One of those teams is the Knicks, who have embarked on a coaching search. While former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has long been viewed as the leading candidate to fill the vacancy, indications are the Knicks have another individual on their radar as well.
New York plans to interview Philadelphia assistant Ime Udoka, Shams Charania of the Athletic reported Wednesday afternoon.
That fact is pertinent to the Bulls because the expectation is Udoka would be on Chicago’s short list of candidates should the organization fire coach Jim Boylen, according to reporting from the Athletic and the Sun-Times. A Boylen exit would come as no surprise, as the Sun-Times has reported that the new management regime of Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley is leaning toward letting Boylen go after receiving mixed feedback from players about him. Nonetheless, the methodical Karnisovas has maintained that he wants to get to know Boylen better and watch him work in person, a process that didn’t start until recently as the pandemic forced Karnisovas to work remotely after being hired on April 13.
As in any coaching carousel, there can exist a smoke-and-mirrors dynamic to any leak, any rumor, any expressed desire. So there are multiple prisms through which to consider this Udoka-Knicks development.
The Knicks may view Thibodeau as the clubhouse leader while simultaneously being truly intrigued by Udoka. If that’s the case, the possibility exists that Udoka could wow them in the interview and earn an offer down the line. It’s unclear when his interview might take place.
As the 76ers’ de facto defensive coordinator, Udoka still has the task of helping direct a team that has underachieved but nonetheless carries championship hopes into the playoffs. He previously spent seven years working under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio and has one direct connection to Chicago now, having worked alongside Eversley in Philadelphia this past season.
Even if Udoka would prefer the job in Chicago, the possibility of him sitting down with the Knicks first should raise the eyebrows of the Bulls front office and ring the alarm bells of the fan base. If you desire the hot candidate, letting another team potentially have the first run at hiring him because you’re not willing to act quickly to fire a coach who’s clearly not your long-term answer is more or less the definition of organizational malpractice.
There’s a flip side to this as well, one that shouldn’t worry the Bulls as much. The Knicks could be doing Udoka and others candidates a solid by interviewing them and letting it get leaked – even though they’re completely zeroed in on Thibodeau – so that those camps can put pressure on other potential suitors. Or perhaps Udoka’s representation leaked the news on its own, with no regard to the Knicks. Such tactics aren't uncommon in the NBA. That could be a sign that Udoka wants to be in Chicago.
The catch is it could be difficult for the Bulls to discern the situation. Udoka has earned this interview and has a body of work that indicates he's ready to be a head coach. So what the Bulls do know is that one of the two strong potential candidates with a direct tie to them – Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin is the other to have gained traction with Chicago – appears ready to sit down with the Knicks, an iconic franchise in a big market that has floundered just like the Bulls in recent years but also has hope in the form of new leadership and salary cap space soon enough.
We know the Knicks’ front-runner is a coach who isn’t on the Bulls’ radar, so time still seems to be on Chicago’s side -- for the moment. That’s the one benefit the pandemic has provided the Bulls, but the game of coaching chess just added another wrinkle.
The Bulls would be wise to act swiftly if they're as interested in Udoka as it seems.