It is easy to fall into cliche when discussing the next New York Knicks head coach. Throw Tom Thibodeau in the ‘no player development’ category and put Kenny Atkinson in the ‘good for a rebuilding team’ section and that can be deemed the end of the discussion.
Obviously, it’s more complicated than that. Not to mention, there are others in contention for the job including Mike Miller, who has done a more than solid job to take the team to 17-27 while losing Marcus Morris and Reggie Bullock at the trade deadline.
For a start, Thibodeau’s relationship with Leon Rose clearly has relevance. Atkinson being shunted out of the Nets job by Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant might seem like useful timing for the Knicks, but will James Dolan want to hire someone who could be tagged as a ‘Nets reject’? Few would be brave enough to predict what Dolan is thinking or what he will do.
Unlike in Brooklyn, there are no established stars to dictate where the Knicks should go. That leaves the front office with almost entire responsibility. Thibodeau is the runaway favourite, but the Knicks are taking their time with this. That could be read as necessary, understandable caution, and taking time to think the hire through. It could, just as easily, be considered ponderous, a franchise unsure of which direction to turn.
Six weeks and hour upon hour of interviews have passed since the search began. Many interviews in the second stage lasted three hours. A decision is nearing.
Thibs or Atkinson?
It’s reductive to make this about rebuild with Atkinson or contend ASAP with Thibodeau. Thibodeau is renowned for working his players hard and demanding long nights from them, but he also oversaw Derrick Rose become MVP and made Jimmy Butler into the All-NBA calibre player he is today. While Atkinson is most applauded for nurturing young talent and navigating through a rocky time in Brooklyn, he also took them to the playoffs last season – the Knicks haven’t played a postseason game since 2013.
Whatever the reasoning, Atkinson seems an outsider for the job. Given what he achieved in Brooklyn, flipping the fortunes of an entire franchise, that has to be a mistake. The Nets were as close to the bottom as it gets. They had no picks, they had no young talent. Patience and minutes to young players led them away from the doldrums to build an environment that was enough to lure two legitimate superstars.
The Knicks might not be programmed for such patience. Perhaps, though, it isn’t required. Their position, with picks available and some young talent in Mitchell Robinson, R.J. Barrett and others, is not as dire despite the on-court product in recent seasons. They can trade for a star if one becomes available, and they can continue to load up the roster with young players in the mean time.
Suggesting Atkinson is the best hire doesn’t have to be a criticism of Thibodeau, who is on course to get the job and will likely improve their situation. Both have their merits. Of what either have achieved in the NBA, however, Atkinson’s job in Brooklyn is most comparable to what the Knicks should be looking for. Should is the crucial word – waiting it out like the Nets did isn’t very Madison Square Garden, and it’s not very Dolan.