Schmeelk: Knicks' Coaching Choice Needs to Be the Wise One, Not a Risky One

John Schmeelk
July 16, 2020 - 11:11 am
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According to multiple reports, the Knicks have finished their second round of interviews with their 11 head coach candidates. There have been rumblings about the process – Marc Berman of the New York Post reported Jason Kidd had a great interview, and Ian Begley of SNY reported former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson has support within the organization – but the reporting remains the same as it always was: Tom Thibodeau is the favorite.  

One consistent aspect of Leon Rose’s tenure as Knicks President is that most of his hires have been surprises. No one reported Brock Aller, Walt Perrin, or World Wide Wes was joining the organization before their deals were all but complete. He has not leaked his intentions and there is no reason to think that he has now.

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Tom Thibodeau is the obvious favorite simply due to his prior connections to Rose and World Wide Wes, and his prior success. But it doesn’t mean that Kenny Atkinson, who was also represented by Rose’s CAA, might not get the job, or any of the other nine candidates that were interviewed.

Jason Kidd, Mike Woodson, Mike Brown, and Mike Miller are the other candidates with head coaching experience. Other than Brown, who has a .616 winning percentage as a head coach, the other candidates do not have the resumes that should vault them ahead of Thibodeaux or Atkinson. Brown had the luxury of coaching either LeBron James or Kobe Bryant for most of his career, which skews his record.

Jason Kidd’s much-referenced relationship with Giannis Antetokounmpo is something that shouldn’t tempt the Knicks. They need to hire the best coach, not someone they think MIGHT help them get Antetokounmpo IF he decides to hit free agency. The Knicks cannot control where the next big star wants to play. All they can do is be as good of a team as possible. Kidd’s tenure as a player and coach have been filled with too much drama, and his coaching years with too few wins for him to be the choice.

The Knicks’ other five candidates are interesting names that present potential high upsides, but a lot of risks. Spurs assistant coach Will Hardy, Sixers top assistant Ime Udoka, Bulls top assistant Chris Fleming, Hornets assistant coach Pat Delany, and Mavericks assistant coach Jamahl Mosley have great reputations and are widely considered to be future head coaches, and of this group, each coach has different advantages:

Udoka is a former player from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree, and helped improve the Sixers defense when he joined Brett Brown’s staff as his top assistant this season.

Mosley has risen coaching under one of the league’s best, Rick Carlisle, and his responsibilities have evolved from analytics to player development to in-game strategy.

Hardy is only 32 years old, but is considered by some to be the eventual heir apparent to Gregg Popovich in San Antonio.

Delany has coached for the last six years under Steve Clifford, who is considered one of the better defensive coaches in the NBA.

Fleming has experience as a head coach in Europe, where he had success leading teams to titles in Germany.

If I had to choose from this group, I would select Udoka or Mosley, but all of them are huge risks. Until an assistant coach actually becomes the person in charge of a NBA team, there is no way to know how good they will be at the job. Interviews and recommendations can only go so far in determining who has all the qualities necessary to be a good head coach.

The Knicks cannot afford to take a risk like that given the state of their franchise. Since Jeff Van Gundy quit, only one Knicks coach has lasted more than two seasons: Mike D’Antoni. For the Leon Rose era to be a success, he has to choose a coach that he knows is good enough to lead the team at a reasonably high level for at least three seasons, preferably four.

Is there any guarantee that Kenny Atkinson or Tom Thibodeau are capable of leading a team to the NBA Finals? No, but there should be a fairly high level of confidence that both men have the ability to get the Knicks into the second round of the playoffs. With where the Knicks are right now, that’s good enough. If they have to hire a new coach four years from now to get over the top, their previous hire did well to bring them from the doldrums to becoming a winning basketball team.

If the Knicks have to sacrifice the likelihood of hitting a home run with a first-time great coach, for reducing the chance to signing someone that would equate to a strikeout, they need to make that bargain. They need to hit a double, at least, and if they can hire someone they know will be, at worst, well above average, the decision should be an easy one.

Atkinson and Thibodeau both have their strengths and weaknesses. Neither is perfect, but both have won in the league. Thibodeau has done so at a higher level and for longer, but Atkinson’s background with player development is exactly what the Knicks need. The latter should tilt the balance towards Atkinson, but Thibodeaux’s history of improving every team he has taken over might be too hard for the Knicks to pass up.

The decision is coming soon, and only Leon Rose knows who it is going to be. If it ends up being someone other than Tom Thibodeau or Kenny Atkinson, Rose will be taking a huge risk to start his Knicks tenure. He should go with the known quantity. The Knicks, for once, need to make the safe and prudent choice to bring stability to the organization.

Don’t forget to check out the  most recent episode of The Bank Shot, my Knicks podcast, with Jeremy Cohen from Knicks Film School. You can hear it here on WFAN.com, or subscribe to The Bank Shot on most podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts

Follow John Schmeelk on Twitter: @Schmeelk

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