Five months and a day later, you have to give Tom Thibodeau this:
He wasn’t paying anyone lip service.
In the moment, the opening of Knicks training camp Dec. 1 seemed swaddled in same-old, same-old. The roster had barely been touched despite a whole new administration. Expectations were rock-bottom. Twenty-two wins seemed like a smart play across the 72-game season to follow.
Thibodeau? He came with a wonderful reputation. But he wasn’t going to play any of the 3,456 minutes (plus overtimes) that would occupy the season. How much could he realistically do? Would he join the tank-train?
He made clear right away: he would not.
He made clear right away: this was a new way of doing business.
“Nothing will be given to anyone,” Thibodeau said on a Zoom interview after the Knicks’ first batch of sanctioned individual workouts Dec. 1. “You’re going to have to earn your minutes. Those decisions on rotation will be based on performance and what gives the team the best chance of winning.
“A player is not going to get minutes just to get minutes. You have to impact winning, you have to put the team first.”
Easy to laud, that, and exactly what Knicks fans wanted to hear and what Knicks players likely wanted to hear. But was it legit? Was it even smart? You can talk about how much tanking has been proven to be a losing prop bet in the NBA. It’s still an option. Still tempting. And from the jump, Thibodeau didn’t want to hear about it at all.
“There’s obviously different roads you can go down,” he said in December. “And I think if you study it, how teams are built — and I went through this in Minnesota — the draft is critical, free agency is critical, player development is critical and trade opportunities are critical.
“And when you look back at Philadelphia and what they went through with a lot of losing, they were able to get [Joel] Embiid and [Ben] Simmons. But when they added veterans, that’s when they took off.”
Five months and a day later, Thibodeau was talking in front of another Zoom camera, this time inside Houston’s Toyota Center, maybe 90 minutes before the Knicks would kick off this highly consequential six-game western road trip against the Rockets. As he talked, the Knicks were 35-28 and in fourth place in the Eastern playoff seedings.
They had already clinched a spot in the postseason if not necessarily the playoffs, secure that they will at the very least be a part of the NBA’s new play-in rounds.
On Dec. 1, the notion that would even be in play on May 2 let alone a guarantee would have seemed folly. Now, five months and a day later, it will actually be considered a fairly substantial disappointment if they don’t finish in the Top Six, avoiding the play-in.
Taken day-by-day the trek the Knicks have been on all season is remarkable.
Taken in the context of where they stood Dec. 1?
It feels downright miraculous.
“The important thing when you start your season are all the things you want to happen,” Thibodeau said Sunday. “You always begin by building the right habits. It’s very easy in this league to get sidetracked. The big part of winning is recognizing that preparation all counts the same.”
It has allowed the Knicks to be the surprise of the league, if not their own offices. Thibodeau, after all, believed this was all possible before anyone else did. If it sounded like the kind of coach-speak essential to the opening hours of a new regime … well it did sound that way. It was also true.
“I never really pay attention to that stuff,” Thibodeau had said back on Dec. 1, talking of the consensus opinion that he was about to embark on the longest coaching journey of his life. “If you go back over the years it’s really meaningless. What I look at is, ‘OK. This is our team. How can we get better? What gives us the best chance to win?’
“It really doesn’t matter what the outside people think, whether it’s Vegas or anyone else. It’s what we think. If we come in each and every day and we do the right things and we play for each other, good things will happen.”
That they have.