The Knicks hire the right coach here, and that’s where you have to start. Forget the double-elimination interview tournament the team’s brass seemed to be conducting while most of the NBA was busy trying to get back to work, the 11 candidates who wandered into and out of their purview. All of that is prelude.
This is the main event: They hire the right coach, at the right time, they add a significant building block toward a better place and a better time at Madison Square Garden. They hire Tom Thibodeau, they give him a five-year contract, and they begin the long, painstaking task of becoming a relevant basketball team again.
“Tom Thibodeau is one of the best coaches in the world,” Jeff Van Gundy said a few months ago, and, yes, Van Gundy isn’t exactly the most objective voice on the subject of Thibodeau — they are friends and they worked closely together the last time the Knicks brought any kind of flair and style and high-end aspiration to the Garden.
Those seven years at the Garden — 1996-2003 — Thibodeau not only saw how Van Gundy did the job, how he managed to elicit trust and loyalty from his players and maximize those talents, he also got a taste of what it can be for a basketball lifer in a New York City starved for so long of basketball nourishment.
Van Gundy became an unlikely folk hero here, beginning as an obscure assistant even the courtside regulars would’ve had difficulty picking out of a lineup and somehow becoming a guy whose name Knicks fans chanted one night in 1999, when his team was on the verge of eliminating the Hawks and advancing to the conference finals.
There is little mystery attached to how to win those hearts and minds. Van Gundy won, and he fought, and it didn’t hurt that he somehow won and kept grinding while his bosses were trying to romance Phil Jackson, so there was also an everyman quality to his story. But he delivered. He was an excellent coach. The Knicks played defense on his watch. The Knicks bled and sweat and cared on his watch. It’s not a complex equation.
The Knicks will do those things for Thibodeau, too, because he comes with his own no-nonsense reputation, because if not for Derrick Rose blowing his knee out one awful playoff game against the 76ers in 2012, he might well have led the Bulls to a full post-Jordan renaissance, might well have taken one of the titles the Heat won during LeBron James’ time there, might well have built something permanent at United Center.
As it was he was 352-246 with the Bulls, a .647 winning percentage that included some of the most amazing on-the-fly makeshift coaching jobs you’ll ever see. In 2013, a broken and beaten-down Bulls team walked into Brooklyn and beat the Nets in Game 7 of a playoff series, and afterward Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo sounded like a high school kid caught by a truant officer.
“He just performed a clinic in this series,” Carlesimo said. “Everything we tried, they had an immediate answer for. And that team just plays so damned hard. They’re as intense as he is.”
Things didn’t go quite so well for Thibodeau in Minnesota, though the Timberwolves did win 47 games his last full year there. In the NBA in 2020 a coach can only control so much, so there is no stone-cold guarantee the Knicks have just secured a passing-lane trip to the top of the East. But he was still the best coach available. That used to matter when New York teams went looking for coaches. For the Knicks, for now, it mattered still.
They were wise to bypass Jason Kidd and whatever delusions of Giannis Antetokounmpo he might have dangled during his interviews. You hire Kidd you hire his scheming past, his Machiavellian machinations, and that isn’t what the Knicks needed, not on the 20 percent chance Kidd could actually deliver Giannis.
Thibodeau will demand accountability, and he will be a teacher for the kids. Van Gundy has told anyone who will listen that winning players thrive under Thibodeau, and of course part of the team’s mission will be to get more of those kinds of players. But, for one, it seems a Thibodeau-RJ Barrett partnership ought to be awfully fruitful.
That’s a nice place to start. The Knicks took their time, and seemed to talk to every coach this side of Norman Dale and Ken Reeves looking to make the right choice. It doesn’t matter how they got here, it matters that they got here. They hire Tom Thibodeau. They hire the right coach.
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