Tom Thibodeau: Improving Eastern Conference 'a great challenge' for Knicks

Jan 22, 2023; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts to a play against the Toronto Raptors in the first half at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

As the Knicks head into a new campaign, they do so coming off of one of the most successful seasons in recent memory. Last year, the Knicks won 47 games, the most since their 54-win season in 2012-13. Tom Thibodeau’s club also won a playoff series, defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round, for the Knicks’ first playoff series win since that same ’12-13 run.

But as successful as the Knicks were last season, all of that goes out the window, according to Thibodeau, as every team starts with a clean slate to get the 2023-24 season going.

“I think it was a good summer. I think the big thing for us was the continuity of the team, but also adding Donte [DiVincenzo] and then having the understanding that last year has nothing to do with this year,” Thibodeau said. “So, we have to start all over again. We have to build a base, we have to get a baseline, we have to put the work into each and every day, and we have to do this together. We can’t do this individually. It has to be done as a team.”

He added: “I think that’s what we have to be careful of, is to make an assumption that automatically it will be better, and you go further [in the playoffs]. Well, you don’t go further if you don’t put the work in every day. Each season gives you new and different challenges, so even though it’s the same team, we have to make sure that we do this as a team … there’s not shortcuts to this, you have to put the work into it.”

As Thibodeau highlighted, the Knicks bring back almost entirely the same team as last year’s squad that finished fifth in the East, with the biggest change being the addition of DiVincenzo and the trade of Obi Toppin.

Thibodeau said that the Knicks will likely begin the season with the same starting five as last year, starting Jalen Brunson, Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson.

“We’ll see how it unfolds. When you look at last season, you look at what that group did. From Dec. 4 on, they were 37-22, and so you go in with the idea with that’s where we’re going to start,” Thibodeau said. “Now, of course you haven’t played any games and nothing has unfolded yet, but you base your decisions on the information that you have.”

While Thibodeau’s squad looks to improve on last season’s success, they know that teams in front of them in the standings also went out and got even better. Most notably, the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks acquired superstar Damian Lillard, and the second-seeded Celtics brought in Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis.

“It’s a great point to understand the challenge that we face, and the obvious would be when you look at a Boston and a Milwaukee, well they were already good before any of the trade stuff, so we understand the challenge when we face those teams, but also not to overlook the other teams in the conference that have gotten a lot better,” Thibodeau said. “So, this is going to be a great challenge for us, and we have to understand that we can’t ease into this. We’ve got to come out ready to go.”

After nearly a decade of discombobulation on the floor and in the front office, Thibodeau and team president Leon Rose have brought some stability to the franchise, having posted winning seasons in two of the last three years.

And the Connecticut native does not take the chance to win in New York for granted.

“There’s no place like New York,” Thibodeau said. “We know that. Particularly for the Knicks. We know how much this team means to the city, so we’re excited to have the opportunity to represent the city. We play in the best arena in the world, so we don’t take that for granted, we don’t take our fans for granted, so we want to make them proud.”