Tom Thibodeau could send Knicks down familiar path if he is unwilling to change

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(Getty Images)

Get ready to hear Tom Thibodeau bellowing commands on NBA sidelines once again.

Despite recent reporting about Jason Kidd emerging as a frontrunner for the Knicks' coaching job, New York and Thibodeau are in the process of finalizing a five-year deal to make him the next head coach in New York, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. A signed agreement is expected soon, per Wojnarowski, ending a coaching search that has stretched over multiple months.

Thibodeau last served as the Timberwolves' head coach and president of basketball operations. Minnesota fired Thibodeau midway through the 2018-19 season after a rocky start, which prominently featured Jimmy Butler doing his best to burn down every bridge on his way out of town.

MORE: Kevin Garnett interested in buying Timberwolves

The 62-year-old has enjoyed his fair share of success, of course. He complied a 394-255 record over five seasons with the Bulls, winning the Coach of the Year award in 2010-11 after Chicago finished 62-20 and earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. He also guided the Timberwolves to the postseason in 2017-18, their first playoff berth since the 2003-04 campaign.

His resume is impressive, but the big question here isn't about Thibodeau's previous accomplishments. It's about whether he is capable of leading these Knicks into the future.

In his previous stops, including as a top assistant with the "Big Three" era Celtics, Thibodeau has primarily worked with veteran players. That's not to dismiss the impressive development of Butler or Derrick Rose in Chicago, but Thibodeau hasn't previously coached the kind of roster he will be handed in New York.

RJ Barrett (19 years old), Kevin Knox (20) and Mitchell Robinson (21) are only scratching the surface of their potential, and the Knicks could end up with a top-five pick in this year's NBA Draft. Thibodeau's run with Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins didn't inspire a ton of confidence. He must maximize the talent available this time.

Aside from the youth movement, Thibodeau needs to re-evaluate his on-court tactics. He routinely had one of the NBA's top defenses while coaching the Bulls, but he failed to clean up the Timberwolves' performance on that end. In his only two full seasons in Minnesota, the Timberwolves finished 27th and 25th in defensive rating, per NBA.com advanced stats.

It's fair to note he had Towns instead of Kevin Garnett or Joakim Noah on the backline, but Thibodeau is supposed to be a defensive-minded guy. His Minnesota groups didn't embrace that identity.

The key for Thibodeau is considering his personnel and adapting to the modern NBA. For example, while Thibodeau has traditionally called out "ICE" in regards to his pick-and-roll coverages — meaning the defense is forcing the ball handler toward the sideline rather than the middle of the floor — he may realize dropping the big or switching screens is the better approach for his team. Maybe Robinson can become New York's version of Brook Lopez in that sense as he learns the finer points of the game.

The same goes for the offensive side of the ball, as Thibodeau teams haven't typically embraced the pace-and-space revolution. His teams have never even finished in the top half of the league in 3-point attempts per game. That could change with this squad depending on roster construction; for now, the Knicks feature one of the worst groups of shooters in the NBA.

And then there's the health and conditioning issue. Thibodeau has a reputation for running his players into the ground with intense practices and big minutes. (Luol Deng is nodding out there somewhere.) For what it's worth, Thibodeau seems to have a different perspective after seeing how other teams handle their players.

"The way everyone's managing with load management and where your team is, sports scientists, so it's different," Thibodeau told Wojnarowski in May. "And if your team is young and you're in a rebuild, you're probably practicing more than an older veteran team. In some cases where the team is mixed, there's almost two practices going on in one, where your young guys are getting the work they need, and the older vets are in the weight room getting strength and conditioning."

Obviously the Knicks' future won't solely come down to how Thibodeau allocates minutes or attacks pick-and-rolls defensively. Knicks president Leon Rose, who built a relationship with Thibodeau during their time together at Creative Artists Agency, is in charge of overseeing what will be a challenging rebuild. Thibodeau will pour his heart into this job, but it won't matter if New York can't acquire better players.

It also won't matter if Knicks owner James Dolan continues to change leadership like most people change socks. Thibodeau does have slightly more control there, though. If he can make New York just competitive in the East, the front office may do something crazy: Let the coach keep his job.

But if Thibodeau relies on his old tricks in a new NBA landscape, the Knicks could find themselves paying off the remaining years of a long-term deal and starting up another disappointingly familiar search.

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