Enough time has passed for us to properly put the work Tom Thibodeau did with the Knicks last year into proper perspective. And if anything, it resonates louder and louder now than in spring. The point is, he belongs to the rarefied air, to an exclusive pantheon of the achievements of New York coaches.
There are really only two examples, in the history of professional sports in our city, that sound similar to what Thibodeau did last year, guiding the Knicks to a 41-31 record, only their fourth record winning in the past 20 years. , only the second time they’ve finished above .500 by double digits in that time frame.
Gil Hodges is in this team photo. When he took over the Mets before the 1968 season, franchise history was littered with buffoons and antics. The Mets’ average record from 1962 to 1967 was 54 to 108. The slapstick was everywhere. Upon taking the job, Hodges was asked if he thought he could get the Mets to 0.500 within five years.
“I have higher ambitions than that,” he said, and although it took him two years to achieve the miracle of 1969, the 73-89 record he coaxed the Mets into in 68 seemed damn wonderful in itself, a stubborn extraction from a brutal story. It was the year, said Tom Seaver later, “that we became a baseball team and not a bad comedy act. There’s no way Gil will allow it.
Bill Parcells is in this team photo. When he was hired by the Jets in February 1997, the Jets were just as comedic as the Mets of the ’60s had been, recording a disastrous 1-15 record in 1996 and nearly a decade of relentless downturn, a story full of bad actors and worse football.
“The challenge,” Parcells said that day, “is to win a championship here.”
He never really got there, but a year after 1-15 the Jets were 9-7, then 12-4, and within 30 minutes of a Super Bowl. But it was that first year, which ended bitterly in the final week of the season in Detroit (think a one-day version of the Hawks series) that was arguably the best work of Parcells’ career. .
This is where Thibodeau’s 2020-21 masterpiece belongs, on a shelf alongside these two epic turnovers (maybe Davey Johnson and the 84 Mets can have a say in how they participate. , but that’s all). That’s how deep the Knicks’ chasm was and how grim their situation was. In a lean season, Thibodeau changed quite a narrative. It was a very good year.
And what to do for a recall?
“Always, it’s defense first,” RJ Barrett said a few days ago, asking if Thibodeau’s message or his approach differed in any way in Year 2 from Year 1. “You still have to play defense if you’re going to play for him. That was the message. That’s what will do us at the end of the day, help us reach the level we want to reach. Share the ball. Move the ball. the ball.
Year 2 may well be the year where comparisons to ’68 Hodges and ’97 Parcells fall apart. The Mets, of course, were blessed with pixie dust. The Jets were brought to the brink by a rejuvenated Vinny Testaverde. The Knicks could use a bit of what the Mets had in 69, and maybe they could use Kemba Walker to channel Vinny’s return.
But the hard truth is, they could be a lot better this year than last year and not win as many games or finish as high in the standings. That’s a simple reality in an Eastern conference that plans to go much deeper even though two-thirds of its elite teams (in Brooklyn and Philly) are currently in varying states of turmoil.
None of this matters to Thibodeau, unsurprisingly. And he doesn’t expect any grace period for his initial muzzle velocity.
“Every year you start from zero,” he said. “What happened last year was last year. You have to start all over again, build your offensive and defensive fundamentals. And you keep building every day.
The Knicks will be missed by Elfrid Payton (who was a constant presence most of the year until he collapsed late) and Reggie Bullock, but they have gained improvements in Walker and Evan Fournier. But anyone who finished below the Knicks last year can talk about fundamental improvements as well. They looked good in the preseason.
“But all that matters,” said Thibodeau, “is making sure that when the ball goes up on the 20th” – opening night, Celtics at the Garden – “you’re ready.”
The Knicks will be ready and Thibodeau is as excited as anyone to see what Year 2 brings. Much of the work over the past year has been epic and historic. And it could be even heavier this time around.
“I really like this group,” he said, and it goes almost without saying: A lot of New York basketball wants to join him to feel the same way.