Ranking the Top Candidates in New York Knicks' Head Coaching Search

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2020

Knicks president Leon Rose could consider several veteran head coaches.
Knicks president Leon Rose could consider several veteran head coaches.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The New York Knicks appear set to get the ball rolling on the search for their next head coach.

The Athletic's Shams Charania and Mike Vorkunov reported Wednesday that new team president Leon Rose is looking to start the process in the coming weeks, and it's likely interim head coach Mike Miller will be replaced. Miller took the job when David Fizdale was fired Dec. 6. After the change, the team went 17-27 before the season was suspended March 11 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NBA is working to get clarity on if, when and how the 2019-20 season will resume. There is still no word as to whether the next phase will involve all 30 teams or only the 16 playoff teams.

The league has kicked around scenarios in which 20 or 24 teams would take part in an expanded playoff format, per ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski; in that case, the Knicks, at 21-45, would not make the cut and would be free to focus all their attention on next season.

With that in mind, here's a look at some strong candidates to take over the Knicks as they look to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13, including three proven, experienced head coaches looking for new jobs and two assistants who are ready to make the leap.


1. Tom Thibodeau

Stacy Bengs/Associated Press

All indications are that Tom Thibodeau will be the leading candidate in the Knicks' search, per Charania and Vorkunov. This isn't that surprising given that he's a longtime client of CAA, the agency at which Rose was an influential voice until he took the Knicks' team president job in March.

Beyond that, Thibodeau is the most experienced, qualified candidate on the market. He has flaws—his uncompromising style and tendency to play his top players heavy minutes have made him a polarizing figure in the basketball world in recent years, and his last two head coaching gigs in Chicago and Minnesota ended unceremoniously.

But in both places, Thibodeau got results. He's the second-winningest coach in Bulls franchise history behind Phil Jackson, and under his leadership they had the best record in the Eastern Conference two years in a row in 2010-11 and 2011-12, making the conference finals in 2011 before what was expected to be a long run of contention was cut short by Derrick Rose's repeated knee injuries.

Even after that, however, Thibodeau's teams won far more than anyone had a right to expect.

In Minnesota, Thibodeau led the Timberwolves to their only playoff appearance since 2004 in his second season at the helm in 2017-18. He was undone there by his insistence on having control over basketball operations as well as being the head coach, a model that has rarely been successful in the NBA. With Rose and general manager Scott Perry already in place, that won't be a factor in New York.

Thibodeau tends to wear out his welcome after a few years, and his teams don't have an extra gear for the playoffs because he maximizes them in the regular season. This would be an issue if New York were looking to contend in the near future. But the Knicks haven't been even respectable in seven seasons, and their first priority should be a coach who will make them better right away and get them closer to a return to the playoffs.

Thibodeau accomplishes that goal.


2. Kenny Atkinson

Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

The Brooklyn Nets parted ways with Atkinson shortly before the 2019-20 season was suspended. In three-plus seasons in Brooklyn, he helped build the Nets from one of the NBA's worst teams to a playoff entrant despite not having much proven talent.

Atkinson took the job in 2016 after four seasons in Atlanta, where he earned a reputation as a player-development guru on Mike Budenholzer's staff.

He lived up to that billing in Brooklyn as Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and other non-lottery picks developed into quality NBA starters under his watch. That culture was instrumental in creating a situation that was appealing to superstar free agents Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, who joined last summer.

The Knicks are where the Nets were in 2016. They strike out every year on the A-list free agents because they have nothing to offer besides their name and famous arena. Atkinson demonstrated in Brooklyn that he and his staff can get the most out of undervalued talents and put them in a position to succeed and overachieve, which made it easier for the big names to see themselves as the missing pieces.

The Knicks still have some intriguing young talent (RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox) and are likely to have a high pick in this year's draft. They need to develop those players before they can think about any higher aspirations, and Atkinson could be the coach to do that.


3. Tyronn Lue

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

If the Knicks are looking for coaches with winning track records, Lue should be on their list. He took over for David Blatt during the 2015-16 season and coached the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first championship in franchise history.

It's easy to give all that credit to LeBron James, but James has spoken highly of Lue, and Lue was James' preferred choice to coach the Lakers last summer (the team ultimately hired Frank Vogel).

Lue is in a good place regardless, landing back on Doc Rivers' staff with the Clippers. His deal with them is only for two years, and it's clear he wants to get back into the mix as a head coach at some point. He's well-liked by players and has experience coaching on big stages and dealing with intense media scrutiny. He should be a strong candidate for the Knicks opening.


Honorable mentions

Darvin Ham

The Budenholzer coaching tree has had a high success rate. Atkinson worked for him before being hired by the Nets, and Taylor Jenkins is in the midst of an outstanding first season as the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, where he has them in pole position to make an unexpected playoff appearance if the season resumes.

Ham should be next. After ending his playing career in 2008, Ham worked his way up the coaching ranks from the G League to a player-development role with the Los Angeles Lakers before Budenholzer hired him for his staff when he became head coach of the Atlanta Hawks in 2013.

Ham stayed with Budenholzer through all five seasons in Atlanta and then followed him to Milwaukee in 2018, where the Bucks had the best record in the Eastern Conference in 2018-19 and the best record in the NBA this season before the shutdown.

There's no question that Ham has paid his dues as an assistant on successful teams, and his reputation across the league is sterling. Whether in New York or somewhere else, he deserves an opportunity to become a head coach.


David Vanterpool

Vanterpool is another extremely well-regarded assistant who is commonly thrown around in league circles as someone who's ready to make the jump. He spent seven seasons on Terry Stotts' staff in Portland and was instrumental in the early development of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, both of whom swear by him.

The Blazers have a strong overall track record of player development under Stotts, and Vanterpool was a big part of that.

Vanterpool left the Blazers last summer to become the associate head coach under Ryan Saunders with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He's interviewed for several head coaching jobs in recent years, including with the Atlanta Hawks, Phoenix Suns, Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers. That process led to his getting the No. 2 chair in Minnesota, where he remains well-liked as an assistant.

If the Knicks' search is going beyond established head coaches and into the ranks of qualified assistants, Vanterpool deserves a look.


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R app.