Jeff Van Gundy on why Tom Thibodeau can succeed as Knicks head coach

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Tom Thibodeau at MSG arms outstretched blue Knicks pullover 2021
Tom Thibodeau at MSG arms outstretched blue Knicks pullover 2021

ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy knows Tom Thibodeau well. Thibodeau was an assistant under Van Gundy with the Knicks and the Rockets.

So when Van Gundy shares thoughts on Thibodeau, he may be a little biased. But he’s also spent thousands of hours with the current Knicks head coach.

With that in mind, here are some of the thoughts Van Gundy shared on Thibodeau during an ESPN NBA conference call on Friday.

Van Gundy: "I think people who label Tom old school don’t know Tom. They observe Tom, but they don’t know Tom. Tom studies coaching as diligently as anybody I’ve ever seen. So he absolutely knows, I would say in every sport but particularly basketball, all the newest trends. But he doesn’t just accept that new means better. I actually think he’s a very courageous coach in that he’s willing to do what he believes is best versus do what everyone else is doing just because it’s a lot of groupthink.

“This league has become so much about clichés that everybody does the same thing. Load management. We don’t even know what that means half the time. What are you actually trying to do? Do you understand why people get injured and why they don’t? Where are the injuries coming from?

“This sophomoric minutes played stat; people write about that like every minute is equal. Like if I spot up in the corner and I’m PJ Tucker, it’s the same exertion rate as someone who has the ball in his hands all the time like a Julius Randle. I admire Tom because he studies it (and) he follows his gut versus the groupthink.

Oct 13, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) runs up court after scoring a basket alongside Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant (9) during the first half at Madison Square Garden.
Oct 13, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) runs up court after scoring a basket alongside Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant (9) during the first half at Madison Square Garden.

“But I think the most underrated aspect of Tom’s success in New York is that (team president) Leon Rose has let Tom be himself. So many people hire people and then try to change them. I think Leon, what he did so well, he doesn’t sit there and tell Tom, ‘Oh, you look too gruff or you’re arguing too many calls.’ Tom’s going to argue every call, every game, every year.

“And if you start to focus on that and his, quote, gruffness, which I don’t see him as gruff at all … you can miss the 99 percent of greatness that you’re witnessing on a nightly basis. I give Leon a lot of credit for letting Tom be Tom and coach the way he feels is best and coach in a confident manner. I think it’s an underrated aspect for why coaches succeed or why coaches fail.”

Mark Jackson, who will join Van Gundy and Mike Breen on ESPN’s broadcast of Knicks-Celtics on Wednesday, agreed with Van Gundy’s thought on Rose.

“Ultimately with Leon and with Thibs and the entire organization, they’re on one accord. It makes it tougher for a player to run to Leon and complain or say something about Thibs when they know, ‘this is the guy and we’re not playing that game.’ That’s the reason that you can experience success and unity all throughout the organization. It puts you in position to have a great season.”

Knicks president Leon Rose
Knicks president Leon Rose

Van Gundy credited Thibodeau, the 2020-21 NBA Coach of the Year, for playing his top players big minutes last season and offsetting that with shorter practices.

“What wins and what loses is exactly the same thing today as it was before. You’ve got to get more (quality) shots than your opponent. It’s really simple. And being new school or old school, that’s not really the question. It’s what’s the best playing group, scheme or whatever.

“One of the best things they did last year was they stayed old school. Like, in minutes, (Thibodeau) is willing to play his guys more. And thus they’re in better shape and I would argue that they don’t get hurt at the rate that lesser conditioned athletes do.

“Plus, he’s got his best player out there playing against back line players or end of the rotation players. I think that’s smart on his part, that’s giving them the best chance to win. And tied into that, is, from what I gather -- and I’m not there on a daily basis -- he paces them in a different way so they don’t practice as long or as hard as maybe they once did.

Just like the other night, they give Kemba Walker, who I’m sure they’re rightly concerned about his health, they give him a night of rest not to play in an exhibition game. The guy (Thibodeau) is smart, he’s trying to win and he’s doing something that really hadn’t been done in New York, consistently, for quite some time, which is to win.

“And I think part of that is his always thinking of what’s best for his team – not worried if it’s old school thoughts or new school thoughts but just coming to the conclusion of what’s best. And I really admire his dedication and his determination. What’s he like, 63, 64? And he still has a fire and to use a worn out, cliche. ... He coaches with this fire and chip on his shoulder that I find, I think it’s fascinating, after so long in coaching and so much success, the burning desire he has for success on a nightly basis is fun to watch.”

KNICKS EXPECTATIONS

Van Gundy and Jackson also offered their thoughts on the 2021-22 Knicks:

Van Gundy: “I think they lost some important members of their regular season success last year. I think Bullock was a huge loss. I loved how he fit with their team. He can catch and shoot, he can cut. And he guarded on a nightly basis. Didn’t need the ball. Never dribbled. I think when you get to the playoffs, you need more guys that can go off the bounce. So they signed Kemba. The one thing about he and Rose as a combination; the only concern is the size defensively from Kemba but the health, I think the health is such a huge component of their regular season success last year. Their health was terrific and I think their bench was terrific. If you have injuries, you’re going to have to work into the bench and lessen the bench’s strength. I think a successful season, I think they could be easily a lower seed, a much lower seed, and be a better team. Because I think the East has improved. But I think if they qualify for the playoffs and they win a round, it would be incredibly successful. I still think they have a lot of work to do on their roster.”

Jackson: “I agree with Jeff, you lose Bullock and people made fun of my statement during the Phoenix-Lakers game when I said they’re going to miss Elfrid Payton. What I mean by that, and Jeff can attest to this, is the competitive spirit of players. Some guys you don’t play for three or four games and you call on them, they’re ready. No matter what you want to say, he had a successful season last year competing and being part of a group that changed the culture. Those guys got a lot done.”