Tom Thibodeau, Tony Soprano, and the New York Knicks

Tom Thibodeau's coaching style never changes, and that's a problem.

Tom Thibodeau’s coaching style never changes, and that’s a problem.
Image: Getty Images

Almost a year ago, I contemplated the soul of Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau, searching for answers to his most pressing coaching quandaries. Humans are prone to making connections, comparing and contrasting, to make sense of the chaos around us. In the world of the NBA, Thibodeau shares much of the gray matter that made Tony Soprano so fascinating as a case study on man’s ability to change.

That initial article posed more questions than answers. When I penned that first inquiry, almost a year ago, Thibodeau was early in what would be a down season. Especially when compared to the magical vibes and results of the 2020-21 season, which earned him Coach of the Year honors. In the first four games of this season, cracks revealed themselves in Thibodeau’s rigidity. He allowed the bench to ride runs, trusted Cam Reddish to finish games, and gave offensive control to Jalen Brunson. Julius Randle, the Christopher Moltisanti of Thibodeau’s crew, the guy you want to root for but who does everything he can to make you want to choke him out, had only six turnovers through five games. Randle was finding open teammates, limiting over-dribbling, and scoring in the flow of the offense. The Knicks were 3-1, and Knicks fans felt like the Soprano crew, hanging out in front of Satriale’s Pork Storesmoking cigars, reading the paper, and enjoying some well-earned persiflage.

Then came the back-to-back games with the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers, actual NBA talent, good teams with winning records, and multiple stars. The Knicks lost both handily. While neither game was close, Thibodeau returned to many of the pitfalls which made him the ire of Knicks fans last season. Most notably limiting Obi Toppin’s minutes to 17 and 15 minutes, respectively. Toppin shot 4-7 in both of those games. Thibodeau’s relationship with Toppin and Randle has been the nexus point to which many of his coaching issues have converged. The extended leash he allows Randle is tenfold the length of the one he extends to Toppin. Even casuals can recognize this. Thibodeau seems to get conned by Randle’s spurts of goodwill, especially when the power forward reverts to the toxic traits that make him the most polarizing player to ever wear a Knicks uniform.

“We’re soldiers. Soldiers don’t go to hell.” – Tony Soprano

So, a year later, where is Tony, I mean Tom, now? We don’t know if Thibodeau has his own Dr. Melfi, a voice of reason and accountability. The Knicks are notoriously private to the point of posturing. Even if he did, which one of his enablers would fill that role? Leon Rose? William “WorldWide” Wesley? Rick Brunson? He’s known all three for years. They’re basically his versions of Silvio Dante, Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, and Paulie Gualtieri, company men who enjoy the optics their friend brings as a coach. Thibodeau exudes confidence, leadership, and accountability, even when those traits are misguided and to a fault.

It’s also the fault of this current front office for its inability to draft/sign/trade/convince a bonafide first option to make MSG their home. Rose has provided Thibodeau with a dense, utility-packed roster full of variation and untapped potential. But it’s also held back by duplicity and positional rigidity. Randle is the best player, but Toppin holds the most promise. The bench is deep but rarely integrated with the starting five. Fournier is fine when hot from three but that’s rarely the case.

“More is lost by indecision than wrong decision.” – Tony Soprano

After the team’s most recent loss to the Atlanta Hawks, something shifted. Whereas the losses to the Cavs and Bucks felt rational in that the Knicks lost to clearly better teams, the Knicks’ 23-point squandered lead against the Hawks felt terminal. In the third quarter, they were outscored 32 to 10. That blown lead tied the team’s third-largest blown lead in over 30 seasons. Almost as bad was the loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, to whom they gave up 145 points. And yes, Julius Randle has been awful. He shot 46.7 percent from the field this season and 33.3 percent from three. Remember those more six turnovers over the first four games? He’s now averaging more turnovers than assists. Yet, Thibodeau’s symbiotic addiction to Randle endures. Christopher Moltisanti was one of Tony’s biggest fears during The Sopranos. He was family but also the crime family’s most significant liability. His drinking, drug use, and unpredictability were thorns in Tony’s side. Randle fits this role for Thibodeau to a scary degree.

When the opportunity presented itself in one of the series’ final episodes, “Kennedy and Heidi,” Tony held Christopher’s nose after a car accident, suffocating his nephew to death and ending the threat he represented. To Tony, he was doing Christopher a favor, saving him from himself. And that’s perhaps the biggest difference between Tom and Tony. When Tony saw an out, he took it. When Tom looks up at the scoreboard to see another lost lead, his gut reaction tells him Randle is the answer.

“Sometimes it’s important to let them have the illusion of being in control.” —Jennifer Melfi

The first logical step in finding solutions to the Knicks’ current paradox is firing Thibodeau. Perhaps he is willing to change, we’ve seen increments. He’s embraced the three-point shot. He’s improved the Knicks’ defensive identity. He elicited, at times, the best basketball possible from Randle. But his coaching style has become extinct and his stubbornness borders on arrogance when he over-relies on the starters. He’s been enabled by his boss Rose, who has built a mediocre roster without a true first option. For every Knicks win, like their super fun revenge game against the Thunder on Monday, it feels like Thibodeau’s leash grows. While it was great to see Miles “Deuce” McBride finally dust off the cobwebs to play stifling defense on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, one game doesn’t rectify Thibodeau’s lack of offensive creativity or typical nine-man rotation.

The Knicks are deep, but Thibodeau rarely maximizes their full potential, outside of Isaiah Hartenstein and Immanuel Quickley. Toppin, Reddish, Sims, and McBride are treated like serfs by Thibodeau. What’s the point of being 12 deep when Quentin Grimes barely sees any time and Toppin stays glued to the bench, even when he has the best plus/minus some nights? Toppin holds the most potential of the young core but is buried behind Thibodeau’s biggest vice. Leon Rose has picked up high-value guys in Derrick Rose, Hartenstein, Reddish, and Jalen Brunson, but he’s whiffed when it comes to making a move to give the team the star it desperately needs.

Signing Brunson was a smart solution to the team’s two-decade dance with desolation at point guard. He’s been a blessing for a team filled with players needing initiation on offense and he’s been worth every penny of the 4-year, $104 million deal he was given. But the roster improvements should not have stopped there. Perhaps the cost of entry into the Donovan Mitchell sweepstakes was too high. Most Knicks fans did not want to give up more than two unprotected picks plus a collection of Barrett, Toppin, Quickley, and Quentin Grimes. But what about Dejounte Murray? The Knicks could easily have beaten out what the Hawks offered for a guard who almost averaged a triple-double last season. Since taking over the team, Rose has improved the roster via trade, free agency, and the Draft, providing Thibodeau with just enough to squeak out around 40 wins a year and make the playoffs once. But he has not built a team ready to compete at a high level, nor has he hired a coach capable of leading that level of a team to the promised land.

Firing Thibodeau isn’t the only move that needs to be made, but it’s the bare minimum. This Knicks roster is on the precipice of potential and runs counter to Thibodeau’s directive to win at all costs. To reach the young core’s full development, there will need to be a lot of trial and error disguised as losing. Thibodeau would rather be in a near-death coma than not playing Rose, Fournier, and Randle. To reach mediocrity and beyond, this Knicks team needs the freedom to lose in order to learn. As it currently stands, the Knicks are languishing in one of the furthest rings of Dante’s Inferno.

“I find I have to be the sad clown; laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.” – Tony Soprano

Where does that leave the team? Step one, fire Thibodeau and his entire coaching staff, save for Lead Assistant Johnnie Bryant. Hand the reins to Bryant and surround him with a mix of veteran and forward-thinking assistant coaches. Then do what’s needed to trade Randle while returning trade value. If that ends up as a collection of expiring deals, a first-round pick, and a young player, so be it. At this point, Randle should net a return similar to what the Knicks received for Kristaps Porziņģis from the Dallas Mavericks in 2017. Once Randle is gone, start Toppin at the power forward alongside Grimes or Reddish at the shooting guard spot, moving Fournier to the bench. Simple right?

To be fair, Rose has done much good in his short time at the helm. Thankfully, the Knicks are not straddled with a myriad of terrible salaries as in years past. They have a collection of tradable contracts, as well as one of the best young cores in the league. Through a series of shrewd moves, they’ve collected seven first-round picks over the next three seasons, although four of them are heavily protected. They have enough talent at almost every position to handle a trade that drains them of their depth while maintaining roster balance.

With all that being said, today, more than in any other decade, talent wins. The NBA champions of the last five years have had cumulative star talent in the starting line-up and bench, paired with an elite coach. The Knicks have an elite bench, and that’s it. The Knicks have no star, much less a superstar, and are saddled with a coach who is in a symbiotic relationship with both his best player and front-office boss. When Tony sits comfortably in the booth at Holsten’s diner with his family, with Journey on the jukebox, the momentum of the scene’s tension outpaces Tony’s casual browsing of the menu. By the time the screen cuts to black, and we are left in the dark and to our own thoughts, we can assume Tony has been killed. Who pulled the trigger is less important than why. The answer to that, is Tony’s own doing, by his refusal to change. Through a series of events, most if not all at his control, he chose a path that led him to that booth and the man in the Member’s Only jacket. When Thibodeau is eventually handed his pink slip by longtime friend and confidant Rose, the why in his case will be just as easily answered.

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