Three Candidates to Replace Tom Thibodeau as Knicks Head Coach

Tom Thibodeau
Tom Thibodeau / Justin Tafoya/GettyImages

The New York Knicks are teetering on the edge of a lost season after a surprising playoff run last year and Tom Thibodeau appears to be the No. 1 candidate to bear the brunt of the blame. Noise of Thibodeau's possible firing has grown louder over the last week, and may have reached a tipping point when Thibodeau's squad blew a 28-point lead to the Brooklyn Nets without Kevin Durant at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.

SNY's Ian Begley reported earlier this week that Knicks executive VP William Wesley has been pointing the figure at Thibodeau in conversations with James Dolan about what's been going wrong this year. On Saturday, longtime NBA insider Steve Bulpett reported for that it would be a "miracle" if he survived more than half the season and had this to say regarding the state of affairs around the team right now:

New York blew a 28-point lead in a home loss to the Nets on Wednesday. It was the third time in 11 days they had been ahead by 20 or more and still fallen. Those I’ve spoken to around the organization paint a picture of loud frustration and unrest. And while clearly there have been mistakes when trying to augment a roster that went 41-31 last season and made the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2013, much of the blame for the underwhelming second act is being placed at the coach’s feet.

It seems hasty to considering firing Thibs after he engineered a remarkable turnaround last season that saw the Knicks return to the playoffs for the first time in years. But this is his MO, as described by TBL's Stephen Douglas on Thursday. Thibodeau's burnout with the Knicks has just happened quicker than expected. Unless New York miraculously turns it around, the signs point to Thibodeau's dismissal-- and if they keep blowing big leads, that dismissal will come sooner rather than later.

Should that come to fruition, the Knicks will promote an assistant to lead the team in the interim before launching a full-on coaching search after the year. Who should they target to replace Thibodeau?

Kenny Atkinson

Atkinson was widely regarded as one of the better coaches in the NBA before he suddenly resigned as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets after a half-season of trying to navigate the Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving dynamic. He's now helping out Steve Kerr as an assistant with Golden State. That's a great place to be, coaching Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, but if Atkinson desires another shot at the head job the Knicks absolutely need to reach out. Atkinson's time in Brooklyn exhibited his talent at making a roster greater than the sum of its parts, something the Knicks desperately need right now given their highest-paid player is Julius Randle. Atkinson might be done with New York, especially knowing the Knicks are always hunting for big fish on the Durant-Irving level, but he'd be a great fit for this team.

Luke Walton

Walton's time as coach of the Sacramento Kings did not give anybody faith that he is truly a good coach. Walton was hired by the Lakers back in 2016, mostly because he did a good job with an incredible roster with the Warriors after Steve Kerr missed most of the 2015-16 season due to back surgery. He did a pretty good job in Los Angeles with a young roster before he was forced out by the arrival of LeBron James, which isn't necessarily a knock on Walton's skillset. LeBron is very picky about his coaches and his presence has forced monumental change many times before. Walton was hired by the Kings and struggled to elevate the team above .500 before getting fired earlier this season.

It's not exactly a stellar resume, so why would the Knicks be interested? First, he's a big brand name, a former NBA champion and son of one of the NBA's Top 75 players of all time. The Knicks like their big names. Second, the fact that the Kings are in a constant state of dysfunction cannot be discounted when evaluating Walton's performance. I am on the record wondering why Walton survived as long as he did in Sacramento; he took away the team's biggest strength by forcing them to play slow and couldn't do a thing about their terrible defense. But to say Walton is a finished product as a coach at 41 years-old after failing to turn around one of the league's worst franchises from top to bottom is likely a miscalculation. It may not be the best hire for New York, but Walton is a name they'd certainly consider for all those reasons.

Sam Cassell

Cassell's name has come up frequently over the last few seasons as a potential head coach and it's about time he got a shot. Like Walton, Cassell is the kind of big name the Knicks are inclined to bring in. He was an All-Star during his time in the league, winning three championships and earning a reputation for timely shot-making over the course of 15 seasons. He's been on the sideline since he retired in 2009, a true basketball lifer whose potential as a head coach is proven by the level of interest he's garnered over the last few hiring cycles.

Cassell is a risk as a first-time head coach. Unlike Thibodeau and the other options on this list, there is no track record to project Cassell's performance. But that might be just what the Knicks need. Leaning on proven commodities has not led to championship-level contention over the last two decades. Cassell is a high-risk, high-reward prospect who should be in the running.