The Life of POBO
Jeremy Cohen takes on several popular talking points as he chimes in on the Thibs hire.
Before we get to today’s column courtesy of Jeremy Cohen, a quick announcement: this Thursday we’ll be doing another Mailbag episode of the KFS Pod, so email your questions to KFSMailbag@gmail.com. Thanks in advance for your help!
The Life of POBO: Why Tom Thibodeau’s Hiring Shouldn’t Kill the Rebuild
by Jeremy Cohen
In the wake of the Knicks hiring Tom Thibodeau as their head coach, there’s a take you’ve probably seen flying around online. Perhaps you’ve even thought of it as well.
“The rebuild is about to be over.”
To some, Thibodeau represents a feeble attempt at rushed contention, the dark path the Knicks consistently take. It’s a precursor for inevitable doom, like clearing cap space to not sign LeBron James, trading the farm for Carmelo Anthony, or trading Kristaps Porzingis to not sign Kevin Durant. Thibodeau is the first stop on the highway to hell.
(Editor’s Note: And not the good kind either…)
I couldn’t tell you what the Knicks will look like three months from now let alone three years from now. You can be sure that this team will undergo more significant organizational changes. What those changes are is certainly unclear.
Yet the panic button being hit as a result of Thibodeau’s hiring feels like chicken little. So I must ask, why is the sky falling? What does the rebuild being over really mean to those sounding the alarm? How exactly is the rebuild ending? It’s worth exploring what Thibodeau’s arrival means for the rebuild, and how his time serving as president of basketball operations (POBO) with the Timberwolves is so fresh in the minds of fans that it serves as the rule for his career, not the exception.
Let’s start with the 2020-21 season, assuming it even occurs given the effects of COVID-19. There are no superstar free agents who are coming to New York this offseason. It’s unlikely that an All-Star requests a trade, and the Knicks shouldn’t part with the assets it takes to trade for one right now anyway. The draft will yield talent, but those players will need time to adapt and become winning contributors.
The Knicks are set to enter the season with RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, a 2020 lottery pick, another 2020 first round pick, Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, and Dennis Smith Jr., all of whom will be under 23 years old. If the first five assets listed are still in New York, the rebuild hasn’t gone anywhere. If the first three assets are the only ones remaining, the rebuild is still intact. Even if you’re high on Ntilikina, Knox, and/or Smith Jr., if a situation arises where your best assets currently in-house are all in Knicks uniforms next season, have you compromised your future? No, you really haven’t.
I examined the last 20 conference finals matchups and highlighted some key ones. Take a look at how many of those teams had players who were either drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent by the same organization earning at least 20 minutes per game and playing more than 10 games a year during the regular season.
The 2018-19 Raptors traded beloved All-Star DeMar DeRozan for a year of Kawhi Leonard. Outside of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby, the Raptors didn’t have any homegrown players contributing at a high level.
The 2018-19 Blazers had two homegrown players in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
The 2017-18 Celtics had four in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier.
The 2017-18 Rockets had zero.
The 2015-16 Cavaliers (technically) had four in LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and Matthew Dellavedova.
The 2014-15 Warriors had four in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes.
The 2014-15 Hawks had two in Al Horford and Jeff Teague.
The 2013-14 Pacers had four in Paul George, Lance Stephenson, Roy Hibbert, and Danny Granger.
The 2010-11 Thunder had five in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison.
You could pore over the rosters of several other great teams but you’re likely to find around three or four homegrown players on each roster.
If the front office views RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, and someone like LaMelo Ball as integral pieces to New York’s future, then congratulations! Because that would mean that the Knicks are essentially 67% or 100% of the way there, depending on if they should have four or three homegrown players, respectively, long term.
If at least one of the homegrown players can take a huge leap, and if a free agent signing and/or a trade when the time is right occurs, the Knicks are in fantastic shape. And if the 2021-22 season features a homegrown player through the draft with a higher ceiling than anyone else on the roster, then you can keep everyone or have more flexibility to trade surrounding pieces for a star.
Interestingly enough, there’s one team that I purposefully excluded from the homegrown list: The 2010-11 Chicago Bulls, coached by none other than Tom Thibodeau. Five of the seven players who led the Bulls in minutes were 25 or younger. Four of the five (Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson) were drafted by the Bulls. The concern of playing the youth not enough minutes no longer persists. It will soon be that the youth is playing too many minutes, and while I would really rather not see RJ Barrett average 36 minutes per game, there is limited public data to tell us that a player averaging 36 versus 32 is that much more at risk. I mean, we’re talking about an average of a minute more per quarter. I digress.
The 2020-21 Knicks will not have a season similar to that of the 2010-11 Bulls. You could say the main reason is talent, and while that probably isn’t incorrect, a major contributing factor is age. When your four best players are 22 to 25 years old, taking that jump in year one is manageable. However, when your four best players are 18 or 19 to 22, your team’s ceiling won’t be high unless you add win-now talent. If that win-now talent complements the youth, then great. Of course, you’re also decreasing your lottery odds, which is a nice reminder that every rose has its thorn.
(I see what you did there - Ed.)
The Knicks could find themselves having a season closer to that of the 2016-17 Timberwolves, also coached by Mr. Thibodeau. Minnesota finished that season at 31-51, albeit in a tougher conference, with limited win-now talent. The Knicks don’t have anyone as good as 21-year old Karl-Anthony Towns but with players naturally developing, free agent upgrades in ball-handling, playmaking, and perimeter shooting, and being in a weaker conference, meaningful games in March and April shouldn’t be out of the question.
The Wolves had Towns, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Kris Dunn, and Ricky Rubio. That’s five players, all drafted by the Wolves, ranging in age from 21 to 26, with the average age being 22.2 years old. If the Wolves kept everyone, they would be a low ceiling team with little concept of what defense is. Outside help had to happen, and it came in the form of Jimmy Butler.
My personal thoughts are that the trade for a star like Butler was the correct idea but the timing could have been better for such a deal, as the Wolves’ players were too young and/or not good enough. Hindsight is 20/20 but we must explore why life went wrong in Minnesota. You’ll soon see why so much of it was because of POBO Thibodeau.
First of all, there’s a reason why so few teams have found success with one person operating both POBO and head coaching responsibilities. Teams need a more objective eye to evaluate talent, something that’s hard to accomplish when you have the power to play and trade a player on the same day. Thibodeau lacks that power in New York. He has a relationship with Leon Rose and there is a system of checks and balances in place. His direct boss is no longer the team’s owner, whose “wife didn’t like Thibodeau’s penchant for profanity on the sidelines.”
Next, Thibodeau’s selection of Dunn, as well as hiring the talent evaluators around him, proved to be quite poor. David Fizdale reportedly had a major say in drafting Kevin Knox, a move that hurts when considering the players drafted after him. Could the same thing happen with Thibodeau? It’s possible, except the Knicks have upgraded their scouting and analytics departments. So if Thibodeau is truly onboard with the analytics train, he should have input but also respect the choice the front office ultimately makes.
Additionally, trading for a star like Butler was not Thibodeau’s problem per se. As mentioned previously, the timing played a factor, yet a crucial component was the lack of a supporting cast. Why was the supporting cast bad?
Thibodeau stuck to what he knew, which was targeting former Bulls to play the way he wanted the team to play. This was a bad decision, and one that went unchecked because he was also POBO. The hope is that he now has a front office who can better evaluate talent, so he can focus on coaching players who are better fits for the modern game.
The Wolves are a small market team but absolutely destroyed their payroll by having Jeff Teague, Gorgui Dieng, and Taj Gibson’s salaries, worth a combined $47,112,360. For reference, the NBA’s salary cap was $99,093,000 that year. Keeping your best young players while they’re on their rookie deals and acquiring star free agents is the key to moving the needle, but that’s a luxury few teams have. This is unlikely to be an issue if the Knicks continue their mission to stay financially flexible, as it avoids locking role players into unsavory, contractual albatrosses.
Minnesota committed max contracts to Wiggins and Towns, further mitigating any future flexibility. As you can imagine, Butler didn’t love that. Here’s what Yaron Weitzman wrote in his book, Tanking to the Top:
On the court, Butler did everything asked of him, leading the Timberwolves in scoring that year and carrying them into the playoffs. But they were eliminated in the first round and he was set to be a free agent in summer of 2019. Over the year he had recognized that the Timberwolves were not a team and Minnesota was not a place where he wanted to be long-term. One problem was that [the Wolves] already handed max deals to two former No. 1 picks - Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins - limiting how much money Butler could make and when he could make it. But he also thought Towns was soft and Wiggins was lazy, and he had no patience for such apathy. It was only because of hard work that he’d made it this far.
Thibodeau inherited Towns and Wiggins. Maxing Towns, even with his “soft” disposition, is necessary due to his talent. Wiggins, on the other hand, is an incredibly questionable move. Except while Thibodeau played a major role in giving Wiggins the contract, Wolves owner Glen Taylor sat down with Wiggins, wanting “to look [him] in the eye and measure his commitment to become a better player throughout the extension’s life.” Taylor then gave Wiggins a max contract and Wiggins showed little to no progress. Thibodeau deserves criticism here but Wiggins was extremely well-liked by Taylor. Again, extending players to unworthy extensions is unlikely to be an issue with this new front office.
Towns and Wiggins, as well as the others on the roster in 2016-17, were drafted as part of someone else’s vision, not Thibodeau’s. It’s fine to part with some of them but it’s what you’re trading them for that matters. In this case, trading for Butler was a great call. The Wolves had the fourth-best offensive rating thanks to Butler, and a +13.5 difference with Butler on the court with his presence being worth +32 wins.
Unfortunately, Butler was injured about three-quarters through the 2017-18 NBA season, and when that happened, the Wolves held the third-best record in the West. If Butler isn’t injured, the Wolves may have home court advantage and face a different team than the Rockets. A second round exit instead of a first may not be a big deal to you but it would still be an accomplishment for a team so devoid of playoff victories. Look how many Knicks fans revere the 2012-13 season, and that was the only playoff series win since 2001.
(While I argued yesterday that Butler and Towns/Wiggins was never a match made in heaven, the above circumstances can’t be overlooked - Ed.)
Taking all of this into consideration, I view the trading of any non-essential Knick this offseason as trimming the fat and not sacrificing a rebuild, because there is an inevitability factor. And for the record, I don’t view any current Knick as untouchable, but I do view Barrett and Robinson as essential. I would be willing for the Knicks to part with both but the price for each would be quite high. History indicates though that if a player like Knox is not going to be part of a seven- or eight-man rotation for a playoff team, especially around the time he’s 25 and if he’s on his second contract, then he’s likely headed elsewhere between now and the 2022 trade deadline.
(Fun fact from a few newsletters ago: no top-ten pick from this century has spent multiple seasons with the team that drafted them and been considered a significant disappointment after those years, got dealt or waived, and then came back to haunt the team that drafted but didn’t stick with them. In short, if the Knicks trade Knox this summer and he turns into a star player or even significant rotation contributor elsewhere, it would be virtually unprecedented - Ed.)
What’s more, trading ancillary pieces does not have to be a stepping stone to stripping the roster of its best goods. If Knox goes, it doesn’t mean Barrett is next. Fans get capricious because we often assume the worst, which is not necessarily the case moving forward. And as I tweeted, the Knicks are scheduled to enter the 2021 free agency with 13 players either under contract or as restricted free agents, all of whom will be 23 or younger.
Something has to give, and that’s fine, so long as it’s trading what you have for future assets so you can either add to an illustrious core or trade for a disgruntled star while having some sort of insurance in place. Devin Booker won’t cost the same in two years as he will cost now, and if you diversify your asset portfolio, you can either a) trade your own players and picks for a star while having other teams’ picks to cover you or b) trade other teams’ picks for a star while keeping most of your own players and picks.
And speaking of Booker, just because Thibodeau traded for Butler, it does not mean the Knicks will trade for a star of their own at an inopportune time. Would the Knicks consider going after Booker? I wouldn’t doubt it, but everything has its price. I would like to think that because Leon Rose had a front row seat to the Carmelo Anthony trade that he’s keenly aware of how damaging it is to trade for a star when you don’t have the right pieces to surround him.
If you can finagle a way to get Booker in a year or two without giving up Barrett and Robinson (i.e. the players drafted in 2020 and 2021, plus other picks, instead), then it’s something to strongly consider. The problem is that I don’t see how Barrett isn’t a Sun in any Booker trade proposal. And based on the right roster construction, that’s fine by me. As of now though, the Knicks lack a level of maturation for such a scenario to be entertained.
Not landing stars in free agency has led to some completely ruling it out as an available avenue, which is utterly foolish to me. You don’t hire World Wide Wes for the draft and you probably don’t need him for when a player forces a trade (although it doesn’t hurt). You bring Wes into the fold to restore your brand’s reputation and ultimately appeal to star free agents. Yet because of missed opportunities, the free agency option is deemed closed by a healthy segment of the fanbase. If you ask some women if they want to dance, and each one says no, you wouldn’t give up and join the priesthood.
(You should really start looking at the priesthood as a viable option, Jeremy - Ed.)
All of this ties in with the debate over whether to have a strong veteran presence or not. History tells us that outside help is paramount for eventual success. It’s when those players should be added to the roster that begs the question. Because if they’re added too early, it affects the team’s draft standing and ability to win. If the Knicks wait until Robinson and Barrett are on their second contracts in 2023, then the Knicks will have waited too long.
Maybe it’s recency bias and/or confirmation bias, but Thibodeau’s stint in Minnesota has terrified a section of fans who have this unrealistic mindset of keeping all the players the Knicks have drafted. To them, Thibodeau represents an upending of a process that can never truly come to fruition, when there’s little proof to show that this Knicks front office is prepared to compromise the entire process to fit a 62-year old Thibodeau’s timeline. It’s the concern of not maximizing players as they develop because someone like Kenny Atkinson did a great job and there can only be one person adept at that.
We as fans are overprotective of our picks and players because we’ve spent the last 20 years giving up on them before they were anywhere close to being ready. Our affinity for rectifying those wrongs can stand in the way of objective decision making, which is that some players on the roster will be gone. The front office would be doing as it pleases regardless of who is coaching.
Thibodeau wants to contend - what coach doesn’t want that? - but fans are assuming that the Knicks will accommodate him in year one or year two. If he shows progress on his five-year deal, there may not be a burning desire to make rash decisions ASAP. If there’s tangible growth without the use of hired talent on the free agent market, the team may not feel the need to force anything.
History tells us Leon Rose and Tom Thibodeau won’t be here in 2023 but something has to give eventually. For all we know, James Dolan may be willing to give the team some time to, at the very least, trend upwards. If you’re not floundering by year 3, you’re probably doing okay in Dolan’s mind. Besides, if Rose and Thibodeau are fired, it’s not your money. If the core players remain intact, and if Thibodeau instills an improved work ethic and positively impacts their progress, this coaching hire is a success.
Having said all of this, I cannot in good conscience rule out the possibility that the Knicks do the opposite of everything I’ve listed. (This is why I pay you the big bucks, Jeremy. Thoroughness - Ed.) If the Knicks trade their future for a superficial shot at contention, I’ll stop by my local hardware store and pick up a pitchfork on the way to Madison Square Garden. You don’t have to love the Thibodeau hiring but he’s not the anti-Christ. And if you think Tom Thibodeau only got the job because of his connection to Leon Rose, what would you say if CAA client Kenny Atkinson had been offered the position instead? The NBA is a fraternity that is built on relationships. Much like other industries, it’s who you know and not necessarily what you know. It helps that Thibodeau knows quite a lot too.
The Knicks landed a respected, proven head coach who understands the process involved with developing talent. He is not without his warts - which candidate wasn’t? - but he brings with him a NBA coaching career spanning almost 30 years, 20 of which were spent as an assistant coach. His track record should speak for itself, and using a two and a half year period where he wore too many hats and had low motor players in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, is merely one piece of the pie.
This past Saturday, word leaked that Thibodeau was hired as head coach of the Knicks. Thibodeau will soon be officially introduced. After that, the draft lottery, the draft, and free agency will follow. Cross each bridge when you get to it. I assure you, there will be a clearer vision of this team’s future three months from today.
For now though, the reports of the rebuild’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
That’s it for today! See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter