Why the Knicks should extend Tom Thibodeau

The Leon Rose Era is beginning to solidify itself as the longest running stretch of Knicks competency since the oft-heralded 90’s, when Patrick Ewing dominated and the team was credible the entire decade. New York is headed towards its third postseason appearance in four seasons, already advancing as far as their last peak in 2013, with an even higher ceiling this year.

A number of his moves are to credit for this turnaround – signing Jalen Brunson, emphasizing drafting well and managing assets, sticking with Julius Randle through down seasons – but perhaps none are more pivotal than hiring Tom Thibodeau as head coach almost four years ago. From that day in 2020, the franchise began crafting a new culture under his leadership and is now fully reaping the benefits.

For that reason, Thibodau’s earned himself a contract extension. His current deal expires after next season, but New York would be silly not to re-sign their most reliable coach in 20 years for the long term.

Some proper context is owed to the fans too young to have witnessed the “Fire Isiah” chants and Larry BrownStephon Marbury rift. New York was a combined 147-329 in the six seasons between Mike Woodson and Thibodeau, with five different coaches in that span.

The coaching carousel issue dated back even further when they cycled through five coaches in six seasons prior to the Mike D’AntoniDonnie Walsh regime with nothing to show for it. Rose knew he needed stability at the head coaching position to have any chance at success, and went with the veteran Thibodeau.

At that point, Thibodeau was a year removed from his mixed stint in Minnesota, after a legendary run with the Chicago Bulls and a long assistant career. Given his ties to the franchise, impressive resume and emphasis on defense, in many ways, he was a perfect fit for a flailing Knicks team.

New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau coaches against the Washington Wizards during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden.

New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau coaches against the Washington Wizards during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden. / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

That proved true out of the gates when a largely unchanged and deeply flawed Knicks roster that went 21-45 the year before emerged as one of the league’s best defenses and finished as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Thibodeau took home Coach of the Year honors for the effort, which included embedding his ultra-high work ethic and defensive effort culture, developing RJ Barrett plus a couple of rookies named Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin, and putting the system in place that gave us All-NBA Randle.

The next year was a top-to-bottom failure, with two key offseason acquisitions weakening the team’s defensive foundation, key players taking steps back and Thibodeau’s winning drive conflicting with the reality of their lost season. Then a month into 2022-23, it was reported Thibodeau’s job was on the line, as the Knicks were 10-13, having just been shellacked by the Dallas Mavericks at home despite leading by double digits.

Thibodeau upended the established rotation, benching one of their highest-paid players and a key cog of the 2021 underdog run in favor of defense, and the team took off. They were a respectable 30-27 come the trade deadline, when the front office fully committed to acquiring Thibodeau style, Thibodeau culture, Thibodeau-built guys, undoing the mistakes of the 2021 offseason.

A trade sent Josh Hart to the Knicks and they rolled from there, punking the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round with some strong coaching out of Thibodeau. Unfortunately, they met an NBA Finals team in Miami next, ending their run.

Going into this season, New York’s lone offseason move was bringing in another Thibs type in Donte DiVincenzo, making room in the rotation by trading a notoriously non-Thibs player in Toppin. That was merely an appetizer for the big mid-season shake-up, in which they brought in OG Anunoby for two mainstays of the era – Barrett and Quickley.

This was the climax of the pro-Thibodeau shift in the front office, sending out two young talents loyal to the franchise for maybe the best fit for these Knicks in the league. Anunoby is the ultimate Swiss army knife, an elite defender at any position and a plug-and-play offensive threat, reminiscent of Thibodeau’s favored wings of the past like Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler.

The results have been laughably good. Wins over the Timberwolves, Nuggets and Sixers in an 11-2 stretch where every point differential statistic attached to Anunoby’s name is plus a million

Jan 3, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau talks to forward OG Anunoby (8) during the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bulls at Madison Square Garden

Jan 3, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau talks to forward OG Anunoby (8) during the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bulls at Madison Square Garden / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The national media is beginning to pick up on what this team has become, and are talking deep playoff run. If that actually materializes and to what extent will drive the conversation, but it may just be moot at that point: the Knicks should extend Thibodeau.

He’s the central tenant of this on-court culture and performance, with only two remaining players from that original 2020-21 team left to embody it. On a nightly basis, he’s gotten these Knicks to play harder than their competition, fight and defend as if they were from a different generation, and most importantly win basketball games.

Under this coach, Randle has grown into a perennial All-NBA player, Brunson into a star, Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein into elite defensive centers, and a slew of young talent into shining products of this culture, whether they’re still on the team or not. This is the winningest era of Knicks basketball in over two decades, and “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is a cliche for a reason.

We’re not far removed from players privately and openly mocking the Knicks as a free-agent destination despite playing in the mecca of basketball and basketball arenas. Last week, Bruce Brown spoke to the press about how much he’d love to play for Thibodeau’s Knicks.

Of course, Thibodeau has flaws just like any coach, which many will be quick to point to. He can be rigid in his rotations and lineups, play favorites or make an adjustment too slow, the last one being exponentially harmful in the pace of a playoff series.

But to those who don’t think Thibodeau should be extended, who should the Knicks – slowly but surely creeping toward contention – replace him with?

It’s a serious question worth pondering if someone is going to suggest moving past Thibodeau. A young, unproven or first-time head coach would be a recipe for disaster.

Talk to fans and insiders of nearly every other team and you’ll find they all have quirks and weaknesses that range from annoying to fireable. Only six coaches have longer tenures with their current team than Thibodeau, with many vaunted voices like Doc Rivers, Monty Williams, and Frank Vogel getting fired in recent years.

Sometimes a competitive team needs to find the right leader, but the Knicks found success building one around theirs. They should be rewarding and cementing it for the future by signing Thibodeau to an extension.