How Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau needs to adjust in year two

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Knicks Tom Thibodeau pulling mask down
Knicks Tom Thibodeau pulling mask down

After a surprise 41-31 record and a playoff berth for the first time in eight years, the Knicks and head coach Tom Thibodeau have a lot to be proud of. The team had one of the best defenses in the NBA and earned the fourth seed in the East despite being projected to be out of the playoff picture. Thibodeau was rewarded for his quality first season at the helm of the Knicks with the 2020-21 NBA Coach of the Year Award.

No one could have imagined the success the Knicks experienced. Julius Randle went from franchise villain to savior with a season that earned him Most Improved Player and a spot on the All-NBA Second Team. RJ Barrett reversed the sophomore curse, taking a major leap in his second year. Key off- and in-season pickups such as Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel and Derrick Rose made major contributions.

The Playoffs Left a Lot to Be Desired

Despite the Knicks being a top defense, offense was an issue throughout the year. The team ranked 23rd in offensive efficiency. The offense was pretty vanilla as they relied heavily on isolation plays. The Knicks finished fourth in percentage of plays that were isolations and also had the second-highest percentage of unassisted field goal attempts in the league.

New York’s first-round playoff matchup with the Atlanta Hawks would expose some of the team’s weaknesses and flaws. Though much of the focus was on how the Knicks could not stop Hawks star guard Trae Young, we’ve seen enough in the postseason to know that Young has embarrassed elite defenses in the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks.

Offense was the bigger issue. Randle (18 points per game on 29.8 percent shooting) was stymied by Atlanta’s aggressive help defense. With Hawks center Clint Capela mucking up the paint, the Knicks’ All-Star power forward was relegated to either difficult finishes at the rim among a crowd or contested jump shot attempts.

Some of New York’s offensive struggles can be attributed to the team’s lack of versatility on the roster, but also Thibodeau missed out on some key opportunities to mix and match lineups. Playing small was never explored, as Thibodeau preferred having a traditional center on the floor at all times. Lottery pick forward Obi Toppin and Randle played just 39 minutes together.

Iso basketball isn’t a bad thing, but it is reliant on having the personnel that can create a quality look. When the Brooklyn Nets’ trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden was available, the Nets led all teams in the postseason in isolation plays through the first round. Despite featuring a heavy diet of isolations, the Nets were super-efficient, scoring 1.18 points per possession on isolations. The difference between the Knicks and Nets is that they don’t have the same weapons at their disposal.

The Future of the Thibodeau Era

The Knicks have a pile of assets. With all of their future draft picks under their control and a potpourri of young and talented players on the rosters, the Knicks have the potential to enter trade discussions for some of the league’s top stars like Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal if they become available.

A lot of Thibodeau’s lack of creativity on offense wouldn’t matter as much if the Knicks were able to pair Randle with offensive weapons of that nature. If the Knicks are unable to acquire a star and come back with a similar roster, Thibodeau will have to add more flexibility to his rotations. The coach relies on the same players on a regular basis. Kevin Knox only played 23 of the final 52 games after February. Frank Ntilikina was limited to just 33 games mostly due to coach’s decision. Rookie Immanuel Quickley also saw his minutes dwindle slightly in the playoffs.

Thibodeau should also call for more ball movement. New York just doesn’t have the offensive shot creators to survive on a heavy dose of midrange pull-ups in the postseason. As we’ve seen, it can work in the regular season, but there’s still a lot more to be explored on the offensive end.

After all the early success in his stint coaching the Knicks, the pressure to build upon a solid start will likely increase. The Knicks were a positive story, but now there will be expectations to build upon this past season regardless of what happens in free agency. Thibodeau will face some pressure to take the team to the next step in his second season as coach. Can he escape the sophomore jinx and flourish like A Tribe Called Quest did with The Low End Theory?

What we’ve learned about the NBA is that the regular season and the playoffs are two different animals. Thibodeau proved how much of a boost in the regular season, but he will need to elevate the team as the competition gets harder.