points per game. He, like his team, often looks as if he’s running through sand rather than the hardcourt. The Thibodeau effect is real.

Wednesday night’s Knicks-Nets game is a reminder that you have to win the moment while playing for the future. 

Not only does the Brooklyn Nets’ future look markedly brighter than their Manhattan cousins — newly recalibrated with Simmons, Curry and Drummond, plus two first-round picks in the years ahead — they’re also ahead in the East standings despite sitting in the eighth spot at 30-27.

Yes, the Nets got Kevin Durant, Irving and Harden to play there in large part because Brooklyn’s owner is not James Dolan. Yes, the Knicks woes go well beyond Thibodeau.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Thibs is — likable and smart and dedicated as he happens to be — possibly the most disastrous thing in sports: beyond change. 

He has not evolved. He has not learned. He has not taken his foot off the pedal. Typewriters must give way to computers, horse and buggies to cars, the old ways to the new. And Thibodeau — stuck in the past — has fallen into his own predictable pattern.

The Knicks are bad, and their head coach does not have a plan or solution for anything other than full, futile steam ahead.