Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford was told during his team’s scrimmage at Walt Disney World against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday that Thibodeau, his longtime friend and confidant, was going to get the New York job.
“Look, he’s one of my closest friends,” Clifford said. “He’s one of the best coaches in the league and he understands New York. He was in New York for a long time. New York is a different animal. He understands the fan base. He understands the New York media and he’s a great, great coach. So, he’ll do great there and it’s a great hire on their part.”
Thibodeau was an assistant under Van Gundy, who led the Knicks to the 1999 NBA Finals and into the postseason in every season he was there. New York has reached the playoffs just three times since Van Gundy’s departure.
The Knicks went 21-45 this season, missing the playoffs for a seventh straight year. Mike Miller finished the season as interim coach after David Fizdale was fired 22 games into the season.
New Knicks President Leon Rose then interviewed a number of candidates before choosing Thibodeau from a field that included Jason Kidd, former Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson and Miller, who impressed Rose while going 17-27 before the season was suspended in March.
San Antonio assistants Will Hardy and Ime Udoka were also candidates. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said both will get their opportunities but praised the choice of Thibodeau.
“Tommy’s a seasoned veteran who it goes without saying understands what wins and what loses. He knows how to put a program together, create a culture and be demanding — and at the same time, make people accountable,” Popovich said.
“It’s easy to demand things, but to make people accountable and want to play the right way is not something that’s easy for everybody to do. But Tom knows it inside and out and he’ll be a great choice to organize the situation there, develop a plan, start the culture, stick to it, be persistent and get after it. So it’s a great choice.”
Thibodeau is regarded as a demanding coach who is one of the top defensive minds in the game. He devised the defense that carried the Boston Celtics to the 2008 NBA championship as an assistant before becoming Chicago’s coach in 2010.
He guided the Bulls to a 62-20 record as a rookie, the first of five straight postseason berths even as the team battled constant injuries to star guard Derrick Rose and others.
Overall, he is 352-246 as a head coach. He led the Minnesota Timberwolves to the postseason in 2018 but was fired the next year during a rocky season that began with star Jimmy Butler asking to be traded.
Players around the league took notice of the pending move as well.
Heat forward Jae Crowder retweeted a clip from a 2018 game Saturday, one where he was playing for Utah and Thibodeau was coaching the Timberwolves. Crowder and Thibodeau got involved in a very heated war of words during the game that night, earning them both technical fouls.
“CONGRATS TIBS ON THE NEW COACHING JOB. CANT WAIT TO HAVE THESE BATTLES WITH YOU AGAIN.!,” Crowder tweeted Saturday.
AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, contributed to this report.
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