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Abe Beame remembers when Robert Redford was a movie star.
One of the dumber things about me is that I’m a therapy skeptic. I think going to a well-appointed room in downtown Brooklyn and hashing out your “problems” with a professional stranger focused on your concerns can be meaningful and even at times even fun, but for me at least, it stays in the room. I’ve tried it out a few times, and it was fine. And I’m aware there are people with more severe issues who aren’t narcissistic and self-obsessed Jews who don’t spend all their time thinking about and researching their relatively trivial, neurotic issues. But ultimately, when I found I’d leave therapy armed with perspective and coping devices, and I’m still me. Still prone to the same dumb mistakes and asshole tendencies I went there to try to “fix”.
I would imagine this sentiment would be heartily agreed with by Knicks head coach and asshole-in-chief Tom Thibodeau. Freud made a gaffe when he said The Irish are the only people impervious to therapy because he left out Coach Thibs. Therapy presents the potential for growth, and change, and progress. It’s the dream that you can, with a tremendous amount of time and patience, learn from your experiences and fix your mistakes. The last two weeks, we definitively learned this is not a quality in Tom’s bag.
From the time he was an assistant at Jeff Van Gundy’s side with the ’90s Knicks, Thibs has held tight to these sacred commandments: He believes in a tight rotation, playing his starters hard, often. As much as they can humanly give him, and then a bit more. He believes in veterans, players who know his system or will be amenable to learning it quickly. And he believes in Ice.
(Ice is historically credited as Thibs’ great innovation of NBA defense, and what led the KG/Truth/Allen Celtics troika to a ring (He was Doc Rivers’ literal defensive coordinator). Ice essentially means walling off screens to funnel the ball handler away from opportunity, and giving up the midrange. Here’s a clip of the Bulls defense “icing” the Pacers in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, which was Derrick Rose’s MVP campaign:)
As a result, Thibs earned haters and indifference over the years. A simplistic view would be he’s the last guy in the league coaching specifically for Skip Bayless and all the talking heads on the Inside the NBA desk besides Candace Parker. After the flameout with the apathetic Wolves core, anathema to the Thibs commandments, he came to New York. I’ll admit, I was pissed. I wanted ridiculously unemployed former Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, someone who would nourish a youth movement and encourage progressive basketball in New York.
In retrospect, it seems dumb many of us didn’t see what a perfect fit Thibs would be in the Garden. In defense of us dummies, it was hard to foresee Julius Randle becoming a top 5 MVP candidate, a poor man’s point forward who suddenly learned The Secret of Basketball and built his teammates up with an ability to play make that seemingly materialized out of 8th Avenue honey roasted nuts cart steam. Also, that Derrick Rose would make us reluctantly acknowledge his resurrection, the 25th pick in the draft which seemed like yet another Leon Rose Kentucky nepotism grab would immediately transform himself into a Tiger Beat heartthrob for men in their late 30s who still wear jerseys in public, that we’d consider legally changing the names of our kids to “Alec” and “Reggie” regardless of gender, that this island of misfit toys would band together under Thibs’ stone tablets and finish fourth in a wacky and surprisingly competitive Eastern Conference.
But the obvious part is Thibs coaches in a way designed to capture the hearts and minds of guys who grew up worshipping his mentors. It was a homecoming, and it was glorious. I truly believe it was more fun than tolerating the tortured geniuses who play up the street from my house would’ve been. I loved every minute of it.
But here’s the thing folks, Nate MacMillan, and this Hawks team, were designed in a lab to pants Coach Thibs and run circles around him in the gym while all his classmates pointed and laughed at his manhood. Nate really coached an absolute masterpiece of a series, and as a dumb and uneducated fan, I’ll briefly embarrass myself by pointing out all the specific ways I believe he did this.
It’s near cliche to point out how “surprisingly” deep and skilled the Hawks are. But the Knicks had a top 5 defense in the league this season, and MacMillan absolutely dismantled it. He did this, ironically, using a set that gained popularity in the 2016 Olympics, playing against a team Thibs was an assistant on, in a game the US nearly lost (a semi-final match to Spain). It’s a stacked pick and roll, in which a shooter back-screens the roller creating a third chaotic option. It’s an increasingly common set in the league, but with the Hawks personnel it is absolute poison.
If you include a variable like DeAndre Hunter, or Bojan Bogdanovich in a Trae and Capella PNR, it’s death by a million large decapitating two handed Viking swipes with a giant battle axe. Like you’d think, ideally, what Ice would create is a bunch of contested Trae runners in traffic, but that was what the Knicks were murdered with, over and over again. The last thing I’ll see before my brain shorts out will be Rayford Trae Young flipping up one of those dumbass floaters on a rope that never misses as his thinning hair flicks in bizarre directions like my son rubbing a balloon on his head. Now, would have an elite pogo stick shot blocker with preternatural instincts and eight foot arms helped quell that threat? To close out a lot of these basically uncontested shots and put a body on giant gaping asshole Clint Capela? Maybe put an elbow on that gross shock of bleached hair in the tuft on his head? Maybe. We’ll never know.
But on offense is where you really get a sense for Thibs’ inflexibility. Yes, at long last he finally swapped out Elfrid Payton, and turned Derrick Rose from a 20-30 minute guy to a 30-40 minute guy. And yes, in these very bad games Rose was a lone beacon of light, if beacons of light could be credibly accused of sexual assault and we all just have to deal with it for whatever insane reason. But Rose is 32, and had a career pockmarked by injury; he clearly didn’t have it in the tank to carry us over the finish line against this team, who, yes, was better than us, but I feel strongly was beatable.
MacMillan absolutely killed Julius Randle with the match-up zone. This means the Hawks would show zone, then once Randle caught and put the ball on the floor (ALWAYS AT THE WORST POSSIBLE SPOTS ON THE FLOOR FOR REASONS I WILL DIE NEVER UNDERSTANDING) the floor would tilt, forcing Randle weakside into a series of unpalatable decisions. And really a lot of this is on Randle. There’s a relatively “easy” way to beat what the Hawks were doing. You catch, put the ball on the floor for a quick dribble, then once the trap is baited and guys are shifting, make an immediate, perfect pass to the man left open. This is asking a lot from Julius Randle, a guy who was a little respected, empty calories iso bucket guy a year ago.
I don’t know, maybe you can coach that? Can you coach a guy into being a super predator with a third eye like LeBron or Luka, who can read a smart defense designed to trap him in an instant like Tom Brady at the line? I mean probably not. What he showed us in this series is he’s not that guy. But rather than even really attempting adjustments, we were sucked into a very shitty version of rote, anti-hero iso ball, which I have to believe is a product of a gypsy curse or something because no matter who has been coaching the team or who has been playing on the team over the last 20 years, during this revolution in basketball, it’s been the Knicks default setting and it was crushing watching us revert to it yet again.
Like for instance, why didn’t we run our own versions of Spain? I’m a Reggie Bullock supporter, I love him dearly. But they hid Trae on him the entire series. He can’t put the ball of the floor so he can’t really punish Trae the way we need to, so why would it be so insane to run out a three guard lineup with Rose, Quickly and Burks? And we can Spain them to death too and hunt the mismatches we need to maybe take 10-20 miles off Trae’s fastball on the other end, if we’re just beating the shit out of him on offense every possession. Just a thought.
Agree or disagree, let’s consider the organizational value Thibs brought to the franchise this season with his miracle production. Let’s start with free agency. The Knicks have a stockpile of at least potentially good players whose value has been gutted from lack of playing time. Kevin Knox and my beloved Frank Ntilikina are two such guys. I’m not saying they’re good. In Knox’s case I would say everything we’ve seen points to the exact opposite case. But how do we know? Was it really so important to get those extra 10 minutes out of Burks in March rather than giving Frankie a spin to build confidence? And now, when we’ll need some pieces this offseason, or maybe something we should be theoretically able to package with our two picks to move up in the draft, they’re worth nothing. We’ll either resign them to keep the distressed asset or give them away, and is it really so inconceivable to imagine either finding a role on a good team with time and opportunity, burning us later?
As for the rookies, there’s a particularly sociopathic streak in the way Thibs jerks them around on a string. Elfrid Payton famously started the entire fucking season regardless of how he played. Obi Toppin, the eighth pick in the 2020 draft, would get yanked for bricking a contested three. Slowly, you saw a guy with a ton of energy, enthusiasm and potential, shrink into someone playing scared, playing to not get benched. This is the danger of coaching exactly and specifically to the game in front of you, minute by minute. It’s pennywise and pound stupid, with no thought or concern for building a team, or a franchise, beyond the third quarter of a Wednesday night in Utah.
Look, for someone who has supported this team through nightmare era after nightmare era, these are caviar problems as I cry into a flute of champagne. I will always love this season, perhaps even more than the 2012 campaign because it was so unexpected and the style of play, the characters involved, were so emblematic of the identity and personality of this city and the things we cherish as a fanbase. But I can’t escape the slightly bitter taste left in the back of my throat. The urge to kill that will rise whenever I see every member of this extremely obnoxious Hawks team no matter what team they end up on for the rest of my life. And I can’t escape the fear, that despite his good qualities, Tom Thibodeau may not be the coach to usher this team into the next stage of its evolution. Or who knows, maybe people can change. I’m listening.