Schmeelk: Analyzing Five Criticisms of Tom Thibodeau's Coaching

John Schmeelk
July 28, 2020 - 1:52 pm
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The Knicks are close to finalizing Tom Thibodeau’s contract to be their next head coach. Despite a stellar career record, there are legitimate questions about some of Thibodeau’s philosophies and his coaching history that could impact his future with the Knicks.

A fair question to raise is whether Thibodeau can still win like he did with the Bulls from 2010-2015. Is his failure with the Timberwolves due to the league passing him by or an ill-fitting roster (that Thibodeau put together) that was unable to execute his vision?

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Here are five common criticisms of Thibodeau. Some are fair. Some aren’t.

Defensive Philosophy
Due to his success with the Bulls (and previously as the architect of the Celtics’ championship defense), Thibodeau is considered a defensive coach. He could never get his Minnesota teams to play at a high level. His well-known strategy of icing the pick and roll (forcing the ball handler to the baseline and walling off the paint) yielded defensive rating ranks of 27th, 25th, and 17th (at the time of his firing) in Minnesota.

The so-far unanswerable question is whether those shortcomings have more to do with the Timberwolves’ slew of young players with poor defensive skills (Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Jeff Teague) or his defensive system struggling to deal with NBA offenses more dedicated to launching as many three-point shots as possible.

Thibodeau’s hallmark defensive strategy is icing the pick and roll (forcing the ball-handler to the baseline) to shrink the floor, wall off the paint, and limit his passing lanes. In Minnesota, that strategy yielded too many efficient three point shots like ones from the baseline. Is it because the Timberwolves’ young players couldn’t execute it properly, or because it cannot handle modern NBA offenses?

In Thibodeau’s final year with the Bulls, only the Rockets averaged more than 30 three-point attempts per game (32.7). In his final season with the Timberwolves in 2018-2019, that number dwindled to 11 – and no team averaged fewer than 25 in 2018-2019, which would have put a team in the top 10 in three-point attempts when he closed out his tenure in Chicago in 2014-2015.

This season, the Bucks and Raptors hold the two best defensive ratings in the NBA, even though they allow the most and second-most three point shots in the NBA. The Clippers, and to a lesser extent, the Celtics, show a similar pattern. Shutting down the paint is still the most important part of a good defense, especially if the three-point attempts those teams allow are not to good shooters from high percentage areas of the floor.

Mitchell Robinson’s presence in the paint instead of Karl-Anthony Towns is an automatic upgrade protecting the rim, and should make it less necessary for his teammates to collapse into the pain. Combined with some relatively minor adjustments, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Thibodeau’s schemes that should render them ineffective if executed properly.

Archaic Offense
Thibodeau’s failure to embrace the three-point shot offensively is a legitimate criticism that raises a red flag. The Timberwolves ranked 30th in three-point attempts per game in his first two years as their coach. At the time he was fired, Minnesota ranked 23rd in three-point attempts per game. One major change after he was fired, for example, was Karl-Anthony Towns taking more three-point shots.

In the modern NBA, three-point attempts are often equated with good offensive play. The Mavs and Rockets have the two highest offensive ratings in the NBA and shoot the most three-pointers per game in the league, and the Heat and Bucks are in the Top 10 in both categories, too.

The Timberwolves were an exception to that trend under Thibodeau. Minnesota finished 10th in offensive rating in Thibodeau’s first season there before ranking fourth in his second season. In his final season there, Minnesota was ranked 15th offensively, partially due to the fact that Jimmy Butler played only 10 games before being traded.

There’s no reason to think Thibodeau’s schemes would prevent a talented offensive team from scoring the number of points they need to in order to win consistently. With that said, shooting a few more three-pointers would make it easier for the Knicks to be a better offensive player.

Playing Time
The third question about Thibodeau’s coaching is his insistence on playing his better players more minutes than most coaches. In Thibodeau’s final full season with the Timberwolves, for example, Jimmy Butler averaged the third-most minutes in the NBA (36.7) and Andrew Wiggins was ninth (36.3). Karl-Anthony Towns was not far behind at 35.6 minutes per game (14th in the league). All five of his starters ranked in the top 42 players in minutes played per game that season.

It would only take a minimal reduction of 2 minutes of playing time per half for his player’s minutes to fall into line with the rest of the league. How much does those two minutes per half really impact a player? It’s a fair question to ask. Either way, it should be a relatively easy fix. Given the Knicks do not have any dominant players, or veterans that should require minutes restrictions, this should not be a huge concern.

Demanding Style
Thibodeau is known to run hard practices and be very demanding of his players in terms of playing the right way and with the appropriate intensity. Somehow, this has been turned into a negative because it rubbed a couple of young players that haven’t won anything, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the wrong way.

With a young team that desperately needs to learn what it takes to win in the NBA, this style should fit exactly what they need. If a player is not able to handle playing for a demanding coach and the criticism that goes along with it, there should be serious questions raised about how important winning is to that player.

Player Development
It has also been said that Tom Thibodeau would not do well with a young team because he can’t develop players. In Thibodeau’s first season with the Bulls, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and Taj Gibson were 25, and Derrick Rose was 22. Deng and Noah made their only All-Star teams under Thibodeau, and in Minnesota, Karl Anthony-Towns made his only All-Star games with Thibodeau as his head coach.

The Knicks’ roster is still jammed with young players, and Thibodeau’s history should not discourage hopes that they can continue to develop and improve with him as their head coach. RJ Barrett’s personality seems to fit Thibodeau perfectly. Mitchell Robinson and Frank Ntilikina’s games certainly do. Kevin Knox might need a taskmaster like Thibodeau to reach his potential. This should not be a large concern for Knicks fans.

Follow John Schmeelk on Twitter: @Schmeelk

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