There was a perception of Tom Thibodeau after he was fired by the Timberwolves in 2019 that he was a brusque taskmaster who doesn’t connect well to a new generation of young players.
That image bothers Magic head coach Steve Clifford.
Clifford and Thibodeau were both on Jeff Van Gundy’s staffs with the Knicks and Rockets — working together for all but one season from 2000-07. Clifford says he has learned a lot about player relations from Thibodeau, considered the lead candidate for the Knicks head job.
Clifford believes part of the perception is Thibodeau’s fiery demeanor on the sidelines.
“The misconception is how personable he is,’’ Clifford told The Post from Orlando, Fla., where he is gearing up for the NBA’s restart. “Guys love him. It’s not going to be every single player, but his relationship with players is a strength.
“The biggest thing he helped me with was player development,’’ Clifford added. “If you go back to Larry Johnson, [Latrell Sprewell], Allan [Houston], Marcus [Camby], he had a close working relationship with all those guys. In Houston, it was Tracy [McGrady], Yao [Ming].’’
Getting fired by the Timberwolves in Jan. 2019 and a contentious relationship with Bulls management cast some doubt on Thibodeau despite a solid career record of 352-246 (.589). He has also been in winning franchises with the Knicks, Houston as well as Boston where he was top assistant to Doc Rivers.
“His great strength is his relationship with players,’’ Clifford said. “He’s a teacher. He knows how to communicate effectively with players of all different personalities and he connects. He did it as an assistant and head coach. The thing he did that not a lot of coaches can do is he worked with guys at every position. [Point guard Charlie] Ward, centers, forwards.’’
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If Thibodeau had issues with Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, Clifford points out success with Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng when they were young.
“If you look everywhere he’s been, the teams he’s been involved with win,’’ Clifford said. “All players want, they want the best chance to win. Look at Chicago, the turnaround there, and then Minnesota where it was 14 years since they made the playoffs. They want a committed coach who’s going to push them, make them better, and have the best chance to win with. He’s all of those things.”
One other sore point for Clifford is that Thibodeau was classified solely as a defensive coach. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially considering the Knicks defense has lagged for years.
Interim coach Mike Miller gave the Knicks’ defense more structure. Though a longshot, Miller is still being considered for the permanent job. At the least, Miller is expected to remain on the staff of the new coach.
“I think he’s labeled very much as a defensive coach and yet coaching against him, he’s a terrific offensive coach,’’ Clifford said. “Teams in Chicago and Minnesota, the numbers bear that out. Is he great defensive coach? There’s no better defensive mind than Tom. But he’s also a terrific offensive coach.’’
With the Nets and Houston — Brooklyn will be looking for a coach and the Rockets may move on from Mike D’Antoni — involved in next month’s restart, the Knicks have first crack at Thibodeau, who probably is better suited for a more-ready roster. But Leon Rose’s presidency could be the trump card. Thibodeau is a client of Creative Artists Agency and knows Rose from there.
That’s essential considering Thibodeau and former Bulls GM John Paxson reportedly feuded and the New Britain, Conn., product didn’t see eye to eye with Minnesota CEO Ethan Casson either.
“The ability to have a comfort level and work with management is where everything starts,’’ Clifford said. “Their friendship and working together before is a big plus.”
“He’s from Connecticut, but more than anything he worked [with the Knicks] and worked there during a time when there were great expectations and they had deep playoff runs. He was a huge part of the success they had. He’s experienced New York and understands the pressures of New York. It’s unique to other places. He knows what it talks to work with the media — which is a big part of it. He understands what that job entails.”