Tom Thibodeau knows he’s building the Knicks from scratch.
But Thibodeau has a Miami model to which to aspire — with one of his idols, president Pat Riley, constructing another edition ready for the NBA Finals. Ironically, Riley built this version with one of Thibodeau’s own pupils, Jimmy Butler, at the fulcrum.
Thibodeau would love to build the Knicks into Heat Northeast and says he has adopted Riley’s “core values.’’ The Heat, who entered Friday night one victory away from the NBA Finals with a 3-1 lead on Boston, embody everything Thibodeau stands for.
That includes the key presence of Butler, who was molded by Thibodeau in Chicago. Thibodeau has received a lot of credit for turning Butler into an all-encompassing star, but ironically it led to his ouster from Minnesota.
“I’m thrilled for him,’’ Thibodeau said after the third day of team practices as part of the club’s “Delete 8” OTAs. “It’s a great story. It’s a guy who was drafted 30th and made himself better every year. Even now, an established All-Star, he still works incredibly hard.
“He plays very unselfishly, plays to win. He’s not about statistics. I knew that from the start with him. I never envisioned him being this good. I always thought he’d be a good player. But he’s made himself into a superstar because of his intelligence, talent and work ethic. He’s a guy who constantly studies and brings about the best in his teammates.”
When Butler was a free agent in 2019, the Knicks’ past management wasn’t interested in Butler’s leadership and defense. Thibodeau, as former president and coach of the Timberwolves, traded for Butler in 2017, but it backfired.
As it happened, Butler’s hard-nosed approach wasn’t accepted by Minnesota’s ownership, management or their young players. Butler asked to be traded and Thibodeau was soon out of a job.
“Butler didn’t like some of the guys’ lack of professionalism,” one NBA source told The Post. “[Jimmy] and Tom had long talks about how to deal with it. When Butler realized it was unsolvable, he lashed out at the organization. His clock was ticking on his prime and didn’t want to waste it and forced his way out. Tommy was telling him to have patience, see it through.”
Had Butler stuck it out, Thibodeau probably would still be in Minnesota. Asked if he has been watching Miami’s playoff run and wondering what-if, Thibodeau smiled.
“I never work backwards,” he said. “Minnesota was Minnesota and now there’s a new chapter. It’s New York. And that’s really what I think about all the time. It’s all consuming. How can we get better, improve? How do we bring the best out of the group? I’m looking forward to this challenge.”
And a challenge it is. Thibodeau is the seventh Knicks coach in eight years and the franchise has missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons. By contrast, Erik Spoelstra has been Miami’s coach for 12 years. Thibodeau noted the Heat’s “continuity’’ as vital.
“I have great respect for the Heat organization, the way they play, what Pat Riley has done there, Erik Spoelstra,” Thibodeau said. “They have great ownership in Mickey Arison. They’ve done it for a long time. The continuity has been important for them. They’ve evolved as the game has evolved. The things they believe in have stood the test of time — fundamentals, intensity, their work ethic. Those are all Pat Riley trademarks. I know Knicks fans are familiar with that from when Pat was here.”
Thibodeau never worked alongside Riley, who left the Knicks for Miami in 1995. But Thibodeau felt the ghost of Riley when he joined Jeff Van Gundy’s Knicks staff in 1996.
“When I came here the first time. I had come from Philadelphia, and it was just so different,’’ Thibodeau siad. “[Riley] was so far ahead of this time and, Jeff carried over a lot of those things. Pat did it in L.A. He won a championship there, then he got the Knicks to the doorstep. To do it several times in Miami. He’s rebuilt the organization three or four times.
“He’s at the top of my list,’’ he added. “He’s been great to me over the years, and I’ve taken a lot of things that he’s said to me. I’ve watched their organization very closely. You understand what their core values are.”
After staging a week of individual workouts governed by safety protocols, Thibodeau still has at least five days left for group practices. He hopes to have “a voice’’ in the Nov. 18 draft, but the franchise feels farther than 1,300 miles away from Miami.
“There’s a base you have that you believe in. but you also want to study the team you have and what they’re good at,’’ Thibodeau said. “The important thing for us is establishing the conditioning and discipline part and also going over all the fundamentals and starting from a zero base. We’re building a foundation.’’
New York Post
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