For a team as steeped in recent failure as they are, the New York Knicks sure are doing their homework when it comes to hiring their next head coach. A total of 11 candidates are known to have interviewed, some multiple times. That doesn’t guarantee a successful hire, but the process, so far, appears to have been sound. That is progress for an organization that tends to sour on new hires fairly quickly. David Fizdale was given only 104 games before getting the ax.
Fizdale didn’t exactly shine in his year and change in New York (21-83), but the job itself is fraught. The pressures of New York and a typically underwhelming Knicks roster have buried 10 full-time coaches this century. The current group of Knicks is more promising, and the fan base likely more patient after experiencing firsthand the folly of putting all of its eggs in the free agency basket. New York’s next coach is probably going to get more than 104 games.
But these are still the Knicks, and all indications from Leon Rose’s front office have been that they expect to win sooner rather than later. That means finding a coach capable of bringing along the incumbent youngsters quickly enough to entice veterans into jumping aboard in the near future. Who among the candidates that they have pursued fits the bill? Let’s go one by one to figure out how each potential candidate might fit in New York.
Status: Presumed favorite
There was a time in which Tom Thibodeau was the most coveted coach on the market. His work with the Boston Celtics (as an assistant) and Chicago Bulls (as head coach) essentially defined a half-decade’s worth of NBA defense. The scheme, in short, was designed to keep the ball away from the middle of the court, and was based largely on the following principles:
- Flood the strong side to make ball-handlers miserable.
- Drop high pick-and-rolls to protect the rim, ice side pick-and-rolls to force the ball-handler toward the baseline, where his options are more limited. Similarly, shade offensive players toward the baseline in one-on-one settings.
- Protect the rim at all costs.
The Bulls had the NBA’s best defense in both of Thibodeau’s first two seasons and didn’t finish lower than sixth until his fifth season. While his innovative scheme was partially responsible for that success, so too was his ability to develop talent on the fly. Thibodeau, for a time, was among the NBA’s preeminent point guard whisperers. He helped Derrick Rose become the youngest MVP in league history, and after he was shelved by injuries, Thibodeau revived the career of John Lucas III after three years out of the league. He also won a playoff series with Nate Robinson as his second-leading scorer.
His developmental record with rookies was similarly strong. Jimmy Butler, the No. 29 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, became a star under his tutelage, while No. 26 overall pick Taj Gibson and No. 36 overall pick Omer Asik both grew into starting-caliber players as Bulls. For a stretch early in the 2010s, Thibodeau was arguably the NBA’s best coach. He parlayed that success in Chicago into an assistant coaching stint with Team USA, theoretically giving him inroads with future free-agent targets.
Of course, all of these time-based qualifiers are no accident. Thibodeau’s more recent work with the Minnesota Timberwolves was substantially less impressive. Even with Butler back in his corner for the 2017-18 season, Minnesota’s defenses finished 25th and 27th overall in his two full seasons there. As the NBA embraced spacing and more ambitious motion concepts, getting the ball to the vacant weakside suddenly became significantly easier.
His players might have been able to stem the tide had their development gone as planned. But Karl-Anthony Towns remained a porous defender under Thibodeau’s watch, while Andrew Wiggins stagnated on both sides of the ball. His less-heralded youngsters struggled to find minutes at all. Thibodeau consistently invested his cap space and minutes in veterans for his young Timberwolves teams, including expensive contracts for Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson.
He proceeded to run those players into the ground. His five starters in Minnesota during the 2017-18 season were all among the NBA’s top 37 players in terms of minutes per game. Luol Deng twice led the NBA in minutes per game under Thibodeau, and he, Rose and Joakim Noah all suffered abrupt falls from grace. It would be hard not to connect that to overuse, a relic in the load-management era.
There is no league-wide consensus on workloads, and there is even conflict in New York. While hardly his greatest fault, Fizdale was criticized for overusing R.J. Barrett before he was fired. Yet Barrett’s production and efficiency remained steady after Miller shaved four minutes per game off of his average. The days of Deng playing 39.4 minutes per game are long past, and to his credit, Thibodeau seemed to realize that. No Timberwolf averaged even 37 minutes per game in his final full season in Minnesota. His defense even dabbled in more modern tactics such as switching and hedging toward the end of his tenure. He said the right things at the Sloan Conference in March, at least appearing somewhat open-minded about the way that the game has changed.
But those were baby steps, and if Thibodeau is going to be viable as an NBA head coach in the 2020s, he needs to modernize faster. At least in the early days of his presumptive tenure, the Knicks won’t have a superstar that can make up for an ancient scheme. Immediate wins are going to have to come on the margins. Thibodeau’s path to the Knicks job relies on convincing the team that he has learned from his mistakes. If he hasn’t? He’ll be just another big-name flameout in New York.
A year ago, the Brooklyn Nets swooped in and nabbed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving from right under the Knicks’ noses, putting them in this situation in the first place. Atkinson, Brooklyn’s former head coach, was a casualty of the expectations that followed his two new stars. Little could be more fitting than the Knicks learning from their mistakes and bringing in the coach that made Brooklyn’s coup possible. Hopefully, that could set up their own down the line. If nothing else, Atkinson’s system is exceptionally welcoming.
A Mike Budenholzer disciple, Brooklyn finished near the top of the league in total passes in each of Atkinson’s seasons at the helm. The Nets similarly stayed in the top five in the NBA in 3-point rate for the duration of Atkinson’s tenure, yet unlike Budenholzer, Atkinson places a heavy emphasis on individual creation within that framework. Brooklyn runs among the most pick-and-rolls in basketball. Its spacing enhanced those plays enough to turn D’Angelo Russell into an All-Star.
Russell was far from Atkinson’s only developmental masterpiece. Spencer Dinwiddie started the 2016-17 season in the then-D-League. Now he’s a borderline All-Star. Joe Harris couldn’t even find minutes as a sharpshooter on LeBron James’ team. A few years under Atkinson and suddenly he’s one of the most valuable floor spacers in basketball. The Nets never once made their own first-round pick during Atkinson’s tenure. It didn’t matter. Just like his former mentor in Atlanta, Atkinson has displayed a stunning propensity for creating valuable players out of thin air.
These are the sort of traits that a team in New York’s position would typically prize in a coaching candidate. But the Knicks fancy themselves greater than a typical rebuilder. Their moves under Rose suggest that they view development as a means toward free agency as an end, just as Brooklyn did, and when the Nets ultimately landed their superstars, they had no qualms with discarding the infrastructure that theoretically attracted them in the first place.
There has been no definitive reporting on the relationship between Atkinson and Irving or Durant, but it’s a simple matter to read between the lines here. If superstars like a coach, that coach rarely gets fired. DeAndre Jordan, a close friend of Irving and Durant, spent the season coming off of the bench under Atkinson. He was moved into the starting lineup as soon as Jacque Vaughn was promoted to interim coach.
Atkinson has already taken a team from Point A to Point B. His candidacy rests on his ability to convince the Knicks, who one day hope to land exactly the sort of players that likely led to his downfall, that he can take them from Point B to Point C(hampionship).
Status: Had ‘a great interview’
Give Jason Kidd this: No coach in the history of basketball has ever been better at selling himself to teams. He secured his first head-coaching gig with the Brooklyn Nets a mere nine days after retiring as a player. A year later, he managed to steal a job with the Milwaukee Bucks that was already occupied. The Bucks fired Larry Drew to clear the way for him. Reports last offseason suggested that the Los Angeles Lakers only interviewed him for their head-coaching job as a favor to his powerful agent, Excel Sports’ Jeff Schwartz. They grew so enamored of him that they reportedly insisted that other coaching candidates hire him as an assistant, a stance Ty Lue could not abide. Sure enough, Kidd’s interview with the Knicks was reportedly a smashing success.
But interviewing and coaching are entirely different skills, and Kidd does not have the sort of resume that would typically merit a third head-coaching job. A failed coup for personnel power ended his one-year stint with the Nets (44-38) abruptly, and he followed that up with three-and-a-half sub-.500 seasons with the Bucks (139-152), who have since won nearly 77 percent of their games under his replacement, Mike Budenholzer.
Kidd’s coaching style was anachronistic. The Bucks finished 24th or lower in 3-point attempts in each of his four seasons at the helm, including a last-place finish during the 2015-16 campaign. His hyperaggressive defense was similarly blasphemous from an analytics perspective, forcing turnovers at a high rate, but consistently allowing the most valuable shots in basketball. Milwaukee allowed either the highest or second-highest proportion of corner 3-point attempts in Kidd’s three full seasons. It similarly topped the league consistently in percentage of shots allowed at the rim. During the 2015-16 season, Kidd’s Bucks allowed 33.4 percent of opposing shots to come with three feet of the rim. Budenholzer’s Bucks this season are down to only 22.3 percent. Plays like this amount to free points:
Trapping can work in the NBA when rotations behind it are tight and recoveries are swift. Kidd’s Bucks sold out for turnovers that simply didn’t come. On paper, the game of basketball appears to have passed Kidd by.
But Kidd is a Hall of Famer. No team is more star-crazed than the Knicks, and superstars swear by Kidd. Multiple sources told ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz that LeBron views Kidd “as the only person alive who sees the game of basketball with his level of clarity.” Kidd himself claimed that Giannis Antetokounmpo offered to try to save his job after he was fired. Antetokounmpo, the reigning NBA MVP, is why Kidd is a candidate to begin with.
Antetokounmpo is set to reach unrestricted free agency after the 2020-21 season, whenever that comes. The Knicks have made it perfectly clear that their goal is to pursue star free agents as soon as possible. Kidd’s hiring would be a symbolic gesture, and indication that the franchise is willing to bend to his whims. But history suggests Kidd would have little impact on Antetokounmpo’s interest in New York.
Since the NBA introduced unrestricted free agency in 1988, 18 reigning All-NBA players have used it to change teams. Only two of them reunited with a coach that they had worked with at any level. One of them, Michael Jordan, took three years off between his final Bulls season and returning to the NBA with the Washington Wizards, and as president of the Wizards at the time, he hired Doug Collins himself. Amar’e Stoudemire rejoined Mike D’Antoni in New York in 2010, but the Knicks are the only team known to have offered him a five-year max contract due to his creaky knees. Lesser players have made coaching a key point in their decisions, such as Gordon Hayward admitting that Brad Stevens was a primary reason for his decision to join the Boston Celtics, but never in NBA history has an All-NBA caliber superstar based a free agent decision on the possibility of rejoining an old coach.
The Knicks would hardly be the first team to try to boost their free agency profile. The Washington Wizards hired former Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks in 2016 presumably in an effort to bring area native Kevin Durant back home. The Knicks themselves hired Fizdale the last time they needed a coach at least in part because of his strong relationships with superstars James and Dwyane Wade. Historically speaking, players base their decisions on other players, not coaches. The Knicks need a coach far more than they need a recruiter, and if Kidd plans to land this job, he’ll have to convince them that he’s just as capable of the former as the latter.
The Knicks were better at virtually everything under Miller than they were under Fizdale. Their offense jumped from 102 points per 100 possessions to 107.8, a leap from last place by a mile into the full-season equivalent of a No. 22 ranking. They committed fewer fouls and turnovers while racking up more assists and rebounds. Their 38.6 winning percentage under Miller would have had them at the Disney bubble over the Washington Wizards had they maintained it for the entire season.
The Knicks played more like the fringe-playoff team management expected once they promoted Miller, but that didn’t come at the expense of player development. Mitchell Robinson made meaningful strides in conquering his fouling problem under Miller’s guidance. Barrett seemingly turned a corner toward the end of the season as well, averaging 17.2 points on reasonable efficient shooting percentages in his final 10 games. By any measure, Miller did a better job coaching the Knicks than Fizdale did.
But if being better than Fizdale was the sole qualification for this job, the Knicks would have dozens of candidates to sift through. Miller was an improvement, but the bar was so low that measuring him objectively is fairly difficult. The Knicks, under Miller, were more or less what they expected to be coming into the season. That, in itself, isn’t worthy of commendation, and while the sample is too small to draw anything particularly meaningful about his style, there are concerning signs.
The Knicks attempted only 27.5 3-pointers per game with Miller at the helm. That would have tied them for dead-last in the NBA over the full season, and his stewardship of the Westchester Knicks tells a similar story, as they finished last in the G League in 3-point attempts in three of his five seasons there. His Westchester defenses were dominant, finishing second and third in his last two seasons, respectively, but that didn’t translate to the NBA, as the Knicks improved by only 0.9 points per 100 possessions defensively once Fizdale was fired. That improvement came largely on shooting regression from opponents.
Parsing the negatives of Miller’s tenure from the broken roster he inherited would be virtually impossible. He made the best of a bad situation, but presumably, the Knicks are going to have better players in the near future. Miller’s shot at the full-time job relies on his ability to sell management on a definitive stylistic vision for New York’s future.
Status: Has interviewed twice
While his tenure in New York was brief, Mike Woodson was unquestionably the most successful Knicks coach since Jeff Van Gundy. He went 18-6 while holding the job on an interim basis during the 2011-12 season, followed that up with a dominant 54-win campaign that, were it not for the untimely suspension of J.R. Smith, could have ended in at least a conference finals berth, and was then fired by Phil Jackson following a 37-45 season not based on merit, but because of Jackson’s desire to hire a devotee of his Triangle offense. Woodson’s system was the antithesis of Jackson’s in the best possible ways.
The 2012-13 Knicks were revolutionary. They attempted more 3-pointers than the Houston Rockets, a feat only the 73-win 2015-16 Golden State Warriors have matched since. Eight of their nine most-used players attempted at least 127 3-pointers, with only Tyson Chandler refraining from firing away. As the team’s designated roller, he benefited from the relatively obscene amounts of space that shooting generated. Carmelo Anthony stole an MVP vote from LeBron at the absolute peak of his powers, and it came largely based on Woodson’s decision to force him to play power forward. While natural regression kicked in a year later, that success should have bought him more time than Jackson was willing to grant.
He used the next several years well, serving as an assistant for the Los Angeles Clippers. The Doc Rivers Prep School for Aspiring Head Coaches has a stellar track record. Thibodeau and Lue both found immediate success in top jobs after graduation, and Lawrence Frank parlayed his partnership with Rivers into the presidency of the Clippers. Woodson stepped away from the league in 2018, but based purely on his Knicks tenure, there is little doubt that he deserves another chance somewhere.
But whether that will come in New York depends on whether there is any lingering bad blood after his unceremonious 2015 ouster. The New York Post’s Marc Berman reported that Fizdale was interested in hiring Woodson as an assistant, but management refused to do so. Knicks management has obviously changed, but James Dolan remains in place, and the image-conscious new regime may have mixed feelings about hiring a retread when bigger names like Thibodeau are available. Still, every other candidate’s potential with the Knicks is hypothetical. Woodson has proof of concept. If he can convince the new front office that he can maintain his prior success in a new decade, he deserves to be among the top candidates for this job.
Status: Interviewed at least once
Evaluating Mike Brown on his own merits is virtually impossible because of the players he’s coached. He’s never once had the sort of rebuilding roster that he would inherit in New York. His first head-coaching job came with LeBron James in Cleveland. His second was with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Even his interim tenure with the Golden State Warriors came with arguably the greatest roster in NBA history.
While this obviously colors his track record, it also tints his tactics. Brown has coached such distinct tactics that no guiding strategic principles can be gleaned from his history. He relied heavily on LeBron’s individual genius in Cleveland, tried to enforce more structure on Bryant in Los Angeles with the Princeton offense, and then ran Steve Kerr’s system during his brief stretch as Golden State’s substitute teacher. There just isn’t much that can be said definitively about what kind of coach Brown would be with a typical 2020 roster.
Kerr was once New York’s white whale, and the temptation to nab his top assistant as a consolation prize is sensible. But there is no guarantee that Brown will match his boss’s success. Luke Walton hasn’t, and Kerr would be the first to tell you that the system he’s installed relies heavily on having the two greatest shooters of all time. The Knicks have exactly the sort of roster Brown has never coached.
That makes him more of a blank slate than his history suggests, especially in light of his failure to win a championship with James in Cleveland. His extensive history under Kerr and Gregg Popovich are his greatest selling points. They built sustainable winning cultures, and he’ll have to in New York as well given its lack of incumbent star talent.
Candidates without head-coaching experience
Ime Udoka: Udoka, like many of the coaches on this list, has ties to San Antonio. Between his playing and coaching careers, he spent nearly a decade with Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs. He left to become Brett Brown’s top assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers this season, likely with head-coaching aspirations in mind, as a recent exodus of San Antonio assistants has left Becky Hammon and Tim Duncan as the two presumptive candidates to eventually replace Popovich. Udoka led San Antonio’s summer league team in 2013 and 2014, and is considered a top candidate for the Chicago Bulls job should they move on from Jim Boylen. Popovich has one of the biggest coaching trees in basketball for a reason. His stamp of approval suggests that Udoka has a bright future as a head coach.
Pat Delany: Delany comes from one of the most decorated coaching trees you’ve never heard of: the Miami Heat video room. That was the job that launched Erik Spoelstra’s career. Unfortunately, in the context of this job, it also launched David Fizdale’s. Unlike Spoelstra and Fizdale, he never actually held a coaching role in Miami, instead spending six seasons under Steve Clifford in Charlotte and Orlando. He has risen through the ranks quickly, and is now a key member of Clifford’s staff with the Magic.
Will Hardy: Like Delany, Hardy comes from the video room, and like Udoka, he has an extensive history under Popovich in San Antonio. A slight edge for Hardy, though, is his experience with Team USA in 2019. Popovich employed Hardy on his staff at the FIBA World Cup, and while most of the top American talent there was younger and far away from free agency, it never hurts to have already established a relationship with those stars.
Chris Fleming: Fleming is a former assistant of Atkinson’s in Brooklyn, but spent last season in Chicago as Boylen’s top assistant. He has a reputation as a strong offensive mind, but the Bulls finished the season ranked 29th in offense. Their personnel is at least partially to blame, but the Knicks won’t be world-beaters early on. Explaining what happened in Chicago was likely a major component of his interview.
Jamahl Mosley: Mosley has spent time in Denver and Cleveland, but really made his name as one of Rick Carlisle’s assistants in Dallas. In recent years he has taken on the role of defensive coordinator for the Mavericks, and despite offensively-inclined personnel, has kept them close to the middle the league in that regard. His history in player development is encouraging as well, and Dallas has brought along a number of unheralded players in recent years that the Knicks would love to replicate. Successes like Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber would be welcome in New York.
Rose’s unclear philosophy as an organizational leader makes naming an ideal choice difficult. Were the Knicks a typical rebuilding team, Atkinson would make the most sense given his track record in Brooklyn. Everything the Knicks could hope to do over the next several years, he just did with the Nets. Miller or any standouts among the assistants that interviewed could fit for similar reasons. Patience is a virtue.
It just isn’t one the Knicks have ever had in spades. Dolan showed his cards when he hired Rose, a former agent whose greatest qualification for the job was his Rolodex. Rose responded in kind by hiring one of the most connected men in basketball, William “World Wide” Wesley, as a top deputy. Typical rebuilding teams don’t hire brand managers that appear on “First Take,” but Steve Stoute did just that.
All indications from the Knicks suggest that they are not interested in operating as a typical rebuilding team. They expect to contend in the near future, and fair or not, Atkinson’s recent history is a mark against him in that regard. Thibodeau, for all his strategic faults, has plenty of experience working with superstars. No coach is ever going to be enough to recruit one outright, but comfort is never a bad thing.
The Knicks should hire Atkinson. There just isn’t enough evidence to suggest that a free agent coup in the near future is possible for them to stake their future on it. A slow and steady rebuild is the proper course, but if it’s one the Knicks are unwilling to pursue, Thibodeau, to an extent, fits the bill. So does Woodson. Kidd, for all of the networking power he’d bring, is simply too deficient as a tactician to justify hiring.
The hiring in itself will be less important than what it signifies about New York’s future. The Knicks have tried to fast forward through the ugly parts of rebuilding enough times to know what a bad idea it can be. Their extensive process suggests that they are at least open to changing course, but the wrong hire could knock them off the right track entirely.