Tom Thibodeau’s coaching history and success has been dissected every which way since the Knicks named him their head coach. How he fits the current Knicks roster, and what comes next for the franchise, is a different matter.
There’s no way to know what the Knicks roster will look like next season. Veterans Elfrid Payton, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Reggie Bullock, and Wayne Ellington all have non-guaranteed contracts and can be let go with minimal penalty, and Damyean Dotson and Moe Harkless are both free agents. Thibodeau will have the opportunity to work with Leon Rose to build the roster that he thinks he needs to win more basketball games.
The only players signed through next season are Julius Randle and the players on their rookie deals: RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, Dennis Smith Jr., Ignas Brazdeikis, and two-way players Jared Harper and Kenny Wooten. The team’s holdovers are some combination of players with personalities that fit Thibodeau’s personality, skill sets that fit his coaching style, and players that need a coach to help save their careers.
RJ Barrett’s mature approach and reportedly relentless work ethic seems to be a perfect fit for Thibodeau’s basketball obsession. One criticism of Thibodeau in his time in Minnesota was his inability to connect with young players like Karl-Anthony Towns, who would take his coach’s criticism to heart, rather than as a way to help him improve. Barrett, the son of a professional basketball player, and godson of Steve Nash, does not seem to have that type of attitude. Barrett still has a lot of work to do on his jump shot but he has a good starting point to become a solid NBA player.
Known as a defensive head coach, Thibodeau should relish having someone like Mitchell Robinson protect the rim. Karl-Anthony Towns might be the best offensive center in the NBA, but he is lacking as a defender. When Thibodeau had an anchor like Joakim Noah playing center in Chicago, his defenses were among the best in the NBA. He has never had a player with Robinson’s upside as a shot blocker and overall athleticism. Robinson still has to improve his defensive discipline, but his raw tools are elite.
Frank Ntilikina, while deficient as a shooter and aggressive penetrator, is unselfish and an excellent perimeter defender. Those are skills that Thibodeau has valued in the past. If he can continue to take small steps offensively and stay healthy, Ntilikina should be able to find a role on a Thibodeau-led team. All he needs to become is a league average three-point shooter and he’ll be a useful player.
Players like Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr., despite their talent, run the risk of their careers becoming derailed if they do not begin playing better. Knox has been one of the worst players from the 2018 draft class, and Smith regressed in a difficult third season. If both are serious about saving their careers, they should be willing to hand their development over to a proven coach like Thibodeau that knows how winning basketball players are supposed to play. A firm hand might be exactly what those two players need to salvage their careers.
Of the pending free agents, there are some players that Thibodeau might want back on the roster. Damyean Dotson, despite losing playing time under Mike Miller towards the end of the season, has the defensive chops and shooting that could appeal to Thibodeau. Reggie Bullock’s similar skill set and low salary ($4.2 million) next year might make him attractive to bring back.
Taj Gibson has a long history with Tom Thibodeau, and it should not surprise anyone if he returns, even if it is for less than the 10 million dollars he is owed on the second year of his non-guaranteed contract. Moe Harkless is a useful player and could return depending on his contract cost as an unrestricted free agent. It seems less likely that players like Elfrid Payton, Bobby Portis, and Wayne Ellington will return.
When Thibodeau looks at the free agent market, there are players with skills that should be able to help the Knicks fill some of their holes. Players like Danilo Gallinari, Joe Harris, and Davis Bertans could fill some of the shooting voids the Knicks have. Feed VanVleet and Goran Dragic could take on some of the ball-handling and playmaking duties.
Whether the Knicks should look to add those players depends on their price tags, including contract length and size. If they want contracts that run too long and could impact the team’s future flexibility, they might decide foregoing those additions this offseason could make more sense. There is a proper pace to building a roster that is difficult to find and an inexact science.
The Knicks should be able to improve next season through internal development alone. They may not become a playoff team but they might be able to edge closer to .500 if the young players on the roster improve and are supplemented by the appropriate veterans. It will be interesting to see what approach Rose and Thibodeau decide to take.