NBA experts break down strengths of Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau
New Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau is portrayed by opposing coaches as a defensive chess master and sensational game planner. He has creative moves to stop your best player and best play. He demands his players talk it up on defense. And to boot, he’s always adding defensive wrinkles for the next meeting.
Thibodeau’s philosophy on guarding the NBA’s most popular play — the pick-and-roll — has many varieties, depending on the talents of the two offensive players involved.
His critics contend his philosophy of protecting the paint and penetration at all costs is outdated in the 3-ball NBA. But if Thibodeau’s Minnesota teams dipped statistically on defense, it wasn’t because his young Wolves weren’t prepared for every scenario.
“Before you get to Tom’s coverages and defending elite players, it always starts with how good are your basic principles,’’ Orlando coach Steve Clifford told The Post. “Individual defenses, help defense, pick-and-roll coverages, catch-and-shoot, transition defense and rebounding. That’s where his team has always been exceptional.’’
Thibodeau, who officially will be named Knicks head coach as soon as Thursday, should work quickly with his new players. The “Delete 8” clubs are expected to be granted minicamp/OTAs in mid-August. But the real defensive lessons come when training camp opens in November.
“It’s the communication and connectivity on the court by the players that Tom installs from the first day in training camp and that his teams practice every day,’’ one veteran NBA assistant coach told The Post. “They do certain drills almost every day to teach a system of communication and connectivity. Every scenario that could happen is taught in training camp. It’s been thought about all summer long, put on paper so there is no confusion. That’s the importance of Thibodeau’s staff watching a ton of film so the player understands what exactly is needed. That is as important in his player development program as anything.’’
Coaches say nobody does it better than Thibodeau in limiting the opposing team’s superstar.
“I think Tom’s genius defensively is he takes away teams’ strengths, he communicates to his team in a precise and concise manner, he demands effort, attention to detail, and early and loud defensive communication,’’ said Jeff Van Gundy, who hired Thibodeau as a Knicks assistant in 1996. “He knows the opponents personnel thoroughly, and he has the right amount of schemes when he needs to go to Plan B.”
“It’s the game planning,’’ added Clifford, an assistant with Thibodeau in New York and Houston. “When you play against his teams, they’re going to make it harder for your team to play to its strengths. They’re going to be locked into your key player and key play and make you get to the next option a lot more than other teams do.
“You’re not going to get easy baskets in transition. You’re not going to get those system baskets that gets you over the top that you get against other teams.”
Some credit Thibodeau for forcing the NBA’s hand in changing rules to favor offenses. His first mentor was the legendary Bill Musselman, a volatile defensive extremist who hired him on his 1989-90 expansion Timberwolves staff.
Asked what defensive ideas he learned from his father, Eric Musselman, the Arkansas head coach, said, “It was being physical, detailed and using his small-group breakdown drills.”
Under newer rules, defenses lost their chance to be extra physical on penetrating guards. But Thibodeau adapted with more complex schemes.
“Tom was an innovator,’’ an NBA coaching source said. “He developed a scheme of overloading the strong side of the floor and building a wall. His ‘ice’ pick-and-roll defense was ahead of its time. Eventually they countered these tactics. The fundamentals never change, just the X’s and O’s. Defensive innovators like Dick Harter and Thibs have done so much damage to offenses that rule changes had to be implemented just to give offenses a chance.’’
Some believe Thibodeau invented the “ice’’ pick-and-roll coverage, but he really just popularized it as his Bulls were masters. The “ice’’ coverage is to force ball-handlers on sideline pick-and-rolls into a double team if they penetrate into the lane. The giveaway is allowing a long 2 — statistically the league’s worst shot.
Thibodeau’s pick-and-roll coverage has become more flexible — and that’s why cerebral players are needed on his teams.
The Bulls defense was a well-oiled machine. In his three seasons in Minnesota, Thibodeau’s Wolves ranked 27th, 25th and 17th respectively in points allowed per 100 possessions.
“It’s based on personnel — who has the ball and who sets the screen,’’ the assistant coach said. “For example Chris Paul and [Rajon] Rondo are so different you have to have multiple coverages against them. And is the screener a guy who can shoot from 3? Will he exploit a switch? He goes into a game plan based on their personnel and Tom’s personnel guarding it.”
The volume of film study separates Thibodeau from his peers, earning him kudos as the game’s best defensive mind. Clifford said when he started with the Knicks as an advance scout, Thibodeau showed him a new way to “watch film in more detail.”
Thibodeau also has good instincts, Clifford said, on “how to win an NBA game.’’
“Some nights he evaluates how aggressive you are taking the better players out of the game because you can open the floor up for other guys,” Clifford said. “Other nights he wants to commit to not letting a great player get going. Those are decisions you make studying teams in the offseason and he’s the master at that.”
A chess master, that is, making it an anxious experience to prepare for a Thibodeau team.
“If there’s a set your team is good at, he just has a denial,” Clifford said. “You can’t run things as easily. He teaches defense to make it harder on you to run your offense and get the shots you want. And he’s adding things — more creative than most people.”
Thibodeau is demonstrative on the sidelines, breaking out defensive instructions until he’s hoarse. He’s no different in practice.
“You don’t want the player to have too many things to think about,” the assistant coach said. “But in reality, it is all in how you teach it with repetition and communication that it becomes second nature.”
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