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Thibodeau still considered front-runner for Knicks' job, but race is going slowly

Tom Thibodeau on November 20, 2019, at Staples

Tom Thibodeau on November 20, 2019, at Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA.  Credit: AP/Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire

On the rare instance when Leon Rose made a public comment since taking over as the Knicks' team president, he said he hoped to have a head coach in place by mid-to-late July. So as we approach the last week of July, it might be worth wondering why it hasn’t happened.

Tom Thibodeau has been seen as the front-runner for the Knicks' head-coaching job since Rose was put in place as team president March 1, as the two have had a long relationship from Rose’s time running CAA’s basketball division. More important, Thibodeau has a history of success that makes it puzzling that he is even available for the Knicks to pursue him.

But according to a league source, Thibodeau — despite having gone through two interviews like the 10 other confirmed candidates — has not been offered a contract or begun any sort of negotiations on a deal.

With a report surfacing on the Knicks Film School podcast Tuesday morning that former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson interviewed Monday, it raised issues of just where the Knicks' coaching search stands.

According to a source with knowledge of the talks, Atkinson’s interview was his second with the front office, which is believed to have completed the two rounds for all candidates. It doesn’t change the fact that Thibodeau is seen as the preferred candidate, but Atkinson's willingness to interview again at this late date did cause some head-scratching around the league about whether it might mean that the job is not the sure thing for Thibodeau that it is believed to be.

“We want to find the right leader that can develop our young players as well as hold everyone accountable and take us from development to becoming a perennial winner,” Rose said last month in an interview with MSG Network’s Mike Breen. “We also want somebody that we think will be collaborative with the front office and someone that when you’re in that huddle and you’re looking in that coach’s eyes, every player that’s looking at him knows that that person is driving the ship and is going to get the job done.”

The holdup is not believed to be any dispute, with contract talks not begun yet — Rose, with his background and relationship with Thibodeau, should have no trouble coming to terms on a deal if they go down that road — and the front office and coach expected to agree on how to form a staff of assistants.

But Rose also has taken a slow path through this process, doing his due diligence with the candidates — even if league sources have believed many of the 11 to be simply favors for old acquaintances at CAA, getting names of agency clients out there, with some not believed to be real candidates for the head-coaching job. Even some with previous experience, such as Mike Woodson, are believed to be more in line for an assistant coaching position. Mike Miller, who has served as the team’s interim head coach, is expected to be a part of the staff no matter who gets the head job.

Thibodeau, like Woodson, actually has worked the sideline for the Knicks. He was hired by Jeff Van Gundy in 1996 as an assistant and remained in place through 2003. He moved on to Houston to join Van Gundy there and then won a championship ring as an assistant with the Celtics before getting his first head-coaching opportunity with the Bulls in 2010. He made the postseason in each of his five seasons in Chicago and also brought the Timberwolves to their first playoff berth in 14 seasons in 2017-18.

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