RJ Barrett of the New York Knicks (292819)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

The Knicks opened their 2020-21 season last night in Indiana against the Pacers with far more questions than answers. New team president Leon Rose, who was hired by Knicks owner James Dolan last March to replace Steve Mills, is the third man in the last six-plus years to occupy the position.

Mills stepped down last February under heavy scrutiny from fans and media after the Knicks were 61-154 since he was elevated from general manager to president in June of 2017. Mills followed Phil Jackson, who was brought on by Dolan with much promise and expectations in March 2014 but was ingloriously terminated in June of 2017.

In three full years as the Knicks’ president, the team went 17-65, 32-50 and 31-51 under Jackson. As for the coaches, Mills’ and Jackson’s combined tenures saw Mike Woodson, Derek Fisher, Kurt Rambis (interim coach), Jeff Hornacek, David Fizdale and Mike Miller (interim) lead from the bench.

Now it’s Tom Thibodeau’s turn. The 62-year-old native of New Britain, Connecticut, is in very familiar surroundings, having been a Knicks assistant coach from 1996 to 2004. Thibodeau is acutely aware of the challenges he is facing in first lifting the Knicks back to respectability in the rebuilding paradigm before they become a playoff contender.

The former Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves head coach received unreasonable criticism from some cynics last week when he logically stated an immutable truth that the Knicks will ultimately need a superstar to compete at the highest levels of the NBA.

His observation was made on the same day the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, who could have become an unrestricted free-agent next summer, signed a five-year, so-called supermax extension with the Bucks worth $228 million. The 26-year-old Antetokounmpo, who has won the league’s last two MVP awards, would have been heavily pursued by the Knicks.

Thibodeau was portrayed as whining simply for articulating what virtually every frustrated Knicks fan has echoed since the end of the Patrick Ewing era. “I think it’s critical,” said Thibodeau of securing a franchise altering player either through the draft, a trade or free-agency.

“Sometimes it’s the development phase that, I think when you look at Jimmy Butler when he came in he hardly played as a rookie, played more each year, and he’s become a top-10 player in the league. So, it’s a testament to his work ethic and how he approached things.”

Butler, now with the Miami Heat, was drafted by the Bulls with the last pick in the first round in 2011 when Thibodeau was the franchise’s head coach.

“Some guys continue to get better year after year. Sometimes you have to do it through trades, sometimes it’s free agency, but I think you have to be very aggressive in seeking out those opportunities,” Thibodeau maintained. “They just don’t happen by accident. You have to make them happen.”

The Knicks don’t have a player of Butler’s caliber yet. This season will be a year of learning how they will get one. Thibodeau’s squad will face two superstars in their home opener on Saturday night when they host Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers at Madison Square Garden.