By John Schmeelk
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So far, Phil Jackson has made three huge decisions as Knicks president.
The first was hiring Derek Fisher. We can now call that a failure. The second was opting to sign Carmelo Anthony to a near-max, five-year contract. The jury is out on that based on Anthony’s injuries since signing that contract. The third was drafting Kristaps Porzingis, which at least for now seems like a resounding success.
There were a bunch of other moves in there like trading Tyson Chandler, spending money last offseason, and making other trades, but there’s nothing bigger for a NBA franchise than getting the right star and getting the right coach. That’s why Jackson needs to get this hire right if he wants his tenure to be anything close to a success.
If Jackson hires the right person as the next head coach of the Knicks, he will probably be here longer than the Zen Master, himself. The Knicks need stability, something they haven’t had since Jeff Van Gundy. It will be good for the franchise and for its biggest asset: Porzingis.
This needs to be a simple decision for Jackson: Find the best head coach possible regardless of the system he favors. Jackson is not a head coach anymore. It his job to hire someone that has the best chance of winning games, regardless of the system he runs. It is Jackson’s job to get the right players for the coach he hires as well.
Maintaining any sort of prerequisite that whomever the Knicks hire has to run the triangle offense artificially limits the hiring pool, and the end result will anointing a man who is not the best available candidate. The triangle can work, but it is not the only way to win basketball games or execute offense. There are other offenses that share the same principles, like teamwork, ball and player movement, and systemic basketball that Jackson rightfully loves. Does anyone think the San Antonio Spurs don’t play great team ball?
It’s rare that there is an available coaching candidate that so obviously sits above the rest of the field and wants to coach the Knicks. That’s who Tom Thibodeau is.
He isn’t tight with Phil Jackson and he doesn’t run the triangle, but he is the best head coach on the market. His teams play defense. They play hard. They play smart. He won in Chicago, even when his best player, Derrick Rose, was consistently injured. He gets the most out of his players. He even is reportedly a big fan of Anthony.
There is no other coach out there with that type of record.
If Jackson needs to have a good relationship with a coach to hire him, he should take the next three months getting to know Thibodeau. Invite him over for some yoga sessions. Take him out to Joshua Tree and get all Zen with him. Co-author a book with him. Re-enact scenes from the old Knicks-Bulls rivalry. It doesn’t matter. It needs to happen. Jackson is a smart, good basketball man. So is Thibodeau. They will get along if they win. And with Thibodeau, they can win.
Thibodeau would also prove to be a true draw when the Knicks go fishing in the free market over the next two seasons. Players know what coaches provide the best chance of getting them a ring. Thibodeau is on that list. Selling him as head coach with Jackson as GM would be a great combination. It’s a home run. Rarely are things so obvious.
If Jackson does refuse to hire Thibodeau, James Dolan has a serious decision to make. With Jackson’s age, the Knicks’ owner is going to have to do some really hard thinking about who is better suited to be the face of this franchise off the court for the next decade — Thibodeau and whatever GM the Knicks hire to work with him (presumably Steve Mills), or Jackson and whatever triangle disciple he wants to hire.
If Jackson really is only in this for three more years, does it make sense to let him bring in someone like Brian Shaw or Luke Walton instead of one of the few difference-making coaches in the NBA? Would that be in the best long-term interests in the franchise? Walton or Shaw might be good coaches, but what are the chances either are as good as Thibodeau, a proven commodity? Slim to none. The Knicks already tried to go down this path with Fisher. Walton did great while subbing for Kerr with the Golden State Warriors, but that team has tremendous talent and employs Kerr’s system. Shaw, meanwhile, already failed in his first head coaching job, with the Denver Nuggets.
If it means getting a coach like Thibodeau, Jackson needs to finally give up on the triangle. It is the players that make the system, not the system that makes the players. In the long run, if the Knicks win with Thibodeau no one will give a damn if it was done with the triangle or not. Jackson will be remembered for reviving a franchise and hiring the right coach, nothing more. Jackson has an ego, but winning should be more satisfying than any philosophical combat he is trying to fight on behalf of an offensive system.
Thibodeau isn’t a perfect coach. He grinds on his players and can play them too many minutes. There’s a chance he could play KP and Melo so much their bodies fail them. He isn’t the most creative offensive coach. But he wins and gets the most out of his players. Who else can say that with any conviction that the Knicks can hire? No one.
Thibodeau can bring the Knicks back to their last great era: the one with Patrick Ewing. Heck, he could bring back Ewing as his top assistant. Hiring him makes too much sense to not happen. We’ll find out whether or not Jackson feels the same way in a few months.
For everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk