Sources: New York Knicks Expected to Keep Tom Thibodeau Beyond This Season

Jake FischerContributor IMarch 16, 2022

PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 4: Head Coach Tom Thibodeau of the New York Knicks looks on during the game against the Phoenix Suns on March 4, 2022 at Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images)
Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images

After weeks of leaguewide speculation that Tom Thibodeau's tenure with New York was heading toward an unceremonious end, Thibodeau is expected to remain the Knicks' head coach beyond this 2021-22 season, league sources told B/R.

New York stands 5.5 games outside the play-in tournament following a surprising run to the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs just last spring, and there has been some internal support to move on from the NBA's reigning Coach of the Year, sources said.

"That's the danger of overperforming," said one rival team strategist. "You set this expectation."

Knicks governor James Dolan had granted the front office permission to either remove Thibodeau or retain him, sources said. But team president Leon Rose has no plans to make any change on the Knicks' bench, sources said. Thibodeau maintains a frequent dialogue with Dolan following each game and often visits the governor's box.

Thibodeau and Rose have been trusted allies since the job became available in 2020. Back then, Thibodeau was long considered the overwhelming favorite for the coaching job, despite New York's lengthy interview process that included 11 candidates. This was a widely expected marriage from the moment New York named Rose as the Knicks' president of basketball operations.

Few executives are afforded the opportunity to fire more than one head coach before ownership eventually shifts their attention onto the team's front-office leader himself. And if Rose were to ever relieve Thibodeau of his responsibilities, that would almost certainly require New York's tight-lipped president to address the personnel change publicly—which has occurred only twice since Rose was hired two years ago.

"It's not like they inherited him. This was Leon's guy," said one NBA coaching figure. "Leon would have to answer to that."

New York brass also strongly values Thibodeau's ability and willingness to pose as the team's official spokesperson.

"Thibs will stand there pregame and postgame, every day, and take the bullets for you," the coaching figure said.

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 02:  New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau on the sideline during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies on February 2, 2022 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Getty Images)
Rich Graessle/Getty Images

Thibodeau signed a reported five-year agreement in July 2020. That financial commitment, believed to be around $5 million annually, coupled with a hazy coaching market, would seem to reinforce New York's support of Thibodeau.

There is no whale of a signal-caller searching for his next opportunity, such as when Thibodeau loomed as the Knicks' obvious choice two years ago. Jason Kidd was considered New York's runner-up in that coaching search but has found success in his first year on Dallas' sideline.

There's no evidence to suggest former Jazz assistant Johnnie Bryant, New York's hand-picked associate head coach, would spark greater success than Thibodeau at this juncture. Kenny Payne, the former Kentucky assistant, may very well leave the Knicks' staff to pursue the Louisville head-coaching opening in the coming days, sources said.

Some league officials contacted by B/R suggested New York's struggles this season have largely been a result of injury misfortune. Preseason projections generally assessed the Knicks as a 40-plus win team, which would have netted New York right in line with today's final spots in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

But two ankle surgeries have limited point guard Derrick Rose, a Thibodeau favorite, to 26 games this season. Prior to the injury, Rose was arguably New York's best and most important player offensively. Nerlens Noel, a key lynchpin to Thibodeau's aggressive defensive scheme a season ago, has appeared in only 25 games himself.

Others have pointed to greater flaws in New York's roster construction. The Knicks' 2021 offseason has been frequently categorized as reactionary to the team's first-round flameout against Atlanta.

New York personnel desired more ball-handling creativity to supplement Julius Randle's isolations in the half court, which led to the additions of Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker. And Randle's shooting efficiency has fallen off considerably, most notably in his three-point shooting, which has declined from 41.1 percent to 31.7 percent this season.

It's a critical drop-off considering he just signed a four-year, $117 million extension.

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 27: Julius Randle #30 of the New York Knicks talks to Head Coach Tom Thibodeau of the New York Knicks during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers on February 27, 2022 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE  (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

New York's commitment to Thibodeau comes after a disconnect grew between the head coach and Leon Rose's primary front-office lieutenants—executive vice president William Wesley and vice president of basketball strategy Brock Aller—ahead of the February trade deadline, sources said.

League executives viewed New York's acquisition of Cam Reddish as a notable value-add, yet Thibodeau was clearly resistant to incorporating Reddish into his rotation before the third-year guard was lost for the season due to an AC joint injury.

And while New York's front office hoped to move veterans such as Alec Burks to free playing time for younger Knicks prospects, management failed to finish several deal structures that were on the table for Burks, sources said.

Trade discussions with multiple teams ultimately fizzled as New York consistently pressed for greater draft capital in return, sources told B/R.

As with the three-team structure between the Lakers and Raptors—which would have sent Cam Reddish and Alec Burks to Los Angeles, landed Talen Horton-Tucker and Nerlens Noel in Toronto, and brought at least Goran Dragic plus the Raptors' 2022 first-round pick—those talks fell short with the Knicks' desire to receive more draft compensation, sources said.

"They are always trying to squeeze out an extra second-round pick here and an extra second-round pick there," said a high-ranking Eastern Conference executive.

There will be a level of turnover in New York this summer. The Knicks have been open to discussing the majority of their roster in varying capacities dating back to the 2021 draft. They are expected to target the point guard market particularly, with Jalen Brunson widely known to be at the top of New York's wishlist.

And Thibodeau appears to remain entrenched as the head coach to oversee it all.