As Tom Thibodeau spent last season visiting with friends around the league — guys like Steve Clifford in Orlando, Brad Stevens in Boston, Steve Kerr in Golden State — he said the trips served two purposes.
"You never want to stay the same," Thibodeau told reporters on a Zoom call, part of his official introduction as the new Knicks head coach. "So, all part of it was just a recharge. Get away, relax. The other part was to learn."
It is this desire, something Thibodeau came back to repeatedly during his 30+ minutes with reporters on Thursday, that will determine his level of success in New York.
No one questions his ability to get the most out of players at any given time. Through the years, Thibodeau teams routinely outperform their on-paper talent levels. Years ago, this reporter watched his Bulls go into Barclays Center, and largely playing 5-on-3, dispatch the favored Nets in an elimination game on the road, emblematic of the way Thibodeau teams max out.
And yet: that team, built around massive performances and minutes loads from Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, was not built to last. Both Deng and Noah ceased to be capable of full-time performances by age 30.
This is the dominant question inherent in the Thibodeau hire by a rebuilding team: can he take all the parts of his previous tenures that made him respected throughout the league, and add some of the newer thinking to his overall approach?
On the question of minutes, Thibodeau indicated a willingness to change, a reflection, he said, of the choices made throughout the league.
"I think when you look at the league, and you see the load management that's gone on, it's more positionally-based," Thibodeau said. "I think that if you go back five years, you would see that — LeBron, Durant, Harden, the late Kobe Bryant. Those guys were all playing 30-35 minutes. So they would obviously be matched up there, if they're on the floor."
Thibodeau said as a result, he needed a Jimmy Butler, a Luol Deng in the game to defend those top players. And with the league easing the minute loads of its best players, it largely takes care of itself, that he could substitute out his best defenders in situations where opposing stars are off the floor for longer. He also spoke of the need to be monitoring workload with "sports scientists and athletic trainers". Put simply, he doesn't sound like the dinosaur some made him out to be.
Then again, Butler averaged 36.1 minutes per game in his 10 Minnesota games in 2018-19, so the timeline doesn't quite line up. It bears watching, but Thibodeau says he thinks about it differently right now, and rightly so. 13 players averaged 35 minutes or more in 2019-20. Ten years ago, that number was 42. Five years ago, that had dropped to 15, so Thibodeau is late to this. For the Knicks, though, what matters isn't how quickly he got there, but if he's there now.
There are questions, too, about Thibodeau's style of play, and clearly he's spent enough time studying the league — a major strength he's brought to every job — to sound like the bruising, two-big attack he's often utilized may not be how Knicks Thibs takes on opponents.
"I agree, totally, that the league has changed," Thibodeau said of lineup composition. "You are seeing a lot more five-out, where [in the past] you'd see at least one big on every team, where everyone can shoot threes on the floor. And you're seeing fewer post-ups."
Even so, he noted the use by Toronto of Pascal Siakam in post-ups — but pointedly, he did not cite Philadelphia, which, per Synergy, easily led the league in post up possessions in 2019-20. (Toronto is 17th.) It suggests a very different approach to how and how often paint touches will dictate a Tom Thibodeau offense.
That's reflective of a changed league, too. The 2012-13 Bulls finished with 939 post up possessions. That ranked seventh in the NBA that year. Though teams had only played 64-66 games in 2019-20, only the Sixers were approaching that total, with 816. The Lakers were second — at 560.
And that's the reality of the Tom Thibodeau tenure in New York. He isn't here to win in the 2010 NBA, the 2015 NBA, or even the 2019 NBA. His work starts with the 2020-21 season. He's signed for five years. If it all goes right, he'll be guiding the Knicks in a constantly innovating league that will look different by the middle of this decade from how it even looks now.
So his eagerness to keep on innovating along with it? That's the best news of all for the Knicks as they aim to find a way forward with more success than, well, almost everything that preceded today.
Those trips Thibodeau took —along with some beach time, he said, pushing back on the idea that he never takes time off — may pay off for Thibodeau and the Knicks in ways his Bulls tenure cannot.
"It was great," Thibodeau said. "It allows you to keep up with the league, you get new ideas, you get different ideas. Sometimes you get confirmation of something you were doing. Or see a better way of doing something."