Knicks president Leon Rose has allowed head coach Tom Thibodeau to be Tom Thibodeau — critics be damned.
Former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, speaking on an ESPN conference call, feels that lack of management interference has allowed Thibodeau to have whopping success so far in turning around the Knicks and netting the NBA Coach of the Year Award last season.
“I think the most underrated aspect of Tom’s success in New York is that Leon Rose has let Tom be himself,’’ said Van Gundy, who is one of Thibodeau’s closest friends. “So many people hire people and then try to change them. I think Leon, what he did so well, he doesn’t sit there and tell Tom, ‘Oh, you look too gruff or you’re arguing too many calls.’ Tom’s going to argue every call, every game, every year.’’
Van Gundy boosted Thibodeau’s career when he hired him as his top assistant with the Knicks in the late 1990s.
While Thibodeau borrowed from Van Gundy in his fiery sideline demeanor, he also created his own eccentric style, which has drawn naysayers. Thibodeau plays his key players monster minutes — down to the last minutes of games that don’t appear in doubt.
He has become a terrific regular-season coach, perhaps because he treats every game like the Super Bowl and refuses to rest players during this load-management era.
“If you start to focus on his quote, gruffness, which I don’t see him as gruff at all, you can miss the 99 percent of greatness that you’re witnessing on a nightly basis,’’ Van Gundy said. “I give Leon a lot of credit for letting Tom be Tom and coach the way he feels is best and coach in a confident manner. I think it’s an underrated aspect for why coaches succeed or why coaches fail.”
On the call to promote ESPN’s coverage, including the Knicks’ season opener Wednesday versus the Celtics, Van Gundy said he likes that Thibodeau hasn’t been a sheep and has stuck to his convictions.
“This league has become so much about clichés that everybody does the same thing. Load management. We don’t even know what that means half the time. What are you actually trying to do? Do you understand why people get injured and why they don’t? Where are the injuries coming from?
“This sophomoric minutes-played stat — people write about that like every minute is equal,’’ Van Gundy said. “Like, if I spot up in the corner and I’m P.J. Tucker, it’s the same exertion rate as someone who has the ball in his hands all the time like a Julius Randle. I admire Tom because he studies it, [and] he follows his gut versus the groupthink.’
“I think people who label Tom old school don’t know Tom. They observe Tom, but they don’t know Tom. Tom studies coaching as diligently as anybody I’ve ever seen. So he absolutely knows all the newest trends. But he doesn’t just accept that new means better. I actually think he’s a very courageous coach in that he’s willing to do what he believes is best versus do what everyone else is doing just because it’s a lot of groupthink.’’
Van Gundy still wonders, however, whether the Knicks will be able to duplicate last season’s 41-31 record and fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
He said the Knicks could easily have a lower seed this season and pointed to missing “important members’’ of last season’s cast, citing shooting guard Reggie Bullock. Van Gundy said their “health was terrific’’ last season and there’s no guarantee that will continue with the new cast, which includes point guard Kemba Walker.
Mark Jackson, who also joined Van Gundy on the call, said the Knicks will also miss point guard Elfrid Payton more than they realize.
The Knicks have replaced Payton and Bullock with Walker and Evan Fournier, who has not shot well in the preseason. Van Gundy said the Celtics made a bold move by giving up on Walker with new president of basketball operations Brad Stevens feeling Walker wasn’t the perfect fit around Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Walker returned to the lineup for Friday’s preseason finale after missing the Detroit game. The Knicks said The Bronx native needed a “rest,’’ though the club had three days off.
“The other night, they give Kemba Walker, who I’m sure they’re rightly concerned about his health, they give him a night of rest not to play in an exhibition game,’’ Jackson said. “The guy [Thibodeau] is smart, he’s trying to win and he’s doing something that really hadn’t been done in New York, consistently, for quite some time, which is to win.’’