The first time Tom Thibodeau opened a debut training camp was 10 years ago, and he knew exactly what he would be walking into on Sept. 27, 2010, at the Berto Center in Deerfield, Ill.
Waiting for him inside that gymnasium was Derrick Rose, 21, who across the next six months would blossom into the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. So was Joakim Noah, 24, on the verge of starting a five-year stretch in which he would average a double-double and be one of the NBA’s best defenders. So was Luol Deng, 24, already a five-year veteran and a reliable scorer.
“This is a good team,” Thibodeau said on the eve of training camp — oddly, Thibodeau was allowed, encouraged even, to express public thoughts in free-speech Chicago — “and I think we all know we have the capacity to get much better if we can learn to work together.”
The second time Tom Thibodeau opened a debut training camp was six years later, and he knew exactly what he would be walking into on Sept. 26, 2010, at the Mayo Clinic Square Training Facility in Minneapolis.
Waiting for him inside that gymnasium was Karl-Anthony Townes, 21, the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year who was about to become a top-10 player. So was Andrew Wiggins, also 21, who’d won the same award the year before. So was Zach LaVine, himself only 21, on the verge of becoming one of the league’s most explosive offensive weapons, good enough to be traded for Jimmy Butler.
“I think any coach would be excited to have those kinds of pieces to work with,” Thibodeau said on the eve of training camp — oddly, Thibodeau was allowed, encouraged even, to express public thoughts in free-speech Minnesota — “and I can’t wait to get to work with these guys, see what we can become.”
Thibodeau’s third debut training camp will be Tuesday, and we must take it on faith that he knows exactly what he will be walking into at the Knicks’ practice facility in Westchester County because since he last uttered a public word during September minicamps. he has either been subjected to an absurd Knicks gag order or had his voice box surgically removed.
So we can really only presume what he thinks about the players who will be awaiting him inside his gymnasium in Tarrytown.
We can assume he is excited about having the chance to coach Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley from the very start of their careers; we can guess he accepts as a genuine challenge maximizing the tantalizing skills of RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson; we can suppose he will accept the puzzles of Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina, trying to will them to acceptable professional standards; we can imagine he will lean heavily on Julius Randle (19.5 points, 9.7 rebounds per game last season), the Knicks’ lone veteran with any kind of professional pedigree.
Thibodeau surely understands that the challenge that awaits him here is far different than the ones greeting him in Chicago — which he elevated from 41 to 62 wins in one year — and in Minnesota — 29 to 47 in two — and that he must have a far more patient approach than he’s ever had before. Surely he convinced Leon Rose that he’s capable of that.
And that’s good. Because right now it is Thibodeau who is, by far, the most accomplished Knick, and that is never a good sign for a basketball team. Great coaches become great because there is more relevant greatness in the room, excellent players who can turn abstract X’s and O’s into wondrous and wonderful basketball art on the floor. The Knicks are a long way away from art, although in recent years they have resembled some of the stuff Jackson Pollock might’ve tossed aside as rough drafts.
Still, he is a start. He is a building block. It is on him to preach professionalism and craft the seedlings of promise here, on him to infuse the kids with a sense of belonging and the older guys with a sense of purpose. Gifted coaches can carry the day in high school, and they can create “systems” that succeed each year in college. In the NBA, by definition, they must be silent partners in a team’s success. The Knicks don’t have Derrick Rose on their roster, don’t have Karl-Anthony Townes, not now, not yet.
For now, they have a coach who is also, for better or worse, their star attraction. It is on him to start the process where he can slowly fade to the background, pull the strings from afar, where the focus can be on the guys on the court. Someday, perhaps. Just not this day. Not now. Not yet.