NBA Source: Tom Thibodeau Needs a ‘Miracle’ to Survive Knicks Chaos

Tom Thibodeau, Knicks coach

Getty Tom Thibodeau, Knicks coach

Back on January 31, I was chatting on the phone with an NBA source when the subject veered toward the Knicks. The guy proceeded to drop a line that felt like a conversational anvil.

“If Thibodeau survives half of next season, it’ll be a miracle,” he said.

In the moment, I took the remark as not so much bold, but glib and more than a little flippant. Sure, New York was having some mighty struggles — and we reported here the club was trying hard to deal away the summer signings of Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier and Alec Burks that had added some $35 million to their salary cap this season and more down the line — but to think the Knicks would be looking at an extreme makeover that would clear out the coach, too, seemed a bit premature.

Turns out the gentleman was prescient, though he may want to take the under on that Thibodeau removal.

New York blew a 28-point lead in a home loss to the Nets on Wednesday. It was the third time in 11 days they had been ahead by 20 or more and still fallen. Those I’ve spoken to around the organization paint a picture of loud frustration and unrest. And while clearly there have been mistakes when trying to augment a roster that went 41-31 last season and made the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2013, much of the blame for the underwhelming second act is being placed at the coach’s feet.

This week, for example, SNY’s Ian Begley reported that Knicks executive William Wesley has been pointing the finger at Thibodeau’s coaching in discussions about the team with temperamental owner James Dolan.


Wearing Down Players, Wearing Out Welcome?

The claim of wearing out his players has followed Thibodeau from head coaching stints in Chicago and Minnesota, with both clubs eventually pushing him out.

But there was evidence long before he ever ascended to the big chair. On January 11, 2010, then Celtics coach Doc Rivers got ejected from a game against Atlanta with 6:16 left in the third quarter. When the Hawks had finished hitting four free throws from a Glen Davis flagrant 1 foul, two technicals on Rivers and one on assistant Armond Hill, the Celts still led by six.

Thibodeau was tasked with running the club the rest of the game. None of the decisions he executed involved changing the lineup of Davis, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins. The Celts would go on to lose, 102-96.

Here’s how I wrote about it in the next day’s Boston Herald column:

Fourteen seconds after the Celtics’ technical-palooza in the third quarter last night, they were back ahead by eight and still very much in position to do to the Hawks what they are supposed to do to the Hawks on this floor.

It would be patently improper to say that the Boston T party in which Doc Rivers was served twice and Armond Hill once was a valid excuse for the Celts to slink away down the stretch. The most direct effect of the sequence is that the coach who took over, Tom Thibodeau, didn’t make a single substitution in his 18:16 in charge, leaving the fatigued five to languish in the late going.

Playing on a back-to-back and for the third time in five days, the Celtics went on to squander a 14-point lead and fall to 0-3 against Atlanta.

A couple of Celtics were angry afterward. A couple made jokes.


Celtics Did Not Want Thibodeau as Head Coach

But it was interesting to note how things played out — and didn’t play out — later that year.

I learned that Rivers was having serious thoughts about stepping away from coaching for a while. He’d even been telling friends and others that he was going to be taking a break to clear his head and to be there more for his kids the next season (Jeremiah would be a senior on the Indiana hoop team, Callie was finishing her volleyball career at Florida, Austin was heading into his senior season in high school before going to Duke).

There was only so much Doc could say when I asked him to walk from a morning shootaround back to the team hotel in Chicago on April 13. He acknowledged the story’s truth, but added that he hadn’t made a final decision.

As it turned out, the Celtics got themselves together after an often queasy regular season and made it all the way to Game 7 loss to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Rivers stayed. For three more years.

How Thibodeau fits into this is that Celtic president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was not going to give him the job if Rivers left.

Six days after that Game 7, Thibodeau was hired to coach the Bulls (another story in itself).

Now he’s feeling the heat in New York.

“It’s amazing how people in the league have different opinions on Thibs,” said one NBA exec. “Some things just don’t work — or they don’t work for long. It’ll be interesting to see what happens here, and what happens with him next if they let him go.”

 

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