Placing blame for why the New York Knicks remain the NBA’s most dysfunctional franchise is a little like Whac-A-Mole: Every time you think you have the real culprit pinned down, three more pop up in its place.
Unfortunately for Mike Woodson, the hammer's not bound to lift anytime soon—even as the team’s myriad other moles thrust mockingly through the holes.
Given New York's ever-dwindling playoff prospects, it’ll be a miracle if Woodson survives the All-Star break. Even if he does, ESPN's Brian Windhorst says Woodson won’t be long for the NBA world:
Whether it happens before the All-Star break, after the All-Star break or after the season, there is almost certainly going to be a new coach for New York. The Knicks’ front office knows this, or at least it seems like it does, already quietly reaching out to potential candidates to gauge interest. The Knicks players appear to know it, both publicly and privately grumbling about Woodson’s strategies and methods.
Whether they decide to hand the keys to Herb Williams, Darrell Walker or Jim Todd for the remainder of the season or bypass them completely, the Knicks won’t take long to assume their default position: looking for the biggest name possible, philosophy and fit be damned.
The New York rumor mill—true to form—has long been churning at full tilt, with Jeff Van Gundy, Tom Thibodeau and Phil Jackson all implicated as possible long-term replacements.
Each has his unique bona fides and basketball brand—his vision for what a true Knicks renaissance would look like. More importantly, each has his reason for not wanting to touch that throne with a 10-foot pole.
A Bridge Too Far
Van Gundy has been around the Bocker block before, having manned the helm for nearly seven seasons as the Knicks head coach—all north of .500—before abruptly resigning in December 2001.
In an interview with ESPN New York 98.7 FM last June, Van Gundy dished on his rationale for abandoning ship (via ESPN New York’s Ian Begley):
When asked about his reasons for leaving the Knicks, Van Gundy mentioned several factors: The team had lost to the Toronto Raptors in the postseason the previous year; Marcus Camby had to deal with the kidnapping of his mother and two sisters during the series; Patrick Ewing was traded before the 2000-01 season; Larry Johnson retired before the 2001-02 season.
The topic came up during a discussion over whether or not former Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers had “quit” on his team following an acrimonious move to the Los Angeles Clippers this past summer. Here’s what Van Gundy had to say:
I quit the Knicks so I know what quitting is. I did. I quit. And it’s something I regret to this day. I live with it every day and I regret it. And I let my emotions come into it. And I was just emotionally spent. I made a bad decision and I quit.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Van Gundy would be welcomed back, however. Whatever Van Gundy’s deeper-seated reasons for leaving are, the idea that burning a bridge with James Dolan would afford him anything resembling managerial control on the next go-round is patently absurd—and even that might be putting it generously.
From Frying Pan to Fire
With Thibodeau—for years a Van Gundy assistant—the potential for disaster exists more as a matter of deductive reasoning than any tangible track record.
Just weeks before the season began, Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski penned a column wherein he suggested that the relationship between Thibodeau and the notoriously hardheaded Bulls front office had gone from contentious to downright toxic:
As Thibodeau delivered one of the best coaching performances the NBA had witnessed in years, pushing past the loss of Rose and core rotation players to beat the Brooklyn Nets and take the Miami Heat to five games in the conference semifinals, management kept pushing to exert controls on him.
What had been a strained, fractured partnership descended into permanent disrepair with Forman’s firing of Adams, the Bulls’ top assistant coach and decades-long confidant of Thibodeau’s. If Bulls management had to take Thibodeau’s criticisms and pushback, they refused to take it from Adams.
If Thibodeau thinks working with the Jerry Reinsdorf-John Paxon-Gar Forman triumvirate can be tough sledding, wait until he comes face to face with the blizzard-sacked Himalayan slope that is the James Dolan regime.
On January 14, The New York Daily News’ Mitch Lawrence reported that Thibodeau and the Knicks had spoken about a potential deal to bring the Chicago Bulls head coach to Manhattan as soon as next season. However, for reasons that are all too obvious, Lawrence quickly walked the dog back:
You can just imagine the fallout if a Thibodeau-Knick deal were to be proven true. There wouldn’t be just a major tampering case here, but Thibodeau would face sanctions from the NBA, possibly preventing his move to the Garden.
But after this season, sure, Thibodeau has to be seen as a viable candidate for the Knicks’ job.
Should Dolan decide it’s high time to relinquish his authoritarian grip and give him the confidence and the resources necessary to concede, Thibodeau might well prove a perfect fit for the Knicks: tough, driven, determined and bent on winning at all costs.
Either that, or it will turn into the NBA’s version of the irresistible force meets the immovable object, with the result being the entirety of the Knicks universe collapsing in on itself.
The Prodigal Son
For Knicks fans, few visions have resonated with more verve than that of Phil Jackson riding into Madison Square Garden on his noble white steed, Zen calm thick as brick, 11 rings glistening beneath the lights and camera flashes.
The rumors began picking up even more steam following the resignation of Mike D’Antoni on March 14, 2012.
And why not? Here was a Knicks cult hero, an integral part of New York’s lone title-winning teams, who just so happens to be perhaps the single greatest head coach in the history of American professional sports.
Sadly, Jackson didn’t take long to squash the whispers outright, as evidenced by an excerpt from an interview with HBO’s Real Sports back in June 2012 (via Mike Mazzeo of ESPN New York) in which he called the team “clumsy”:
I wasn’t gonna take that job; that’s for sure. 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.
At 68 years old and nearly three years into retirement, it’s hard to imagine Jackson being able to summon the stamina, energy or patience to bolster New York’s ever-crumbling facade.
Even if he were somehow convinced to bring his basketball career full circle, Jackson’s blunt demeanor and exacting standards could make for a disastrous front-office partnership.
All that said, ever man has his price, and if Dolan somehow decides that the best, most effective way to fix his organization’s toxic culture hinges on hiring a big-name coach, chances are he’ll be able to land one.
Just ask Larry Brown.
At the same time, why would any of the above-mentioned candidates—or any coach disinclined to put his pride or tediously honed reputation on the line—come to the conclusions that the benefits have any chance of uprooting the risks?
In the world of professional sports, there’s often a fine line between a mettle-testing challenge and an outright suicide mission. On that spectrum, bringing these Knicks back to respectability falls much closer to the latter than the former.
That doesn’t mean the odds are impossible, of course. Should Dolan decide that relinquishing some semblance of control would benefit both his team and his reputation, any one of Van Gundy, Thibodeau or Jackson would make for en exciting, potentially game-changing narrative.
But if Dolan gets his big name, and change proves to be more of a bargaining chip than a forward-looking ethos, we’ll know that, for once, the resulting rancor’s roots lie not with the overhyped talent, but with the heavy-handed tyrant.