The New York Knicks don’t need to go big game hunting for their next head coach. Their last successful hire was far from it.
New York Knicks fans either forget or don’t want to acknowledge the fact that the last great Knicks coaching hire wasn’t a big name. Not at the time anyway. Jeff Van Gundy circa March 1996 was the exact opposite of what New York fans are looking for in their coach now. The same Van Gundy who is a candidate for the recently vacated job, according to ESPN’s Ian Begley.
Per Begley, a coach with ties to Van Gundy believes he is interested in the job. The chances of JVG returning to save the day are slim, but his history with the franchise is still a great lesson for what should and shouldn’t happen during this coaching search. Scott Perry and Steve Mills have a huge decision to make and swinging for the fences isn’t necessarily the best way to go.
To truly know why the Knicks don’t need a big name coach we’ll need to take an unfortunate walk down memory lane. In case you are one of those fans who is harping on Villanova head coach Jay Wright or Van Gundy’s broadcast partner and former Knicks point guard Mark Jackson, here’s a quick history lesson.
When Pat Riley abruptly resigned following the 1994-95 season the New York Knicks made the wrong decision when they hired Don Nelson, architect of Nellie Ball and Run TMC, to fill the massive void left by their head coach. Nelson was a bad fit with New York’s roster, and he resigned after just 59 games. Going with the big name turned out to be completely unnecessary. The Knicks had the right coach in-house the whole time.
It was the Knicks, though, so because Van Gundy was a nobody it took him being a last resort for him to get the opportunity. His only head coaching experience was at the high school level, and he had no NBA playing experience, but that didn’t stop him from becoming one of the greatest coaches in franchise history.
Van Gundy led New York to the playoffs in each of his five full seasons including a finals appearance during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. Hard-nosed defense was the signature of the Van Gundy Knicks. He never had a team finish lower than fifth in opponent’s effective field goal percentage or sixth in defensive rating.
The 56-year-old resigned 19 games into the 2001-02 season amid reports of a feud with James Dolan. The Knicks have been infamously unstable since. They’ve had ten coaches since Van Gundy left (including interim) and went without a winning season until 2010-11. New York has recklessly gone after so many big-names since JVG’s departure. All of which have been absolute failures.
2003: Isiah Thomas is hired as President of Basketball Operations
Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas was brought in shortly after Van Gundy’s departure. His tenure was marred by draft pick tomfoolery, poor salary cap management, and a sexual harassment lawsuit from a former MSG employee. Thomas traded picks that turned into the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Joakim Noah, and Gordon Hayward. He gave a five-year, $30 million contract to some dude who had a couple of good playoff games named Jerome James. That was a lot of money in 2005, by the way.
2006: Larry Brown is hired as head coach
The Larry Brown tenure in New York, if you can call it that, is best described by using words like embarrassing and pathetic. Brown was hired by Thomas and fired by him after just one season. Granted, it was one of the worst in franchise history. New York finished with only 23 wins, but that’s not why he was fired. Brown was let go because of his public feud with Thomas’ friend and then Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury.
2009: Mike D’Antoni is hired as head coach
Mike D’Antoni needs a particular kind of roster to fit his style of play, and the Knicks didn’t have it. Being the Knicks, they didn’t pay attention to that kind of detail before hiring him. The current Rockets coach feuded with Carmelo Anthony, and that led to Melo giving the franchise a “him or me” ultimatum. D’Antoni resigned before he could be fired.
2011: Carmelo Anthony is traded to the Knicks
The Knicks caved to peer pressure and traded half their roster for Carmelo Anthony when they could’ve signed him a few months later in free agency and given up no assets. If you believe that Melo’s tenure in New York was a success for the team you’re lying to yourself. Seven seasons from a Hall of Famer and one playoff series win? That’s not what they were hoping for.
2014: Phil Jackson is hired as President of Basketball Operations
We don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole with this one. Phil Jackson drafted Kristaps Porzingis, and his supporters will never let anyone hear the end of it, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he did everything he could to create a toxic atmosphere around the franchise. For some reason, Jackson wanted his players to be miserable. He was fired in June 2017 amid public feuds with Anthony and Porzingis.
So, if not Mark Jackson, then who?
One guy who has managed to stay under the radar is David Blatt. After being fired by the Cavs in Jan. 2016, Blatt returned to coaching in Europe. He was teammates at Princeton with team Steve Mills and vice president of player development Craig Robinson. Blatt isn’t the unknown that Van Gundy was, but he’s not the big name that Jackson is either.
Blatt was initially hired to coach a Cavs team that was expected to be a rebuilding project. The team was to be led by Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins. They never would’ve hired him if they knew LeBron James was coming back. It could be interesting to see what he could do with an actual rebuilding project. With a couple of his old college teammates in charge, maybe he’ll get the chance.
Another way to go is the Spurs assistant route. The names Ettore Messina and Ime Udoka pop up every time the Knicks or Nets head coaching jobs open up. Heck, they pop up every time there’s an opening. There must be a reason for that. It’s happening again (via Ian Begley), and it makes all the sense in the world for the Knicks to try and pluck someone from a well-run organization. Messina or Udoka could bring over Spurs qualities.
This isn’t an indictment on Mark Jackson. It’s not that Mark Jackson isn’t a good coach, it’s that he shouldn’t be a shoo-in for this job. He shouldn’t have an advantage just because he played for the Knicks, played for St. John’s, and is from Brooklyn. The last point guard that the Knicks welcomed with open arms because he was a New Yorker was booted out the door to a different country. Nobody wants to see that happen to Mark Jackson.
The national NBA audience all knows who Jeff Van Gundy is in 2018. He calls games on TV for them every week, but back in 1996 when he took the Knicks job he was a nobody. Not just to the national audience, but to the people of New York. That same nobody became one of the best coaches in franchise history. Think about that before you start obsessing over needing the next big name in New York.