Is Tom Thibodeau to the Knicks a legitimate possibility?
The Bulls fired Tom Thibodeau today after years of tension between the star coach and the team’s ownership group. As I wrote last year, “Thibs” considers the Knicks’ head coaching position a “dream job.” The Connecticut native served for seven years as an assistant coach with the Knicks from 1996 to 2003, and has a terrific track record as a phenomenal defensive coach. As a head coach, Thibodeau won the Coach of the Year award in 2011, and in 2012 became the fastest coach ever to reach 100 wins. Thibs had a .647 winning percentage in Chicago, but never seemed to get along with his bosses.
The Knicks finished at 17-65 last season after bringing Phil Jackson aboard as president and, under Phil’s direction, hiring Derek Fisher as head coach. Fisher signed a 5-year, $25 million deal and has 4 seasons remaining on the contract.
Thibodeau would reportedly welcome the opportunity to coach the Knicks, and any sensible NBA team would love the opportunity to hire him. Carmelo Anthony has said he is a big admirer of Thibodeau. Thibs’ track record speaks for itself. The Knicks need to make major changes after last season’s debacle. Fisher wasn’t particularly impressive. It sounds like a perfect fit— Thibodeau to the Knicks.
But there are major obstacles. The Knicks’ job currently isn’t open. Firing Derek Fisher appears unlikely for a few reasons. For one, the Knicks are on the hook for $20 million, which is a lot of money to pay a guy you don’t employ. Firing Fisher and hiring Thibodeau (who won’t come cheap) would be a costly move. Second of all, Fisher was Phil’s first hire. He played for Phil, he mastered Phil’s Triangle system, he won five championships with Phil. Phil hired him so that he could mentor him and coach the Knicks without actually having to BE the coach of the Knicks. Fisher is Phil’s “guy.” It’s a bad look to fire that “guy” after one season, especially when the team the coach was given rarely looked like it had a fighting chance.
But that doesn’t make the move impossible. James Dolan has shown a willingness to spend in the past. The salary cap prevents the Knicks from having a huge edge in terms of talent, but teams can spend as much as they want on their staff. In addition, Fisher isn’t necessarily Phil’s “guy.” Fisher wasn’t his first choice. Phil wanted to hire Steve Kerr and thought they had a deal, possibly because Dolan didn’t like Kerr’s salary demands (if that is the case, that throws some serious doubt on whether he’d be willing to pay two coaches at once), or maybe because Kerr realized how much better the job in Golden State was.
The biggest obstacles? The egos of Thibodeau, Phil and Dolan. Thibodeau is an independent coach, he won’t throw out his principles to run Phil’s system. Phil won’t be eager to admit that his first coaching move, like nearly all of his early moves, might have been a mistake, and he won’t be willing to give up his dreams of riding the Triangle to a 14th ring in New York. Dolan won’t want a coach who isn’t a company man— and while Thibodeau put up with Dolan as an assistant over ten years ago, he’s clearly more stubborn as a head coach, which is why he’s now on the market to begin with. And to those saying Thibodeau would be a good fit as a defensive-minded assistant coach, it’s extremely unlikely that one of the league’s top coaches would accept an assistant job. And even if Thibs did, he would still command a Head Coach-level salary. If anything, the Knicks might be better off seeing if Fisher would accept a demotion, taking the role of an offensive-minded, Triangle-preaching assistant under Thibodeau.
By hiring Tom Thibodeau, the Knicks could bring in an established coach, a big name, a defensive savior, and a guy who could help them lure the top-notch players they’ll need to sign in free agency (if they aren’t scared off by Thibodeau’s tendency to put heavy workloads on his best players). It would make the Knicks a better team. If winning is the first priority— if Phil and Dolan want to win at all costs (literally and figuratively), Thibodeau is the right hire. He’s the best hire. He’s likely a guy who wants to be hired. But unless the Knicks deviate from the status quo (which happens to be exactly what needs to start occurring for this team to win a championship), Thibodeau likely won’t be coaching in New York any time soon.