When the NBA Board of Governors voted Thursday on a plan to resume the season, the Knicks, along with the other seven teams left out of the picture, did not vote against the plan and try to force their way into the bubble in Orlando. For the Knicks, there was a willingness to officially end this season and move on to the future.
Leon Rose has made additions to his front office in his first official moves as team president, but the real task is to find a coach to lead the franchise. While there will be arguments about defensive-minded coaches, offensive gurus and analytical geniuses, what the Knicks need most of all is someone who will last.
Consider this: RJ Barrett has played only 56 NBA games and is heading to his third head coach.
It’s not an accident that continuity and stability lead to success. So as names are tossed out, maybe the most obvious choice is the best choice, and not just because he has a track record of success. Tom Thibodeau is the front-runner for the job, and of all the items on his resume, perhaps his relationship with Rose is the most important of all.
There are other names in the mix and an argument can be made for them. The Knicks are expected to begin interviews next week and hope to complete the process by the end of the month. They would like to get a coach in place before other teams with better rosters that could be seeking a new coach — such as Philadelphia and Houston — get a chance to make an offer.
Kenny Atkinson, let go by the Nets just ahead of the suspension of the season on March 11, also is expected to interview for the job. Interim coach Mike Miller will get a chance to lobby to keep the job. SNY reported that former Knicks coach Mike Woodson will interview, although one person familiar with the situation said he most likely would be considered for a lead assistant role.
You don’t get to be an NBA head coach without knowing X’s-and-O’s. Some are better than others, and there is a solid history that shows Thibodeau is as good as they come on the defensive end and underrated on the offensive end. He has taken teams to the postseason, has overachieved with outmanned squads in Chicago and Minnesota as head coach (going 352-246 overall) and has a long lineage as an assistant with Jeff Van Gundy in New York and Doc Rivers in Boston.
But with the notion that he not only is qualified but could be part of a like-minded pairing with Rose, the Knicks finally could end their constant shuffling of coaches and game plans.
When Phil Jackson took over as team president in 2014, he sought to bring in Steve Kerr as coach. Even if it would not have brought the championship rings that Kerr won with the Golden State Warriors, maybe that would have provided a semblance of stability. Instead, when Knicks ownership balked at Kerr’s conditions and salary demands, the Warriors jumped in and grabbed him, leaving the Knicks with a Plan B, Derek Fisher, that turned into a short-lived failure.
It has been followed quickly by a procession of swings and misses — Kurt Rambis, Jeff Hornacek, David Fizdale and likely Miller — who were unable to last long enough to make a difference.
“Well, I feel a little uncomfortable talking about a situation that is fluid, and they have a coach in place that I worked with in USA Basketball in Mike Miller who’s an absolutely fantastic basketball coach,” Van Gundy said on SiriusXM NBA Radio on Thursday. “But irrespective of the Knicks, Tom Thibodeau is a great, great basketball coach. Like, great.
“And I think unfortunately for him, the perception of him on the sidelines as this gruff, nasty dude is not even close to who is he personally. Like, he is a great guy. He’s fun to be around. He’s enjoyable to be around, and he loves basketball. He loves NBA basketball and he works at it and he is elite in his profession.
“I hope he gets another opportunity to be a head coach, because if you look at his body of work, he certainly deserves it, and any team that may interview him or hire him would be very fortunate to have him as a head coach.”
While Thibodeau has been successful as a head coach, he has been criticized for burning out players. There was some grumbling among young players in Minnesota before that situation fell apart a year after the Timberwolves made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.
“He gets thought of as a defensive coach, but if you look at his best teams in Chicago and in Minnesota, they were very high-level statistically speaking offensive teams, and I think it’s been overlooked when people try to evaluate Tom from the outside,” said Van Gundy, who was the last Knicks coach to last at least four full seasons (five between 1995-2002).
“Tremendous, well-balanced, good player development — he’s gotten young players much, much better. So not speaking about the Knicks’ job but speaking in general, Tom Thibodeau is one of the best coaches in the world, and I hope to see him get another head job.”
CANDIDATES FOR KNICKS
Unless some playoff-bound, All-Star-stacked team drops a hint to Thibs that he’s their guy if he just waits, he’s the front-runner for the Knicks. He’s got a record of winning and has three seasons of at least 50 victories, including a 62-20 record in his first season as a head coach. That’s a better record than the Knicks have had in their history, which dates to 1946-47. He also is a longtime CAA client with ties to Knicks president Leon Rose.
In another time when players didn’t hold the clout they do now, Atkinson would be prepping for a postseason run with the Nets. Instead, despite a record of player development and overachieving, he is on the market looking for a job. He also has ties to the Knicks; he was an assistant coach who aided in the development of players such as Jeremy Lin and was a CAA client of Rose.
The best case for Miller is simply this: He did a competent job of stabilizing a team that was trying to balance the young nucleus of the team with a roster filled with potential free agents trying to earn their own paychecks. There were no waves of controversy in his tenure as interim coach — he went 17-27 after taking over a 4-18 team — and there was some thought that with a roster not yet ready to win next season, keeping him in place would make sense. But it’s still not likely for Rose, who needs to prove his own value as team president.
A good argument could be made that Woodson never should have been let go as Knicks coach, but that was Phil Jackson and the triangle and putting his imprint on the organization. SNY reported last week that he’ll get an interview, but as a CAA client (see a theme here?), that is believed to be to get his name out. He is more likely to be considered for a lead assistant role.
JEFF VAN GUNDY
While Van Gundy made a good case last week for Thibodeau, he can make a good argument for the job himself. In 11 seasons (including taking over for Don Nelson in New York and eventually walking off the job), he has had only one losing season. He was interested in the Knicks’ job when David Fizdale got it two years ago and got back in the mix with a stellar job for the United States World Cup Qualifying Team.
Jackson, Van Gundy’s partner on ESPN broadcasts, reportedly would like to get back into coaching after being let go by Golden State just as the team was turning into a dynasty. He helped develop Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and won 47 and 51 games in his second and third seasons with the franchise. He’s a New Yorker who began his playing career with the Knicks.