It’s easy to understand why Tom Thibodeau wants to coach again. He’s a hoops lifer — always has been, and always will be. It doesn’t matter that he was a relative flop in his last stop; he had dual roles with the Timberwolves, and he couldn’t even sniff mediocrity in both. He drafted poorly and made questionable deals as president of basketball operations, including that which had him shipping Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and Kris Dunn to the Bulls for what turned out to be a short rental of erstwhile favorite Jimmy Butler. More tellingly, he couldn’t coax any semblance of consistency on either end of the court from resident stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins and the rest of his roster as their head coach; his offensive and defensive predilections were anachronous to the prevailing pace-and-pace style of play.
All things considered, that he proved unable to live up to expectations with the Timberwolves may well be why he’s itching to get back to the hot seat. He certainly beats just about everybody else when it comes to the effort he puts into honing his craft. Even after he was unceremoniously dumped early last year, he remained in circulation; he kept in touch with peers and attended practices of other teams, and even went to the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference — seemingly not quite his cup of tea given his old-school habits — as a panelist last March. He just can’t stay away from the sport, and, at first glance, appears to want to change with the times.
That said, Thibodeau’s previous successes are why he continues to be at or near the top of lists of candidates to fill vacancies for bench tacticians. He’s said to be on the radar of the Rockets, Nets, and even Hawks and Bulls. Above all else, though, the Knicks seem most interested in hiring him, and not just because he has a close relationship with newly installed president Leon Rose. The latter, apart from formerly being with the Creative Artists Agency, which handles his affairs, figures he will bring a winning culture to the dysfunctional franchise. At the very least, he’ll certainly try to instill a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic.
At this point, the choice seems to be Thibodeau’s to make, although the Knicks present the best risk-reward ratio on paper. Expectations won’t be as high as those of, say, the Rockets and Nets, who have established stars and can’t help but cast moist eyes on the hardware. Moreover, the fit is better; it’s a stretch to believe he won’t encounter difficulties integrating such mercurial figures as James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving into his my-way-or-the-highway system. In any case, he will need assistants more attuned to fostering smooth interpersonal ties and esprit de corps.
Thusly, conventional wisdom is on Thibodeau landing with the Knicks. Regardless of his decision, however, he needs to truly show a willingness to adjust to the times. Else, his wearing out his welcome sooner rather than later is an equally safe bet.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.