Can a man change? A Tom Thibodeau story

Can a man change? A Tom Thibodeau story


Wherein Tom Thibodeau faces a Tony Soprano-like reckoning.
Image: Getty Images

Everything about Tony Soprano — who he is, and who he will be — is foretold in his confession to his therapist in the series pilot.

 “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling I came in at the end. The best is over.”

 Tom Thibodeau could say the same. The glory days of the 1990s he grew up in as a coach were long gone by the time he accepted the New York Knicks head coaching position last season. Those were the days of black and blue. Thibodeau’s mentor, Jeff Van Gundy, was a man of the times: hard-nosed, demanding, and all about stops. Van Gundy was a protege of Pat Riley and Rick Pitino, two New York hoop gods and former Knicks head coaches. Riley was the architect of the Black and Blue-era Knicks, which emphasized hard-nosed defense, defense bordering on flagrancy. Van Gundy gifted this coaching pedigree to his successor, Tom Thibodeau, who served as Van Gundy’s assistant on the late 1990s Knicks team, including the run to the Finals, and then as part of the coaching staff on the mid-2000s Houston Rockets.

Thibodeau is not from New York, but damn, he sure feels like a Nathan’s with mustard. He was born and raised in New Britain, Connecticut, a Polish-dominant blue-collar city southwest of Hartford. Not having a professional basketball team of their own, his family adopted the Knicks as their team. a passion Thibodeau referenced when he called taking the Knicks head coaching gig as a “dream job.”

 Both Tony Soprano and Thibs grew up right outside of New York, with the backdrop of the city serving as motivation and a reminder they were on the outside looking in. Once the lights went dark at Holsten’s Diner, Tony Soprano serves as a warning to Tom Thibodeau, a coach who has never made the finals at the helm — change or die.

 Tony Soprano became the head of the DiMeo Crime Family at the end of the glory days of the Italian mafia. The gangster code, a code of ethics and boundaries to conduct illegal business, was waning and on the verge of being replaced by a devil-may-care attitude, a “me first” pedigree built on existential dread. Tony Soprano’s “nephew” and protege, Christopher Moltisanti, represented everything Tony despised about the evolution of organized crime.

 Thibodeau has always preferred an old-school approach to scoring. He replicated many of the ISO ball Van Gundy employed in Houston with Tracy McGrady, Thibodeau working as his assistant again. And as head coach of the Bulls, with Derrick Rose, with Rose being named MVP in 2011. The teams he coached in Chicago trended downward on three-point attempts almost every year he was there from 2010-2015. Instead, Thibodeau ran impossible—o-guard pick-and-roll sets with Rose and a bevy of bigs — Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, and Luol Deng — to great success. The Bulls under Thibodeau scored points in 2s through mid-range catch-and-shoots, pull-up jumpers, backdoor cuts, and back-to-the-basket post-ups. For Thibodeau, the three-point shot could be his “Chris-ta-pha.” Easy, modern, self-gratifying. But where Tony went so far as to snuff out what he feared by killing Christopher, Thibodeau is learning to love the three-point bomb. He even went so far this offseason to say he wanted to take more.

 “We’re very efficient at shooting them,” Thibodeau said. “So our shot profile is right. Making the right reads is the most important thing off the dribble. Attack the rim, and make the proper rim read by hitting the open man. If guys make the extra pass, we’ll have good rhythm 3s. We also want to push the ball more, and we’ll continue to work on [that].’’

 For the season last year, the Knicks averaged 30 three-point attempts a game. In the second preseason game against Washington, they took 52. While perhaps not a consistent harbinger of what’s to come, it’s easy to imagine the Knicks increasing their overall per game attempts by 10 for around 40 three-point shots a game. For the first time in his career, Thibodeau is changing his approach to offense. Perhaps not as much as he needs to win it all, but it does beg the question: Can a man change?

 This season, there was a moment in a loss to the Bucks at home in November where observers saw shades of Thibodeau’s answer to that question.

 The Knicks had been down by 25 points at one point in the third quarter. Thibodeau benched his entire starting five, who were a combined -113, and replaced them with Rose, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Obi Toppin, and Taj Gibson. This group brought all the grit and effort the starters forgot and the Knicks roared back, even tying the game at one point. Up until now, Thibodeau had displayed an unyielding tether to Randle, his “engine,” as he often eulogizes after games. No matter how unprepared Randle shows Thibodeau and Knicks Knation, for the most significant moments and under the brightest lights, he remains on the floor. But on this night, Randle sat on the bench, towel over his head, cheering on his younger, energetic replacement, Obi Toppin. The Knicks ultimately lost, but it seemed Thibodeau became self-aware for some eight odd minutes. Or least developed the ability to hear Knick fans from the rafters and through television screens. By finally benching Randle, he did what he needed to do. He changed the game plan.

 The question around Tony Soprano’s moral arc in Season 5, Episode 5 Irregular Around the Margins begins with an innocuous enough interruption. Adrianna returned to her office at the club she manages, The Crazy Horse. But Tony was there checking his skin for melanoma, as her office is also his office for mob affairs. Alone together in the office, pleasantries are made, chemistry builds. Tony and Adrianna both smell sex in the room as they begin down a path toward destiny. But along the way, Tony makes choices. They go on a road trip to find some coke. They dance around questions of flirtation, gesturing at what’s in front of them without calling it out by name. In the end, Tony becomes distracted behind the wheel and loses control, flipping the car and injuring them both.

 Early in the episode, after the first sexually-charged interaction between Tony and Adrianna, Tony tells Dr. Melfi that he is worried he can’t control himself around Adrianna. He sees her as a new start, but knows it will ruin his relationship with his “nephew” and protege, Christopher.

 Melfi tells him she is impressed that he “Came in here to talk about impulses instead of just acting on them.” Tony believes he is acting with restraint as he always does. To which, Melfi is quick to admonish with the truth. “Like having sex with your mistress’ cousin? As if the mistress wasn’t enough to piss off your wife?”

 There have to be times Thibodeau looks up at the scoreboard and sees a lead slipping out of his grasp. Living and breathing basketball for 40 years has granted him insight as to the particulars of what makes an offense go, as well as sputter. As it was in last year’s first-round series with Atlanta, the issue of offensive stagnation lies with Thibodeau’s over-reliance on Randle’s clunky isolation game. Tom and Tony have both faced a crossroads of character. Thibodeau has been here before with Rose, his former MVP, and protegee. He once over-relied on him in isolation when they were together in Chicago. And it led to injuries and a broken offense. One that never won it all. He must now decide to do more of the same or take a chance on something different.

 The NBA Thibodeau walked back into when joining the Knicks is far different than the one he left with the Timberwolves, and even farther away from the era he found success with the Bulls a decade ago. Maybe that’s why he had such tempered success in Minnesota. Yes, he did bring the franchise back to the playoffs after 13 seasons. But he also got beat down similarly to last year’s Knicks, losing in the five games to a Rockets team at the height of their James Harden-led three-point blitzkrieg. Everything had changed since the half-court heyday Thibodeau thrived in. Teams play faster, looser, from the perimeter. Most dramatically, defense is no longer the Holy Grail of what wins championships. It still matters, but it has given way to a path loaded with superstars and a high-octane offense. From 2012-2019, each year’s NBA champion was ranked in the Top 5 in offense and Top 10 in defense, except for 2018 Warriors, who were 11th in defense.

 Jeff Van Gundy is beloved in New York because he is the last great Knicks coach. Thibodeau comes from the same school of thinking: hard-nosed, defensive-minded, acutely-prepared. But it comes with caveats. Thibodeau can be arrogant in his quest for winning, reluctant to switch game plans and make adjustments on the fly. You could even say he lacks imagination when it comes to offensive creativity. The man seems obsessed with isolation play from his best players. Learning from his failures in last year’s playoffs, Thibodeau has the opportunity to try new things. Just like Tony did after he recovered from being shot by his uncle, Junior Soprano. Yet, he showed his typical penchant for stubborn trepidation towards malleability. Old habits die hard.

 But it’s not too late. In a game against New Orleans late in October, Thibs did just that. It was the first time in Thibodeau’s time as Knicks coach he benched an under-performing Randle and rode R.J. Barrett’s hot hand. It ended with Barrett netting 35, 8, and 6 in a six-point win.

 “This is a milestone for you,” Melfi told Tony about his self-awareness toward the devastation having sex with Adrianna would cause — to both his families, the mob one and his blood.

 This season will be the ultimate test for Thibodeau. What the Knicks lacked in-depth last year, they are now three deep at every position. Thibodeau used a tight, ten-man rotation throughout the 2020-2021 season, only extending into the bench to replace injuries. Obi Toppin has improved from last playoffs to Summer League to preseason. Does he earn more keep than Taj Gibson? Does Thibodeau let Mitchell Robinson work through growing pains, or does he keep a short leash favoring the wiry vet Nerlens Noel? These are the questions facing Thibodeau as head coach of the New York Knicks.

The path forward is an easy one if he so chooses. It’s a continuation of the rinse, wash, and repeat for which he is known. The kids sit, the vets play way too much, and the Knicks churn out five to 10 games over .500 just to enter the playoffs exhausted and depleted. Audiences know what happened to Tony. He never put down the gun. Till the end, his allegiance was to his mafia family over his blood. The life he knew, filled with guts and glory, was, in the end, too rich to give up. Tom still has time to show us all he can change. He can still be himself, but different.

 Before Tony leaves Melfi’s office, she hands him a compliment in hopes he does not venture back on his path toward a self-inflicted ouroboros: “That’s growth. That’s progress.” It’s an honest and earned judgment call on Tony’s actions in not screwing things up this time around.

 Later this NBA season, there will come a time in a must-win game to break a losing streak or in the playoffs, when Thibodeau will face a crossroads. He will look up at the scoreboard and then down at his bench and have to make his own decision. He will have to choose to repeat history or rewrite it anew. Choose wrong, and Thibodeau will be doomed to repeat Tony’s terrifying epiphany in the Season 6 episode, Kennedy and Heidi, a pivotal episode that answers Tony’s question of “can a man change?” The end of the episode finds Tony in Las Vegas, high on peyote and fresh off of murdering his nephew, standing on a desert hill screaming into the void, “I get it!”, aware, finally, that he will never change.



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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.