New York Knicks

If Phil Jackson is going to guide the New York Knicks to the promised land, he’ll have to grow as an executive, not a coach.

By Chip Murphy

Phil Jackson is an incredible basketball mind who already had an incredible resume as a head coach before taking the position of President of Basketball Operations for the New York Knicks.

We knew all that.

What we still don’t know — after almost two years in New York — is whether or not Jackson is suited for this specific role.


That wasn’t always the feeling in the Big Apple.

When Jackson first signed on there was pomp and circumstance. His mammoth five-year, $60 million contract, inspired a renewed confidence in a fan base that had been beaten down by years of mediocrity. Just the thought of the great Phil Jackson swooping in to save the day brought hope to a city that was desperate for good basketball.

What the media chose to ignore when notoriously nosy Knicks owner James Dolan gave Jackson complete control over basketball decisions, was that the franchise was now in the hands of someone with zero front office experience.

What could go wrong?

After 11 seasons as a Knick, Jackson grew to idolize his legendary head coach Red Holzman. During his Hall of Fame induction speech, Jackson credited Holzman as one of his inspirations saying “Red took me under his wing,” and “encouraged me to go into coaching.” In 1987 he joined the Chicago Bulls as an assistant coach and the rest is history. He followed his mentor’s lead en route to 11 championships and 1,640 wins. Again, what could go wrong?

How about when nepotism rears its head in the ugliest of forms, and a rookie executive hires a rookie head coach in the hopes that their success in completely different aspects of the game will equal the same results? That’s when it all started. Jackson was blinded by how much he cared for his former point guard and it has cost him deeply. The irony is that Jackson didn’t even want Derek Fisher in the first place.

He wanted Steve Kerr, but the current Golden State Warriors’ head coach rejected the advances of the ‘Zen Master’ — while Jackson was still a front office novice — in favor of building what he thought could become a championship caliber squad. Instead, Jackson was forced to move onto his second choice. Derek Fisher had helped navigate Jackson’s Los Angeles Lakers’ teams to five NBA championships, and was the president of the NBPA Union. His reputation and rings earned him the respect of the players, and his knack for the triangle offense was exactly what Jackson wanted in hiring a coach.

Jason Kidd was hired in similar fashion by the Brooklyn Nets and instantly became revered as one of the league’s best young coaches — keep in mind this was 2014 — so Fisher’s name wasn’t just attractive to Jackson but also the the legendarily fickle New York media.

Everything was on the up and up. One of the greatest mistakes a franchise can make is hiring a coach before a general manager, running the risk of the two figures not existing. The Knicks were sure to not have that problem with Jackson and Fisher. Then it all ended shockingly Monday morning after less than two seasons when the head coach was let go after compiling a record of just 40-96. Nevermind, it’s not that difficult to figure out what could go wrong.

It all started at the beginning. Jackson boxed himself in by limiting himself and his team’s success in terms of his coaching search. He was so obsessed with turning his new team into a knock-off version off of his old ones, that he didn’t bother to think outside the box at all. Even without Jackson on the bench, the Knicks were meant to run the triangle, thus the head coach must be well-versed in the outdated and overrated offense.

Jackson finds himself in the same situation yet again, except hiring the wrong coach this time could be the nail in the coffin of his career as an executive. Hiring Fisher was a mistake, but it’s a fixable one. If Jackson whiffs again, that’s all she wrote. He will find himself in the most unfortunate position of having to do more work than expected during the offseason.

Before hiring a new coach Jackson needs to figure out the identity of this Knicks team. Are they actually a .500 team that might be able to sneak into the playoffs, or are they really a mediocre squad that will consistently play sub-.500 basketball with the roster Jackson so delicately assembled? With Fisher the team was leaning strongly towards the latter, leading to Jackson making the switch as reported first by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein.

It was obviously weighing on Jackson for some time as he needed to go through the proper channels before making such a monumental decision. Firing a coach with so little time left in the season is a huge move and when you have the close relationship that Jackson and Fisher do, that makes it even more difficult.

Apparently this move shouldn’t have stunned us as much as it did, because Phil has been watching his former point guard all season long. He clearly didn’t think that Derek Fisher was making any progress as a coach and that the time was now to go in another direction.

He’s right. It’s time to go in another direction. That doesn’t mean just hiring another Phil disciple like the rumored candidates of Luke Walton and Brian Shaw. Being “Triangle guys” shouldn’t be prerequisites to having a head coaching position with the team. Jackson needs to go out and hire the best coach available. That means opening his mind beyond the notion of his own system.

Jackson’s not on the bench anymore. He needs to let those memories go. He needs to realize that the triangle offense isn’t a perfectly flowing river without Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Being a great coach doesn’t mean implementing a great system — ask former Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly all about it — it means adjusting the way you coach to your personnel.

This Knicks team has the potential to run, and they are 25th in the league in Pace Factor. Part of that is Jackson’s handpicked point guard from day one, Jose Calderon. Brought in as a perceived triangle expert, Calderon has been a thorn in the side of the Knicks’ defense since his arrival and a constant butt of the fan’s jokes. An improvement at the point guard — or lead guard as Jackson is so fond of calling it — is a necessity, but it’s not important for Jackson to find a pass first point guard in the vein of Calderon or Fisher.

Jose Calderon

It’s not like the triangle has been an incredible success either. According to NBA Miner, the Knicks are second in the league in passes per game, but just 14th in passes that lead to assists (secondary assists). The bottom line is that you can throw the ball around the key as many times as you want, and the Knicks do but unless you have someone on the floor that can finish it doesn’t matter.

The Knicks are 21st in offensive efficiency, 20th in margin of victory, 25th in the all-important three-point percentage, and 27th in team effective field goal percentage.  After looking at all of this, it’s a miracle Fisher lasted this long. These numbers tell a tale of a wildly inefficient offense. Um, isn’t the triangle supposed to protect against all of that? Apparently not. That isn’t all Derek Fisher’s fault however, he was forced into this preposterous scheme of a throwback to the good old days. Trying to run a slow, dull, uninteresting offense without one of the two best isolation players in NBA history didn’t go very well. Shocking!

Jackson needs to open his eyes and look past what he considers logical. Tom Thibodeau and David Blatt are both available. Unlike Jackson disciples Shaw and Walton, they are proven winners with incredible track records. Thibodeau is the prize of course.

He’s a world-class defensive mind who was an assistant with the Knicks under Jeff Van Gundy from 1996-2004 before moving onto the Chicago Bulls and establishing himself as one of the NBA’s best coaches. It’s rare that a coach of his caliber would be a free agent so Jackson will need to move quickly, but according to Ian O’Connor it should be a difficult sell. This is what Thibodeau has always wanted.

After Fisher’s abrupt firing, the Thibodeau rumors immediately started which naturally excited Knicks’ fans. The reason Thibodeau was let go in Chicago was because he didn’t get along with management or ownership, so the natural argument against the coach is a perceived ego clash between him and Jackson. Phil needs to make it work like they couldn’t in Chicago. If he brings in Thibodeau he won’t need to bother mentoring his new coach, he can focus on the real reason he was hired in the first place.

Jackson was supposed to be a used car salesman. He was supposed to urge all free agents towards the bright lights of Madison Square Garden with his shiny sales pitch. He had to settle for plan B in his first year of free agency, and that won’t fly two years in a row. Kristaps Porzingis is a tremendous feather in his cap, but after admitting his failure with Derek Fisher, Jackson will need to do what he couldn’t last summer: sign a max-level free agent.

The chances of Kevin Durant taking his talents to Madison Square Garden are slim to none, so the Knicks need to zero in on others, more specifically superstar guards Mike Conley and DeMar DeRozan. If Jackson was able to sign even one of those two it would completely alter the future of the franchise. Conley would of course solve the need for a point guard, and DeRozan would give the Knicks and incredible scorer who gets to the rim at will.

This is all irrelevant now, because until Jackson realizes he needs to change in order to complete a rebuilding process that he’s made even more difficult on himself, we don’t know what the identity of this team will be.

Your move, Phil.

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Chip Murphy
I'm ESNY's Executive Editor for EliteSportsNY.com. I cover the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. Email: chip.murphy@elitesportsny.com Chip Murphy covers the NBA for Elite Sports NY. You can find him on Twitter @ChipperMurphy.