Enough time has passed that we can properly put the job Tom Thibodeau did with last year’s Knicks in its proper perspective. And if anything, it resonates louder, and stronger, now than it did in the spring. The fact is, it belongs in rarefied air, in an exclusive pantheon of New York coaching achievements.
There really are only two examples, in the entire history of pro sports in our town, that have a similar ring to what Thibodeau did last year, guiding the Knicks to a 41-31 record, only their fourth winning record in the previous 20 years, only the second time they finished above .500 by double digits in that time.
Gil Hodges is in that team photo. When he took over the Mets before the 1968 season the franchise’s history was littered with buffoons and buffoonery. The average record for the Mets from 1962-67 was 54-108. The slapstick was everywhere. Upon taking the job, Hodges was asked if he thought he could get the Mets to .500 within five years.
“I have higher ambitions than that,” he said, and while it took two years for him to engineer the 1969 miracle the 73-89 record he coaxed the Mets to in ’68 seemed pretty damned wondrous in its own right, a stubborn extraction from a brutal history. That was the year, Tom Seaver later said, “that we became a baseball team and not a bad comedy act. No way Gil would allow that.”
Bill Parcells is in that team photo. When he was hired by the Jets in February 1997, the Jets were every bit as comical as the ’60s Mets had been, coming off a calamitous 1-15 record in ’96 and almost a decade of relentless downturn, a history stuffed with bad actors and worse football.
“The challenge,” Parcells said that day, “is to win a championship here.”
He never quite got there, but a year after 1-15 the Jets were 9-7, and then 12-4, and within 30 minutes of a Super Bowl. But it was that first year, which ended bitterly on the season’s final week in Detroit (think a one-day version of the Hawks series) which was probably the finest work of Parcells’ career.
That is where Thibodeau’s 2020-21 masterpiece belongs, on a shelf alongside those two epic turnarounds (maybe Davey Johnson and the ’84 Mets can have a say about joining them, but that’s it). That’s how deep a sinkhole the Knicks occupied, and how bleak their circumstances were. In one skinny season, Thibodeau changed an entire narrative. It was a very good year.
And what to do for an encore?
“Always, it’s defense first,” RJ Barrett said a few days ago, asked if Thibodeau’s message or his approach differed in anyway in Year 2 from Year 1. “You’ve always got to play defense if you’re going to play for him. That was the message. That’s what’ll make us at the end of day, help us get to level we want to get to. Sharing the ball. Moving the ball.”
Year 2 could well be where the comparisons with ’68 Hodges and ’97 Parcells part company. The Mets, of course, were blessed by pixie dust. The Jets were carried to the brink by a rejuvenated Vinny Testaverde. The Knicks could use a little bit of what the Mets had in ’69, and they could maybe use Kemba Walker channeling Vinny’s comeback mojo.
But the hard truth is this: they could be a lot better this year than they were last year and not win as many games or finish as high in the standings. That’s simple reality in an Eastern Conference that projects to be much deeper even if two-thirds of its elite teams (in Brooklyn and Philly) are currently in varying states of turmoil.
None of that matters to Thibodeau, not surprisingly. And he expects no grace period for his initial early speed.
“Every year you start at zero base,” he said. “What happened last year was last year. You have to start all over again, build your fundamentals on offense and defense. And you keep building every day.”
The Knicks will miss Elfrid Payton (who was a steadying presence most of the year until he collapsed late) and Reggie Bullock, but they acquired upgrades in Walker and Evan Fournier. But everyone else who finished below the Knicks last year can talk about fundamental upgrades, too. They have looked good in the preseason.
“But all that matters,” Thibodeau said, “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 eager as anyone else to see what Year 2 will bring. The heavy lifting last year was epic, and historic. And it might be even heavier this time around.
“I really love this group,” he said, and it almost goes without saying: much of basketball New York wants to join him in feeling that same way.
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