Tom Thibodeau Maybe Not the Best, But the Right Hire For Knicks


The long wait for the identity of the Knicks’ next head coach appears to be coming to an end. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Knicks are working on the terms of a five-year contract with Tom Thibodeau to be Team President Leon Rose’s most consequential hire.

It is a prudent choice, but not a perfect one. Thibodeau’s 352-246 career regular-season record is the 11th best of coaches with at least 500 career games, but his two-plus seasons in Minnesota from 2016-2019 ended with a record ten games under .500 (97-107).

The Knicks are a franchise that has not had a coach last three full seasons since Mike D’Antoni (2008-2012). Prior to D’Antoni, the last coach to achieve that feat was Jeff Van Gundy from 1996-2001, and the Knicks have had 12 head coaches since 2001. Thibodeau has a history of success that should provide the franchise much needed stability at head coach, and will allow Rose to build a team that reflects a certain style of play.

The philosophy behind Thibodeau’s hire reflects how Rose has operated thus far as President. He has found people that have excelled elsewhere in their roles and brought them to New York to do the same for the Knicks. Walt Perrin excelled as Utah’s college scouting director, which was the same role he will have here, and the same with salary cap expert Brock Aller and pro personnel director Frank Zanin.

Rose may be a novice in his role as President, but he is surrounding himself with NBA lifers that not only have experience, but a strong track record of success in the roles he is hiring them to execute with the Knicks. For a franchise that has been mired in drama and incompetence, simply hiring people that have proven they are good at their jobs is a sound strategy.

The idea of creating a culture has been so overused that it borders on becoming little more than a tired trope or cliché. But in the Knicks’ situation, especially with so many young players, establishing a professional, no-nonsense environment that values the right things should only help their development. Players like Mitchell Robinson, RJ Barrett, and Frank Ntilikina all seem to have the perfect skill sets or mentalities to thrive under Tom Thibodeau, who has a history of developing young players in both Chicago and Minnesota that is encouraging.

Establishing a proper environment and play style will also allow Rose, General Manager Scott Perry, and the front office to build a roster that fits with that their head coach is trying to build. Consistency in this area is essential for a team to actually grow and develop over time.

There are arguments to be made for other candidates. Kenny Atkinson’s history of player development is extremely strong and would be a good fit with the Knicks young roster. And, his success in elevating a young team in Brooklyn and his play-style made him my favored candidate for the job.

Up-and-coming assistant coaches like Ime Udoka, Will Hardy, and Jamahl Mosely all have potential to be excellent head coaches one day. None have the history of winning that Thibodeau has.

There are fair questions about whether the league’s offenses, with improved ball movement and frequency of three-point shots, has made Thibodeau’s defense obsolete. He also has not embraced the three-point shot on offense as much as other coaches have, and his best players have the tendency to be near the top of the league in minutes played.

They are fair criticisms, but none that should disqualify him from being one of the strongest candidates available. Thibodeau has spent the last year visiting college and NBA practices to learn new methods. It should surprise no one if there is an adjustment to his style and brand of basketball upon his return.

The Knicks front office should be leery in forcing assistant coaches onto Thibodeau’s staff. A coach should be able to pick his assistants, and Thibodeau is likely to want to bring along his long-time colleagues Andy Greer, Ed Pinckney, and Rick Brunson. Multiple reports indicate the Knicks would like to have interim head coach Mike Miller join the staff along with former head coach Mike Woodson. Thibodeau should have veto power over any additions to his staff.

Instead of adding older coaches to Thibodeau’s staff, the Knicks should do their best to add promising young assistants they believe have the potential to be a head coach. Two assistants they interviewed for their head coach position, Will Hardy and Jamahl Mosely, should be targets. It may be impossible to lure them away from San Antonio and Dallas respectively, but an Associate Head Coach or lead assistant title and significant pay raises could be enough.

Thibodeau turned 62 this year and it is hard to believe he would coach into his 70’s. Developing the next head coach from within to continue and build upon whatever Thibodeau builds could be preferable to bringing in another coach from the outside in four seasons. It is early in the game to have these sorts of concerns, but it should be in the back of Rose’s mind as he helps Thibodeau build his staff.

Is Tom Thibodeau going to lead the Knicks to a championship? Rather overwhelming odds say no. What Thibodeau needs to do, though, is return the Knicks to respectability. He needs to get them close to .500, and then make them a consistent playoff team. It could take a few years. This is still going to be a long process. If someone else is needed to get them over the top four or five seasons from now, so be it.

Thibodeau has to make the team something Knicks fans can be proud of. They can’t be a laughingstock anymore or the constant butt of jokes around the NBA. His history of success, serious no-nonsense approach, blue-collar northeastern attitude and immaculate work ethic makes him the right person to do just that. 

Don’t forget to check out my most recent episode of The Bank Shot, my Knicks podcast, with Jonathan Macri from Knicks Film School. You can subscribe to the Bank Shot on most podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts.

Follow John Schmeelk on Twitter: @Schmeelk