NEW YORK — Julius Randle wanted accountability to be more than a buzzword.
He arrived at this conclusion after reluctantly reviewing film from his disappointing 2019-20 season, recognizing tendencies that deserved — but escaped — reprimand from his coach.
Randle relayed his desire to the new front office of Leon Rose and William Wesley, who were searching for a new coach following David Fizdale’s regrettable stint.
”You look and see you’re getting away with things that you shouldn’t get away with,” Randle said in ESPN’s ‘Woj podcast. “Or you’re not being coached the way you should be as far as pushing me. And that’s what I told Leon and that’s what I told Wes — I want a coach that’s going to hold us all accountable for everything on the court, that winning is the most important thing.”
In stepped Tom Thibodeau.
“Honestly,” said Randle, “they saved me.”
In hindsight, it would be a no-brainer to hire a demanding, burn-the-candle-at-both-ends coach to redirect a wayward franchise. But there was also caution and negativity attached to Thibodeau’s reputation, with four specifics — he doesn’t work well with others; he burns out players with too many minutes; he’s too impatient and doesn’t trust rookies enough for proper development; his demanding style creates friction with today’s NBA player.
Already, Thibodeau’s stint in New York has poked holes in those critiques. He’s worked well with assistant coaches Johnnie Bryant and Kenny Payne despite no previous relationship. His roster remains among the league’s healthiest and durable, even with the heavy minutes given to Randle and RJ Barrett.
By all accounts, Thibodeau has achieved full buy-in throughout the roster, while empowering and demanding Randle into greatness.
“Sometimes Thibs wants to win so bad that sometimes as a player I’m like, ‘Bro, there’s no way you want to win this game more than me,’ ” Derrick Rose said. “For your coach to feel that way, sometimes he takes it as if he wants it more than you. So it just shows a lot that he dedicated his whole life to it. I take my hat off to that because there’s a lot of coaches — not the bring up names — but there’s a lot of coaches who don’t have that mentality.”
It’s been a validating and vindicating first season for Thibodeau, a front runner for Coach of the Year. The Knicks’ defense has jumped to top-5 in the NBA, a Thibodeau trademark. Through just 60 games, the team already won more games than any of the previous six seasons.
“Elite defense is something he’s always been able to implement. I think that part of the game comes fairly easy to him,” Ed Pickney, an assistant coach under Thibodeau in Minnesota and Chicago, told the New York Daily News. “In a league where so much emphasis is put into offense, how players score, I think he’s been able to overlook all that.
“It’s very difficult in today’s game not to buy into all of the elements that people think make a team look good. This guy knows exactly what to do with each and every player. And he’s also able to verbalize it to each and every player in a way where they will be successful. I’m not surprised with what he’s done in New York in a quick fashion because I’ve seen him do it’s before.”
Indeed, Thibodeau similarly transformed Chicago in his first season over a decade ago. The Bulls started in a higher place than the Knicks, and Thibodeau launched them into contender status. His time in Minnesota was more problematic, with well-documented issues involving Karl-Anthony Towns that cast Thibodeau as a toxic mix with millennial NBA stars.
Additionally, an analytics-driven segment of the media pounced on Thibodeau for not resting his players enough, using injuries to Rose and Luol Deng and Joakim Noah to bolster the argument.
Pinckney called it all rubbish.
“Everybody loved playing for him in Chicago. And I would say 90 percent of the players in Minnesota liked playing for him,” said Pickney, who is now a scout with the Rockets. “For whatever reason, the guy gets a bad rap for burning players out, and all his teams do is win. I never understood it because the guy is doing all this winning and all you would ever hear is he burns players out. I never understood it but everybody has a reputation. But I’m glad his might finally change because I’ve felt that it’s been unfair to him.”
Still, Rose said Thibodeau has adjusted and adapted his style to suit the mentality of the younger generation. It’s all part of a growth into the hottest team in the NBA.
“That’s life, right? You live and you learn,” Rose said. “And his life is basketball.”