How the Knicks built a classic Tom Thibodeau team

Oct 30, 2022;  Cleveland, Ohio, USA;  New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau in the third quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

Oct 30, 2022; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau in the third quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. / David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

When onlookers criticize this latest era of Knicks management, they often point to the diversity of voices among the front office and coaching staff, which can lead to clashing agendas and ideas about what the team should look like.

A key player in that purported dysfunction is head coach Tom Thibodeau who, given his credentials and job, has a huge stake in the Knicks’ decision-making tree.

Detractors are having a tougher time making their arguments now, with New York sitting above .500 and among the top 10 offensive and defensive teams in the league, in truly peak Thibodeau fashion. It may not have been perfect, but the Knicks built Thibs a roster designed to win his way, and they’re making it happen.

When Thibodeau was first hired, Knicks fans hoped for a near return to 90s era basketball, when playing the Knicks was a physical endeavor distinct from the 29 other teams. Opponents left Madison Square Garden battered, bruised, and most importantly beaten, thanks to New York’s stalwart defense and overall toughness.

We’re in a new era, where those common fouls are now flagrant ones and twos, but the spirit is there. It absolutely sucks to play the 2022-23 New York Knicks.

Consider what it demands to guard them. You essentially have three main offensive focal points between Jalen Brunson, RJ Barrett and Julius Randlewho have combined for over half of New York’s points this season.

Each of those three is a bruising, largely interior scorer who bangs away at the ball, and through you, until they get their opportunity. The sheer exhaustion of fighting against Randle bulldozing through half your defense, Barrett bodying whatever defender lies between him and the rim, and Brunson non-stop bumping and spinning his way to his spots has a real effect on players.

Force them into a miss, and sorry for all for all your hard work, but one third of the time, New York rebounds its own miss and gets 14 seconds to do it again.

Jan 6, 2023;  Toronto, Ont., CAN;  New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) and New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) react against the Toronto Raptors during the second quarter at Scotiabank Arena.

Jan 6, 2023; Toronto, Ont., CAN; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) and New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) react against the Toronto Raptors during the second quarter at Scotiabank Arena. / Nick Turkeyro-USA TODAY Sports

They’re currently third in the league in offensive rebounding rate, behind Mitchell Robinson tapping out everything in the vicinity of the rim, Randle pancaking box outs, Immanuel Quickley filling the gaps, and pitching the wings in.

Things don’t get easier on the other end. Thibodeau’s calling card is his defense by him, and while it took some rotation changes, he’s got the Knicks playing at a strong level there too.

Thibodeau effectively said if you’re not a positive defensively, don’t bother suiting up (until Barrett went down with an injury). On a fully healthy roster, every minute of playing time is now allocated to plus defenders, leaving no weak links to exploit.

The result? The team is back to 10th in defensive efficiency and average in defensive rebounding after a rough start to the season.

There are just so few safety valve offenses can fall back on now. Get Randle involved in a pick-and-roll and he’ll switch out and defend your guard well. Try and pick on Brunson’s size and end up with an offensive foul call.

the Jericho Sims-Isaiah Hartenstein frontcourt may not sing offensively, but two super rangy seven footers patrolling the court at the same time are no fun to find a bucket against.

Credit is due to the Knicks, top-to-bottom, for accumulating this group of guys that in combination with Thibs has formed, at worst, a low-seeded annoyance in the East that isn’t going away.

They believed in Randle after his poor 2019-20 season and 2021-22 regression, extended Barrett and Robinson, and threw the entire team’s resources at signing Brunson. Two late 2021 draft picks — Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride — have been crucial rotation pieces who bolstered the team defense.

It may not be perfect, or ever lead to a championship in close to its current formation, but the Knicks managed to fully rebuild into a classic Thibodeau team with its latest iteration.

Who knows where it goes, but in the meantime it’s extremely fun to watch as a fan, and nauseating to play as an opponent.

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