Change is coming for the New York Knicks.
Does that change include a surprise trade-deadline deal? Or a future without superstar and free-agent-to-be Carmelo Anthony? Maybe, but it's become increasingly clear there will be a coaching change at some point.
Nothing is definitive of course, but current head coach Mike Woodson's seat is on fire. He's already admitted this season has been a disaster for himself, and per ESPN New York's Ian Begley, open Woodson supporter J.R. Smith is unsure if his coach has lost the locker room.
Woodson: "This year, for me, has been kind of a disaster from a coaching standpoint .. and trying to get players to play at a high level."— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) February 6, 2014
If and when Woodson is dismissed—be it this season or this summer—the Knicks will ask themselves one thing above all else: Who's the best coach for Anthony?
Feels presumptuous and crazy (crazier than crazy, really) that Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau must be mentioned here, doesn't it? That's because it is. It's also typical of the Knicks.
Speaking on ESPN New York 98.7 FM, Stephen A. Smith said that the Knicks have already reached out to Thibs, via BasketballInsiders.com's Tommy Beer:
Stephen A Smith, on ESPN radio, says: "The Knicks would like to have Tom Thibodeau as coach. Fact. They have let him know they want him."— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) February 5, 2014
This isn't the first time New York's been linked to Chicago's coach, either. ESPN's Marc Stein identified him as a future coaching target for the Knicks back in December, and their dream hasn't died.
The thinking here—as it always is for the Knicks—is that Thibodeau would want to leave Chicago for New York. Friction has always existed between Thibs and the Bulls front office, and Luol Deng's departure isn't believed to have helped things.
The Luol Deng trade has to hurt Tom Thibodeau. He loved Deng, always had good things to say about him.— J.A. Adande (@jadande) January 7, 2014
Before the Knicks can even chase Thibs, though, they have to hope his days in Chicago are numbered. He has two seasons left on his current contract after this one, and extricating him isn't going to be easy.
But assuming all goes according to plan—funny, right?—are Thibs and Anthony a good fit?
Many would say no. Thibs is a defensive-minded coach and Anthony is a volume scorer who sometimes plays the part of an efficient juggernaut. They don't go together.
Using that logic, though, Mike D'Antoni and Anthony should be best friends and take annual vacations to Cinque Terre together. Like-minded individuals don't always hit it off. It's the same reason why Adam Levine and I don't go shopping for plain white V-necks together anymore.
Offensively inclined coaches are also fans of unselfish basketball. Anthony has become a willing passer this season, but he still visibly prefers isolations. In theory, he and a coach like D'Antoni should be a good fit because of his improved three-point percentage. Yet a coach who stands for the exact opposite of what Anthony values could be perfect.
Woodson was brought on and promoted under the guise that he was a defensive specialist, which he is—if a defensive specialist is someone who advocates switches and rotations that don't work, and doesn't coach good defensive teams.
The Knicks rank 21st in defensive efficiency on the season, and the only time Woodson has ever been affiliated with a top-10 defense was during the 2011-12 lockout-truncated campaign, when he spent a portion of the season as an assistant.
Thibs, meanwhile, is a proven defensive expert. His teams have never finished outside the top six of defensive efficiency. His injury-depleted Bulls rank second this season.
Does Anthony balk at the opportunity to play for a genuinely defensive-minded coach? No. Thibs would give Anthony similar freedom on the offensive end while implementing a defensive system that actually works.
Chicago's head coach is also respected throughout the league. Look at the job he's done with the Bulls in the absence of Derrick Rose and Deng. They're fifth in the Eastern Conference despite navigating seas of injuries and drama.
Come 2015, when the Knicks will attempt to sign more superstars, he's another selling point—one who, if he (miraculously) becomes available, could help keep Anthony himself in New York beyond this year.
This is another cute option.
"I wasn't gonna take that job; that's for sure," Phil Jackson told HBO's Real Sports of the Knicks in June 2012, via ESPN New York's Mike Mazzeo.
Jackson didn't stop there, opting to explain his distaste for New York's situation even further:
They don't fit together well [Amare] Stoudemire doesn't fit well with Carmelo [Anthony]. Stoudemire's a really good player. But he's gotta play in a certain system and a way.
Carmelo has to be a better passer. And the ball can't stop every time it hits his hands. They need to have someone come in that can kinda blend that group together.
Again, this was in 2012, before the Knicks won 54 games and the Atlantic Division. Maybe Jackson's stance has changed—you know, now that the Knicks are 20-31 and tracking toward a lottery finish without the pleasure of retaining said lottery pick after they do.
Or maybe not.
Whatever the case, that won't stop the Knicks from targeting Jackson if they send Woodson packing.
"I think they'll probably try to talk to Phil Jackson," the New York Daily News' Frank Isola told Bleacher Report's Adam Lefkoe.
It's tough to argue with 11 NBA championships as head coach if you're Anthony, even if Jackson has previously ripped into your individual value. Winning is all Anthony cares about, and Jackson knows how to win.
"That’s my motivating factor," Anthony said of securing a title, via the Daily News' Peter Botte. "Nothing else even motivates me anymore, just that."
Jackson won't latch onto a team he doesn't think can win, so if he's willing to coach the Knicks, Anthony has to remain open-minded. The Zen Master is someone who can woo free agents in 2015, and his Triangle offense isn't predicated on the inclusion of a top-flight point guard—which is good, because the Knicks don't have one.
More importantly, as someone who has said he won't coach again and wants to pursue a career in the front office, you know he will demand absolute control if he does return to the sidelines. Given how destructive and meddlesome owner James Dolan can be, that's reason enough for Anthony to see the upside of sticking with a Jackson-guided New York team.
Jeff Van Gundy
This could be fun.
Jeff Van Gundy spent parts of seven seasons coaching the Knicks before abruptly resigning in 2001, sensing the team was headed for disaster. Under his control, the Knicks became known for gritty defense and resilience; he coached the 1998-99 underdogs all the way to the NBA Finals.
As luck would have it, Van Gundy also regrets leaving the Knicks, or at least the way he did it.
"Mine's worse. I live with that regret every day," Van Gundy, now a color commentator for ESPN, said of leaving the Knicks last June, per ESPN New York's Ian Begley. "Not because I view myself, quote-unquote as a quitter. I don't look at it that way. But I did leave that situation, I did quit that situation and I live with that regret."
Fate may be prepared to give Van Gundy another chance.
When ESPN's Smith isn't discussing the Knicks' longstanding infatuation with Thibs, he's revealing their plan to inevitably pursue Van Gundy, per Beer:
Smith says the Knicks would eventually target Jeff Van Gundy as their ideal candidate.— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) January 23, 2014
Unlike Jackson, Van Gundy hasn't been overly critical of Anthony, either. Think of him as some combination of Thibodeau and Jackson, in that he knows how to keep players inspired but is also skilled in placating superstar egos.
If he's willing to throw himself back into the concrete jungle's fray and work for Mr. Dolan again, Anthony may find hope in his return. Van Gundy isn't an offensive sage, but he's fiercely competitive and goes to war for his players. Just ask Alonzo Mourning.
Assuming Anthony wants to see change, a familiar face might be exactly what he and the Knicks need.
Considering the Knicks' taste for big names and coaches who already have a job, most of their candidates can be deemed "dark horses."
But aside from our main dark horses, there are a couple of other names that have been tossed around.
Isola mentions Kentucky head coach John Calipari to Lefkoe as a potential target. Calipari has found great success at Kentucky, which is more than we can say of his two-plus seasons with the then-New Jersey Nets, with whom he posted a 72-112 record.
But Allan Houston, supposedly the GM in training, looms as a potential successor. The word around Knicks camp is that Dolan wouldn’t hesitate to promote him to head coach if the Knicks don’t turn things around sooner than later. Houston’s $100 million contract placed the Knicks in salary cap purgatory for years. Maybe having to coach this Knicks team would be his payback.
Well, if we told you on Sept. 1 that Steve Mills would be back before training camp to run the front office you wouldn’t have believed that either.
Nothing can be put past Dolan and the rest of New York's front office, but it's difficult to envision the Knicks designating Calipari or Houston, neither of whom have extensive NBA coaching experience, as their next head coach.
The Knicks are all about big names and long-shot candidates. Targeting these two would be too easy.
Who's Best for Anthony?
Feasibility aside, Thibs makes the most sense.
Jackson doesn't seem prepared for a coaching return, and if he was, chances are he won't want to attach himself to New York's flawed roster. Van Gundy, while available, also knows the Knicks too well. He's worked for Dolan before and isn't desperate for a job. Unless he's a glutton for punishment, his return seems unrealistic.
Thibs stands for everything the Knicks don't—resilience, defense, fight, defense, meticulously slicked-back hair, defense, individualism, defense and winning. The Knicks need that; Anthony needs that.
Realistically speaking, they aren't in line to get it. Thibs has a job. A good one.
While he may not always agree with Chicago's front office, his relationship with owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Gar Forman is an unbreakable bond shared between lifelong friends when compared to Dolan's relationship with, well, human beings in general.
Even if he was to become available, there's no guarantee Thibs subjects himself to the emotional agony and never-ending strands of red tape associated with working for Dolan. He's smart, and smart people—Donnie Walsh, for instance—tend to run when they realize what Dolan's like.
But his arrival isn't impossible.
Which Knicks head-coaching target would be best for Carmelo Anthony?
Thibs is another client of Creative Artists Agency, and he worked on Van Gundy's assistant staff while he was with the Knicks. The Daily News' Mitch Lawrence portrayed his interest in coaching New York as a virtual certainty following the Deng trade. If he's that unhappy in Chicago, then it's reasonable to believe he would be seduced by the opportunity to end a four-decade-long championship drought for New York.
"That stuff is ridiculous," he opined when asked about the Knicks rumors in January, via the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. "First I was being traded. I couldn't care less about that stuff. I love the fighting spirit of this team. That's all I'm thinking about."
On the off chance he becomes available, Thibs should be all the Knicks are thinking about, if only because he stands for everything they don't, which is exactly what Anthony and the rest of New York needs.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise cited.