Tom Thibodeau deserves significant credit for turning Knicks’ season around

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau / USA TODAY Sports/SNY Treated Image

This is late Wednesday night. About an hour after the Knicks119-113 win over the Indiana Pacers, Tom Thibodeau is taking questions from reporters.

One of the first is about the Knicks nearly letting a 15-plus point lead slip for the second straight night.

Is Thibodeau concerned?

He chuckles.

“I mean, look, you’re always concerned,” Thibodeau says. “You’re concerned with winning.”

He goes on to explain what he saw from his team and the Pacers during Indiana’s comeback. He talks about the Pacers applying full-court pressure, blitzing pick-and-roll.

The Knicks responded poorly to all of it, but they walked off the court with a win.

They’ve won 14 of 20 since Thibodeau cut his rotation to nine playerstaking Evan Fournier, Derrick Rose and Cam Reddish out.

Since the rotation switch, New York ranked fourth in offensive rating, second in defensive rating, and second in net rating (+8.2) prior to at 112-108 win over the Wizards on Friday.

They enter Saturday at 24-19, in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

Thibodeau deserves a significant amount of credit for the turnaround.

When he made the rotation change, the Knicks were coming off of an embarrassing loss to the Dallas Mavericks. There was heightened scrutiny from owner James Dolan on the entire organization. A few more losses might have led to major changes.

But Thibodeau’s lineup change the next night against Cleveland produced a win. And New York reeled off seven more to change the tone of the season.

Given the circumstances, Thibodeau deserves credit for where the Knicks stand today. Is he a perfect coach? No. All coaches have flaws.

But if you expect a Thibodeau-coached team to defend well, this year’s Knicks check that box.

They ranked second in opponent field goal percentage and first in opponent 3-point field goal percentage entering Friday’s game.

They ranked fifth in rebounding margin and second in opponent points allowed in the paint per game.

Thibodeau’s club is also strong on the other side of the ball.

They rank 10th in offensive ratings. They have the fifth lowest turnover rate and are fifth in free throw rate.

They also rank ninth in 3-point rate (attempts per 100 possessions) and fifth in fouls drawn per game. Those stats reflected their status prior to the games on Friday. They are trending toward one of the best offensive clubs of Thibodeau’s coaching career (he had top-5 offenses in both Minnesota and Chicago).

Also, most of those numbers put the Knicks in the best real-estate in the NBA entering play Friday: Top 10 in both offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency.

They entered play Thursday as one of six teams in that territory. *All of the other teams (Boston Celtics, Nets, New Orleans Pelicans, Philadelphia 76ers, Memphis Grizzlies) have a star player (*Depending on how you defines Zion Williamson).

The Knicks don’t have a star. But in Jalen Brunson they have a strong candidate for Most Improved Player and first-time All-Star. He would be the seventh first-time All-Star under Thibodeau.

Add all of it up and Thibodeau seems to be producing strong results from the bench. And he’s doing so while playing seven players under the age of 25. Brunson (26) and Julius Randle (28) are the senior citizens of the rotation.

There are, of course, things to be concerned about with these Knicks. The ability to hold leads is one. The sustainability of the rotation is another.

If you look at the Knicks’ playing time in a big-picture sense, it’s not bad. Randle ranked 24th in minutes played per game entering Friday (well behind a 38-year-old LeBron James). RJ Barrett is 39th. Brunson ranks 54th.

Entering play Friday, nine teams had at least two players ranked ahead of Barrett in minutes per game, three players ranked ahead of Brunson. Four teams have two players ranked ahead of Randle.

The Knicks manage minute loads with off days and different structures in practices. So, based on the numbers, Thibodeau isn’t running this team into the ground at the moment.

But the numbers cited above include the 23-game stretch before Thibodeau cut his rotation.

Since Thibodeau cut the rotation, Randle ranked second in minutes played per game entering Friday. Four Knicks ranked in the top 35 in minutes per game, prior to the win over Washington. So it’s naïve to ignore the possibility of players wearing out. And it’s something to monitor as you get into March, April and the playoffs.

There are other big picture issues to think about as well. How do the Knicks deal with devalued players like Reddish, Rose and Fournier – all out of the rotation. How do you know when/if a team has reached its ceiling under a specific head coach?

Those are all relevant questions, but questions for another time.

If you look at the big picture and consider where the Knicks are at the moment, Thibodeau has done a commendable job.

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