The Knicks are still in need of many things to contend again, but one key piece has shifted into place. They are finalizing a five-year agreement that would make Tom Thibodeau their coach.
From the day that the Knicks placed Leon Rose in place as team president, this has seemed a fait accompli; Thibodeau is a coach with long ties to Rose and a record of success unlike any other candidate available.
Thibodeau, who served as an assistant coach with the Knicks from 1996 to 2003, went on successful turns as an assistant in Houston and Boston before becoming an NBA head coach.
The deal is not official yet.
While Rose did the due diligence of interviewing a long list of candidates, conducting two interviews with 11 coaches, it was always believed to be Thibodeau’s job to lose, and he would not do that with this opportunity. The Knicks would not confirm the details of the story, which was first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, but a source indicated that the contract could be signed early this week, with an official announcement to follow.
Rose has not spoken to the media since taking the job officially on March 1, but he did conduct an interview with the team’s network last month and detailed what he was looking for in a coach.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Thibodeau coached the Bulls for five seasons, winning NBA Coach of the Year in his first season, compiling a 255-139 record, never winning fewer than 45 games in a season and making the playoffs every year. He was pushed out by a leadership group in Chicago, and the team tumbled in his absence. He then took the head-coaching reins in Minnesota, and after the first losing season of his career, he guided the Timberwolves to their first playoff berth in 14 seasons, going 47-35. But he was let go 40 games into the next season, with some of the team’s young players reportedly unhappy with his hard-driving style.
The 62-year-old Thibodeau was out of a job during the current season, but he did spend time with other teams, visiting practices and training camps. In those visits and the time away from the game, he considered where he had gone wrong, what he could do better and what he would do better if he got another chance on the bench.
Thibodeau was a member of the last consistently successful Knicks staff, working with Jeff Van Gundy as the team made the playoffs every year. But when Van Gundy walked away 19 games into the 2001-02 season, the Knicks crumbled.
After a year and a half serving under Don Chaney, Thibodeau rejoined Van Gundy in Houston. He went on to win a championship ring on Doc Rivers’ staff in Boston, earning a chance at a head-coaching job.
“I think like all great head coaches in basketball, he has multiple strengths,” Van Gundy said. “The mistake analyzing from the outside trying to pigeonhole him as just a defensive coach. He is incredible as a defensive teacher. But his best teams in Chicago and Minnesota, if you look at every statistical measurement, they were terrific offensive teams. He’s really good with players at all stages of their career, rookies and young people, veterans. He can help guys who are perimeter players and guys who are inside players. His overall abilities honed over the years make him an exceptional candidate.
“[When he was hired by me], he was the guy now known as player development. Back then, it was just known as making your players better. Besides that, he had this thirst for execution, for precision, that I thought was remarkable. I had known of him since he was an assistant at Harvard and I was a graduate assistant at Providence. I was amazed coming from [Bill] Musselman and then a short bit with Jerry Tarkanian and John Lucas, the dude was so precise in all of his teaching. I think he helped all of the staff become more precise. He helped me immensely. I learned as much from him as he could have ever hoped to learn from me.”
Thibodeau emerged from a long list of candidates — most of whom, like him, were represented by CAA, the agency that Rose served as head of the basketball division for the last 13 years. With Rose and William “World Wide Wes” Wesley now at the top of the Knicks’ organizational chart, a source said Thibodeau was always the choice and that the only other real alternative was if John Calipari would consider leaving the University of Kentucky.
Thibodeau has absorbed some criticism — notably from some Timberwolves players — for how hard he worked players and for the heavy minutes he gave them. But Van Gundy insisted that Thibodeau has done things the right way and that the results are evident.
“The only thing I would say is I have never heard a winning player complain about Tom. Never,” Van Gundy said. “The other thing is we address — if the criticism came from [Karl-Anthony] Towns and [Andrew] Wiggins, they had their best years under him — not just as a team, but as individuals. Towns was an All-Star. Wiggins was highly productive. Jimmy Butler was their best player. No problem with being the second player on a playoff team.
“I know this, the winning players that played for Tom have benefited in wins and money made. There’s no disputing that. Look at Joakim Noah. People think about what he was in New York, but a few years earlier, he was nearly an MVP playing for Tom. So losing players complain. That’s what they do. They think it should be a kumbaya atmosphere versus an individual that pushes you as individuals and a team. That’s just the difference between winning players who understand that every day there is going to be challenges, not everything praised. When winning players complain about you, you need to take stock as a coach or at least think about what they’re thinking. When losing players complain about work ethic and demands, you take it with a grain of salt.”
The Knicks interviewed other former head coaches — Kenny Atkinson, Mike Woodson, Mike Brown, Jason Kidd and Mike Miller, who finished up the season as the Knicks’ interim coach. The Knicks also conducted interviews with five assistant coaches — San Antonio’s Will Hardy, Orlando’s Pat Delany, Chicago’s Chris Fleming, Philadelphia’s Ime Udoka and Dallas’ Jamahl Mosley.
“I think Tom’s a great coach,” Georgetown coach and former Knick Patrick Ewing said on SiriusXM NBA Radio last month. “I had the opportunity to [play for him], him being on the [Knicks’] staff when I played, and also work with him. He’s been around a lot of years. He knows the game in and out. He’s going to do everything that he needs to do in terms of having his team prepared to play every night. I think he’d be a great candidate for that job.”
Tom Thibodeau File
Born: Jan. 17, 1958 in New Britain, Conn.
College: Salem State University
Head coach: Timberwolves, Bulls, 8 seasons, 352-246
Assistant coach: 20 seasons (7 with Knicks, ‘96-97 through ’02-03)