- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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If you're into looking for potential coaches for the New York Knicks, you’re advised to spend some time scouting the visitors bench Wednesday night.
While there’s no such thing as a safe bet in the unpredictable world of James Dolan, suggesting he’ll try someday to import Tom Thibodeau from Chicago to coach the Knicks is, at the very least, in the right zip code.
In the short term, rumbles in NBA coaching circles predictably send you in every direction, since these are the Knicks and since this is most definitely Dolan’s show as their enigmatic owner. You’re hearing a lot lately about how momentum seems to be building for Allan Houston to take over as Mike Woodson’s interim successor -- despite the fact Houston has zero coaching experience -- if only to ask Houston to get a banged-up team that looks like it’s checking out to play a lot harder than it has lately. Yet you likewise hear cautions from veteran Knicks-watchers about how Dolan stuck with Don Chaney and Isiah Thomas far longer than outsiders ever envisioned and how he could well do the same with Woody.
As grim as this winter is bound to be at Madison Square Garden, would that really surprise you?
Holding Woodson accountable for the Knicks' largely disastrous start is folly in many ways. You can nitpick his stubborn refusal to play Carmelo Anthony at power forward as much as he did last season -- or the way he's yo-yoed Iman Shumpert while abandoning the twin point guard alignments that worked so well in 2012-13 -- but this collection of players is seriously flawed even when fully healthy. You might have noticed that the Knicks haven't been close to that status; Andrea Bargnani is New York’s most dependable (and spry) big man at the minute.
In the long term, though, I can’t imagine Dolan resisting the urge to try to make another coaching splash no matter where this team ends up once Tyson Chandler returns. Coaching sources say Woodson is already more fearful about his job security in private than he ever lets on publicly ... and rightfully so. Surely Woody understands that, unfair as some of us find all the blame he’s getting given the injuries and holes all over the roster, banking on a future at MSG is the antithesis of a safe bet.
My sense from the latest coaching scuttle is that Woodson, even if he survives the crisis at hand, is only going to last until Dolan can find a bigger, splashier name to take over. The belief here is that the Knicks’ impresario, given his lack of draft and trade assets to make impactful changes to the talent, ultimately wants a superstar coach as much as he wants to re-sign Melo come July. Which is where Thibodeau comes in.
Extricating Thibodeau from his Bulls contract in the coming offseason would by no means be easy. The Bulls, as we know them now, wouldn’t be the Bulls without him. And Thibodeau, obviously, would have to want to leave Chicago for New York.
But I, for one, like the Knicks’ chances there better than their ability to land any of the other big names on Dolan’s presumed wish list. Dismiss the scuttle if you wish, but I’m buying it.
Is the Knicks' situation, even with their ever-deepening ties to Creative Artists Agency under new front-office chief Steve Mills, really attractive enough to convince CAA star client John Calipari to leave his near-utopia kingdom at Kentucky?
Phil Jackson, meanwhile, remains a longstanding Dolan dream target, but Phil would surely want top-to-bottom organization control -- like Chris Hansen's Seattle group was offering when it came so close to extricating the Kings from Sacramento -- along with more of a win-now roster to even consider coming back to coaching in the cauldron of Gotham. And Dolan isn't giving anyone that much power.
Jeff Van Gundy? Stan Van Gundy? Sorry. Can't see it. Can't see either of the brothers working in that climate, without significant personnel say of their own, after Jeff already lived through the roller-coaster Knicks experience once. And if you’ve read anything George Karl has said in recent weeks about the Knicks or Anthony, you already know his name has to be scratched from consideration.
So ... Thibodeau.
Don’t forget he’s another CAA star client who already has some Knicks history after his stint as an assistant on Jeff Van Gundy’s staff. No one I’ve consulted, furthermore, thinks that trying to bring in the famously demanding Thibodeau would dissuade Melo from re-signing with the Knicks, who, remember, can still pay their star forward $30 million more than anyone else to stay in a city he adores.
Thibs has two seasons left on his Bulls deal after this one, true, but there is said to be enough lingering friction between the coach and GM Gar Forman to the point that you can picture it eventually sparking some sort of mutual parting. Throw in the ongoing uncertainty surrounding Derrick Rose's health, rising fears that Thibs’ beloved Luol Deng is a certainty to relocate in free agency next summer (if not sooner) and the occasional grumble in circulation about some of the Bulls’ players chafing at how hard Thibs pushes them in practice and there's clearly something there when coaching insiders tip you to keep your eye on Thibs to the Knicks.
Yup. That's certainly the plan here. That's what I'll be doing Wednesday night when the 5-15 Knicks play host to the injury-ravaged Bulls.
Wondering about the futures of both coaches.
67dMarc Stein and Mike Mazzeo