Jeff Van Gundy, Allan Houston
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

Jeff Van Gundy is a familiar face who could be just the man to lead the New York Knicks back to relevance and, finally, his return makes sense. Jeff

Josh Benjamin

New York Knicks fans don’t give former coach Jeff Van Gundy nearly enough credit.

The team has gone through a dozen head coaches since his abrupt resignation 19 games into the 2001-02 season. The Knicks have made the playoffs just three times since and only once advanced past the first round.

Van Gundy, meanwhile, is the last Knicks coach to take the team past the conference semifinals. His use of smaller lineups against bigger and stronger teams propelled the Knicks to victory more than a few times. Today, in an era defined by faster offenses and three-point shooting, such an approach is more than ideal.

And yet, Van Gundy has enjoyed a cushy TV deal with ESPN since being fired by the Houston Rockets in 2007. He was linked to the Knicks’ coaching job before David Fizdale was hired. Now, Shams Charania of The Athletic reports New York has him on its shortlist of candidates as Mike Miller coaches on an interim basis.

More importantly, the Knicks are bad enough now that a return to more successful roots, aka Jeff Van Gundy, could prove fruitful.

Van Gundy goes small

There are a number of reasons why Van Gundy should be a strong candidate for the Knicks. He was an assistant under former New York coach and Hall of Famer Pat Riley. His 430-318 career record is fairly respectable.

But what really makes Jeff Van Gundy someone to think about is just how he coached the Knicks in the lockout-shortened 1999 campaign. Specifically, against the No. 1 seed Miami Heat in the playoffs. Mind you, he was also under scrutiny all year long as New York struggled in the short season, but persisted.

How, you ask? Well, a late rally and making the playoffs as a No. 8 seed certainly played a role. But as can be seen here, Van Gundy took Miami to its limit by relying more on smaller and faster lineups. Cut to making the NBA Finals, and this method speaks for itself.

Van Gundy has proven capable of adapting too. In his four years with the Rockets, he took advantage of star center Yao Ming’s range and used it to space the floor on offense. Having a dynamic scorer in Tracy McGrady also helped, as did a deep bench.

Van Gundy won 50 or more games twice in Houston and helped turn Ming into a Hall of Famer. Even if he doesn’t win a ring with the Knicks, he can at least get them moving in the right direction.

Spacing MSG’s floor

It is exactly what Van Gundy did in 1999 and in Houston that makes him a prime coaching candidate for the New York Knicks. The NBA is now in an era where the scoring guard is king. Just ask Stephen Curry and James Harden. There’s also a ton of room for speed, strength, and athleticism, as Giannis Antentokounmpo can attest.

Now, consider the Knicks roster as it is now. It may appear to be held together with spit, ceiling wax, a three-year-old tube of Elmer’s Glue, and a cup of Rao’s tomato sauce. Yet, Van Gundy can work his magic with some of the players.

Think of the 1999 playoffs versus Miami. Van Gundy already has two solid bigs in Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle, although neither is a real threat from beyond the arc. All this duo really needs is for Van Gundy to hire an assistant who develops strong defenses, as Robinson’s foul troubles are well known.

The backcourt is where things get a bit complicated. Frank Ntilikina shows strong potential as a three-and-D at the two. RJ Barrett, once he develops a jump shot, can be more trusted to score points consistently as a small forward.

Where things get complicated is the lack of a true point guard in New York. The best and easiest fix here, if Jeff Van Gundy is indeed hired, is to just draft a point guard. Someone like LaMelo Ball or UNC’s Cole Anthony would be ideal.

It may not seem like it, but this is the Knicks’ map to victory. This is something so seemingly rare, Indiana Jones himself would want it for his museum.

By hiring Jeff Van Gundy, New York could help itself tremendously.

Final thoughts

More importantly, Jeff Van Gundy coming back to coach the New York Knicks gives the team something it has needed for two decades: an identity. New York tried being a fast-paced scoring team under Mike D’Antoni. Derek Fisher and Phil Jackson tried tough defense and triangle offense.

Both sides of the basketball spectrum have been tested, and the middle now cries out. Van Gundy has proven capable of mixing tough interior defense with floor spacing and scoring. Had Ming, McGrady, and a slew of others been healthy for a full season, perhaps Van Gundy would have won a championship already.

There is a history in New York, one which fans look back on quite fondly. All signs point to the Knicks finally firing team president Steve Mills and adding a new face.

If this new face, whomever it may be, wants to get off to a strong start with an exhausted fan base, perhaps reaching back in time and hiring Jeff Van Gundy as the head coach would be the right move.

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