The New York Knicks have so many problems up and down the organization, from Jim Dolan at the top to a D-League reject named Chris Smith at the bottom, that it's easy to forget they will need a qualified coach to replace Mike Woodson within a few months. That coach will not count against the salary cap. His wage will not come packaged with a luxury-tax bill from hell.
So with his team an unholy mess, and with the franchise in desperate need of a credible figure to persuade Carmelo Anthony to stay this July and to attract other free agents down the road, Dolan will probably go big-game hunting for his man. After taking the fantasy basketball choice off the board (Phil Jackson), and after eliminating Anthony's past antagonist (George Karl) and most likely future one (Stan Van Gundy), and after bypassing the veteran NBA coaches who won't make the necessary statement despite their winning records (Lionel Hollins, Vinny Del Negro, Avery Johnson), the next coach of the Knicks could and probably should emerge from this high-powered group of five:
Tom Thibodeau. Jeff Van Gundy. Mark Jackson. John Calipari. Billy Donovan.
Of course, any and all of the above would need some answers on a Madison Square Garden management structure that remains, at best, undefined. Why was Hank Ratner sent down to the minors? What's the deal with Steve Mills and his shadow cabinet of advisers, including Mark Warkentien and Allan Houston? When does Mills appoint a real personnel guy to run basketball operations, and will the new coach report to him, or the other way around?
"In looking at the five guys you're talking about," said one NBA source who has had dealings with all five coaches, "I don't think any of them would take that job without complete control."
A circle of league sources with ties to the Knicks and the Garden was asked to handicap this handpicked field, and to address the issues that would determine who ultimately lands (or rejects) the job. One source said that the team's roster "needs a character cleansing," and that a clear chain of command has to be established before any coach is recruited. A second agreed that a strong general manager needs to be put in place first. "Steve Mills is a prince of a guy," the source said, "but there isn't one other club in the league that would've hired him for the job he has, and now they've shut him up."
The Garden's policy of muting coaches, of practically subjecting them to lobotomies, could cost its basketball team a shot at the best available candidates. But in the end, there are only so many of these glamour positions to go around. Someone will want the title of head coach of the New York Knicks.
"I was just talking to people yesterday, asking who they thought would be the Knicks' guy," one source said. "They all had the same answer: John Calipari. Why? Because of CAA."
Creative Artists Agency represents three busloads of Knicks employees and a suddenly famous former one, Chris Smith, the brother of J.R. who was just dumped by the franchise's D-League affiliate, the Erie BayHawks. Calipari is a CAA client who is making $5.2 million a year at Kentucky, and who would command far more than the guaranteed $2 million (luxury taxes included) the Knicks wasted on Smith.
Only Calipari isn't the best fit for the job.
That distinction belongs to the only man who has proved he can succeed in it: Jeff Van Gundy, the last man to take the Knicks to the Finals. One NBA source close to the team ranked Van Gundy as the best candidate, followed by Thibodeau, Jackson, Donovan and Calipari, in that order.
Here's a breakdown of that fab five:
John Calipari -- He didn't have fun losing to Robert Morris in the NIT last year, and he doesn't appear to be having much fun coaching the absurdly talented Wildcats this season. Calipari has already won his national title, and he's long been eager to return to the NBA to make good on his failed run with the New Jersey Nets.
In 2010, after the Nets hired Avery Johnson, Calipari told an associate he would've left Kentucky for a Nets sequel "without question" had the team traded for Anthony (talks between New Jersey and Denver collapsed) and allowed him to draft DeMarcus Cousins (the Nets picked Derrick Favors instead). If he joins his own recruits' fast break to the NBA, Calipari would likely ask Dolan for more than the $7 million a year Doc Rivers earns with the Clippers.
"It makes sense for the Knicks to look at John on a lot of levels," said one source.
"He's a great guy to pal around with," said a second, "but he's the star of the show in Kentucky, gets everything done the way he wants it done, and nobody tells him what to do. I can't see him leaving that."
"I don't think Calipari's personality works well in an NBA setting," said a third. "I've talked to a lot of his former players. If you ask Derrick Rose if he'd rather play for [Thibodeau] or Cal, or ask John Wall if he'd rather play for Randy Wittman or Cal, I don't know if [Calipari] would like the answers."
Billy Donovan -- He has a chance to win his third national title at Florida and, at 48, he might finally be ready for the new career challenge he accepted (and then declined days later) from the Orlando Magic in 2007. Donovan grew up on Long Island and lived out his boyhood dream when he played 44 games for Rick Pitino's Knicks in 1987-88.
Though he still loves to tell stories of the time his mother took him to the Garden and bought him a Clyde Frazier T-shirt, Donovan rejected Isiah Thomas' attempt to hire him as Knicks coach years ago. Would he consider leaving Florida after 18 seasons for a chance to rebuild the only team he ever wanted to play for?
"Billy would be an awesome NBA coach," said one source who knows him well. "He doesn't have any professional coaching experience, but Brad Stevens is managing it well in Boston and that should give the Knicks more confidence to look that way. I just don't know if Billy would do it."
"If I can't get Jeff Van Gundy," said a second source, "my next guy is Billy Donovan. Maybe he should be the Knicks' first choice because he doesn't have Jeff's baggage from coaching there before. He runs a pro offense, his teams defend and I think he's got the personality for it."
Mark Jackson -- He beat Denver last year for Golden State's second playoff series victory since 1991, and yet somehow team management is said to be disillusioned with him. The Warriors have Jackson under contract through next season, and an extension might depend on whether they advance past the first round of the playoffs.
Out of Queens, St. John's and Pitino's backcourt with the Knicks, it turns out Jackson would've been a better choice for Donnie Walsh than the coach he hired instead of him, Mike D'Antoni. Jackson is a New Yorker's New Yorker who would be a popular pick and one who wouldn't settle for the consistent lack of player effort that has doomed Woodson.
"The more I think about it," said one source close to Jackson, "the more the fit makes sense to me. He can coach, players are inspired by him and he would have a deft touch with the media."
"If the Knicks have a chance to get Mark Jackson, they should jump on it," said a second league source. "He, more than anyone, understands the media."
Tom Thibodeau -- Some people believe that he's the best coach in the league and he could change the Knicks' dysfunctional culture overnight. But Thibodeau, another CAA client, has three years remaining on his contract. Despite his reportedly damaged relationship with Bulls GM Gar Forman, Chicago can't possibly let Thibodeau go to New York without receiving significant compensation in return.
And that's where the Knicks run into Thibs trouble: They don't have any assets to spare.
"I think he works things out and stays," said one source. "If Tom has Rose and a healthy team, everyone knows he is a good enough coach to take the Bulls all the way. So I don't think he moves."
"Tom loved his time in New York, and I think he'd want that job even more than any other," said a second source. "But there are some hard years ahead there, and I don't know if he wants to deal with that."
Jeff Van Gundy -- He coached eight 82-game seasons in New York and Houston, and claimed 50 or more victories in half of them. Van Gundy won eight playoff series with the Knicks, or seven more than the franchise has won in the 13 years since his departure.
The Garden fans started chanting his name in 1999 for a reason.
Yes, he made a mistake when he quit after 19 games in 2001. No, he wasn't going to survive Dolan beyond that season, anyway. It's unclear if the current ESPN analyst would seriously consider a return to New York, and Van Gundy has a policy of refusing to discuss jobs that aren't currently open.
"But Jeff is the best-equipped to succeed in New York because he's been through it," said one of his former Garden colleagues, "and there's no question about that. The thing is, he's making a great living now with no pressure on him, and I just can't see him coming into this regime with all of its ridiculous policies."
Of the five coaches listed here, Van Gundy is the most likely to smooth over Dolan's rough edges, to sell him on the virtues of glasnost. He was the Garden's last basketball coach allowed to speak freely from the beginning to the end of his term, the last one to win consistently and the last one ambitious enough to see a second-round playoff exit as a complete failure.
So Jeff Van Gundy is the best bet to restore the Knicks. Of course, that means only that there's no chance Jim Dolan will hire him.