There are now five assistant coaches on Tom Thibodeau’s coaching staff as the Knicks prepare for their 2020 season. It is a varied group with different sets of experience that should help Thibodeau grow, adjust his style, and lead the Knicks during his tenure.
Thibodeau’s associate head coach will be former Utah Jazz assistant coach Johnnie Bryant. Bryant ran his own basketball academy with a focus on skill development until the Jazz named him to their coaching staff to focus on player development in 2012. He has been credited for improving a number of upper-echelon NBA players, including Donovan Mitchell and Damian Lillard. Bryant is only 35 years old and is considered a young coach with potential to be a head coach one day. He could be Thibodeau’s eventual replacement years in the future.
Former Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne was the first addition to Thibodeau’s staff. He served under John Calipari for 10 seasons, including six as his associate head coach. He was also known for his player development at Kentucky. He worked closely with a lot of their front court players, like Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, Nerlens Noel, Bam Adebayo, and Willie Cauley-Stein. He also helped a number of guards improve in their time with the Wildcats, such as De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Devon Booker, and Tyler Herro.
He was considered by many to be the heir apparent to John Calipari at Kentucky, but he was only seriously considered for one other college basketball head coaching position during his time there. Payne’s experience in college should give a fresh perspective and new ideas to a staff that has predominantly hired coaches from the ranks of the NBA.
The three most recent additions to the staff, according to multiple reports, are Mike Woodson, Andy Greer, and Dice Yoshimoto. Woodson was a head coach for the Hawks and the Knicks. He coached the Knicks in their best season since Jeff Van Gundy retired, a 54-win season in 2012-2013, and is the only former head coach on the staff. Greer and Yoshimoto have been long-time Thibodeau assistants dating back to his time in Chicago.
SNY’s Ian Begley reports that there’s a chance a sixth coach is added to the staff, and the organization may also add other coaches dedicated solely to player development. The Knicks will be allowed to gather their players for an extended workout period at the end of September, which will give the new staff their first look at the team in a group setting. It would make sense for any additional hires to be made before those camps open.
It is encouraging that Thibodeau is willing to add so many new faces to his staff. A common criticism of Thibodeau, whether accurate or not, has been his stubbornness and attachment to old methods without adjusting to the modern NBA. His willingness to bring in new voices that he has not worked with previously might show he is open to trying new things in his third head coaching stint.
The cynical observer has pointed out the potential negative aspect of three-fifths of the staff having no relation to Thibodeau. Is Leon Rose forcing assistant coaches onto Tom Thibodeau’s staff that he does not want, which might cause friction and issues down the road?
I find this unlikely for a few reasons. Rose and Thibodeau have an excellent working relationship dating back decades. As the two men negotiated Thibodeau’s contract and everything that goes into hiring a head coach, it is impossible to think there was no discussion of what assistant coaches would be brought in.
Thibodeau indicated at his press conference that assembling the staff would be a collaborative process, which is exactly what the results would indicate. Thibodeau has two assistants that have been with him a long time, and three that are new additions with exemplary resumes.
Given the Knicks historic dysfunction, cynicism is understandable but the previous relationship Rose has with Thibodeau should help maintain synergy between the coaching staff and front office. It seems very unlikely that Rose would force Thibodeau to hire coaches he didn’t want immediately after he hired him.
The other cynical take revolves around the motives behind the Knicks’ decision to hire Payne and Bryant. With Payne’s relationship to so many top players from Kentucky’s program currently in the NBA and Bryant’s history with star guard Donovan Mitchell, many think their presence on the staff is a recruiting ploy and nothing more.
There might not be one documented instance where a NBA player decided to jump to a new team so they could be re-united with an assistant coach. Might it play a role? Sure. Will it drive a decision? It is hard to believe.
The more plausible reason the Knicks decided to hire Bryant and Payne stems from their player-development credentials and coaching ability.
The Knicks are a very young team. Their best way to becoming a better basketball team is by improving the young players currently on the roster.
Decisions loom on players like Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., and Mitchell Robinson. Based on their resumes, both Payne and Bryant seem to be perfect fits to help learn exactly what those players are.
The Knicks would be wise to add more pieces to their player development program. As the team enters the regular season, assistant coaches have less time to work one on one with players during practice. Having coaches dedicated solely to that who can also follow back and forth with players to the G-League would be wise.
Until we start seeing players on the floor, there is no way to know exactly what Tom Thibodeau’s program is going to look like. The assistant coaches the team has hired should breed optimism in the fan base but we will have to wait and see what impact the staff will have on the floor.