Developing an identity and a culture are ideas that are thrown around for every sorry NBA team that exists. The New York Knicks were one of those teams. Yes, I said, "were." So far, the Knicks have shown they no longer wish to be mentioned in the same breath as those sorry ass teams.
When Tom Thibodeau gave his first interview as the Knicks head coach, his speech sounded like rhetoric stolen from David Fizdale - "Identity"; "Defense"; "Earned Minutes; "Practice."
Some fans believed him, others took a wait and see approach, and some rolled their eyes thinking, "we heard that before," and we did.
It's different this time. Thibodeau is a disciplinarian; he holds players accountable no matter their contract, draft order, or if you are a regular at James Dolans Fourth of July parties. Thibodeau preaches fundamental philosophies of basketball that are conducive to winning - "make the right play"; "play for each other"; "succeed in practice." Fizdale ran a summer camp with little discipline or accountability.
Thibodeau's basketball approach has led the Knicks to their best start in 8 seasons with wins over the Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, and Utah Jazz. All of who are within the top 8 teams in the Eastern and Western Conference. The Knicks are currently 5th in the East. The Bucks, Pacers, Hawks, and Jazz all project to be in the playoffs.
So, what is it that's making this team mesh? Thibodeau's fundamental approach has instilled three characteristics in this team that I believe has led to their early success, discipline, trust, and resiliency.
Tom Thibodeau is all about discipline. It's his way or the highway. You heard Austin Rivers and Elfrid Payton say discuss after the shoot around the other day. With Thibodeau, you work hard in practice or you don't play. Simple as that. You develop good habits in practice. If you succeed at developing those habits in practice, then you play in games.
Thibodeau doesn't just speak it; he lives it, he coaches it. Watch the games closely, and you will see Thib's barking at players about defensive rotations or minute details of the offense. He'll call a timeout up 20 points if the players get lazy.
The Knicks are amongst the youngest teams in the league; they need discipline. It resonates to the floor; this team rarely deviates from the game plan. Do they make mistakes? Of course, they are young. But they play with discipline. They play hard. Thibodeau holds them accountable to these virtues, and in turn, they hold themselves accountable.
To enhance his disciplinarian style, Thibodeau has established roles for players. The team did not publicize it, but you can see them assume their roles on the court. When a player understands their role, and also understands their teammates' role, it builds trust. Then, each player must perform within their role to grow that trust.
So far, each player has been at least decent in their role. When they did not perform well, they stayed after games to work on their shot, studied film, or took notes from coaches and players. Then they came back stronger the next game. Tom Thibodeau's disciplinarian style has led to players holding themselves accountable, leading to coaches and players trusting each other.
All of this trust leads to the team playing together and for each other. Players know their teammates and coaches have their backs.
The discipline and trust have helped to develop resiliency. Elfrid Payton had an awful first two games of the season. He, Frank Ntilikina, and other players got up shots after getting pounced by the Philadelphia 76ers. Payton and Ntilikina had 27 points & 7 assists, and 12 points, respectively, in the team's first win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
RJ Barrett shot terribly against the Toronto Raptors and then again versus the Cleveland Cavaliers. He went to work, got up some shots, and came back to score 27 against the Indiana Pacers.
The Knicks went down 0-2 to begin the season and since have gone 5-1. In their last two games, they have come back from down double digits.
These players and this team, so far, have shown that they are incredibly resilient.
The discipline, trust, and resiliency have led to winning games, reinforcing and legitimizing Tom Thibodeau's approach to the game.
Discipline. Trust. Resiliency.
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