Some big-name coaches have run the New York Knicks, and some for so short a tenure that we forgot all about them.
It isn’t easy being the head coach of the New York Knicks.
Serving the Seven Kingdoms as Hand of the King might be an easier job. Knicks fans have high standards, demand results, and aren’t afraid to voice their collective displeasure. And after 20 years of floundering and futility, who can blame them?
As a result, the New York Knicks see a lot of turnover in the coaching department. Assuming new president Leon Rose moves on from Mike Miller at some point, New York will hire its 14th head coach since 2000.
Which, with the season still suspended, got yours truly thinking. A short Internet rabbit hole later, I was surprised to learn just how many top-of-the-line coaches patrolled Madison Square Garden at some point.
For example, since being established in 1946, the Knicks have had a total of 30 head coaches. Of those 30, only six are Hall of Famers. Of the six, only Red Holzman spent more than five years with the team.
It truly is a mixed bag of coaching experience, so let’s look at the five whose Knicks tenure could use some extra attention.
No. 5: Bob Hill
Knicks Tenure and Record: 1986-87, 20-46
When he took over in December 1986, Bob Hill was not ready to be an NBA head coach. He had just turned 38 years old. His only experience prior to the Knicks was working as an assistant at Kansas, where he worked under future Knicks coach Larry Brown.
Hill only finished out the season, but Hill still carved out a small place for himself in NBA coaching history. After joining the Indiana Pacers as an assistant in 1989, he took over as head coach partway through the following season. His Pacers reached the playoffs three times, but suffered three first-round exits before he was fired and replaced with, oddly enough, Brown.
Hill then moved on to the San Antonio Spurs in 1994 and took them to the West Finals. However, he couldn’t build off of that and was fired 18 games into his third season. Hill then spent a few years coaching Fordham before a brief and unmemorable run with the Seattle SuperSonics.
Knicks tenure aside, Hill’s brief stint in New York definitely served as the jumpstart for the rest of his career. After all, a career record of 310-293 is nothing to sneeze at.
No. 4: Lenny Wilkens
Knicks Tenure and Record: 2004-05, 40-41
If this name looks familiar, it should. A couple of weeks ago, I put Wilkens among the New York Knicks coaches who left the team too soon, didn’t get a fair shake, etc.
But the fact remains that Wilkins was with the New York Knicks for such a short time, it’s easy to miss his brief Big Apple tenure. He was hired on January 15, 2004, and resigned on January 22, 2005. Wilkens led the struggling Knicks to a playoff appearance in 2004 too, so his resignation dashed a lot of fans’ hopes.
This is because at the time, Wilkens was the winningest coach in NBA history. The Knicks were the sixth and final stop in his lauded career. He also coached Seattle, the Portland Trail Blazers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, and Toronto Raptors. In 1979, his Sonics won the NBA Finals.
He may have been sub-.500 with the Knicks, but Wilkens went 1,332-1,155 in his Hall of Fame career. It’s a shame he didn’t enjoy the same kind of success in New York as he did everywhere else.
No. 3: Hubie Brown
Knicks Tenure and Record: 1982-1986, 138-190
Hubie Brown was a breath of fresh air when the Knicks hired him in 1982. New York had missed the playoffs three of the last four years. Brown, meanwhile, had just ended the Atlanta Hawks’ playoff drought and also won an ABA championship with the Kentucky Colonels.
Initially, Brown did well with the New York Knicks, leading New York to the East Semifinals in his first two seasons. Unfortunately, bad luck then struck Brown and his Knicks harder than the D train.
First, young star center Bill Cartwright missed all of the 1984-85 season with a foot injury. In March of that same season, star scorer Bernard King suffered a devastating leg injury and missed all of 1985-86. Cartwright, meanwhile, managed just two games that year.
Not even the Knicks landing the first overall pick and using it on Georgetown star Patrick Ewing helped Brown as the rookie center dealt with injuries too. Brown lasted a month into his fifth season before being fired and replaced with Bob Hill.
Brown then went into broadcasting and there he has stayed to this day, save for two-plus years coaching the Memphis Grizzlies. He went 528-559 for his career, plus a mark of 31-32 in the playoffs. Maybe he would have coached longer and enjoyed more success were it not for the awful luck in New York.
No. 2: Don Nelson
Knicks Tenure and Record: 1995-96, 34-25
If you blinked at all during Don Nelson’s brief New York Knicks run, you probably missed it. He was hired in 1995 after years of success with the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors, though he had never made the NBA Finals. Still, Nelson’s reputation as a developer spoke for itself. Coaching Team USA to a gold medal at the 1994 FIBA games also helped.
But before we go any further, let’s talk about New York fans for a second. Just like The Warriors, we expect our team to come out and play. Not just come out and score, not just come out and rebound or defend, but come out and play.
This is where things went off the rails for Nelson. Even though the Knicks’ reputation was as a tough defensive team, he immediately installed his fast-paced offense. The team struggled, and Nelson suggesting Patrick Ewing be traded for Shaquille O’Neal sealed his fate.
It also didn’t help that Nelson succeeded Pat Riley, who revived the Knicks before abruptly leaving for the Miami Heat. He had big shoes to fill from the start and just couldn’t do it. After leaving New York, he coached the Dallas Mavericks and then had another stint with the Warriors.
Meanwhile, assistant Jeff Van Gundy succeeded him in New York, and the rest is history.
No. 1: Rick Pitino
Knicks Tenure and Record: 1987-1989, 90-74
NBA teams like to hire college coaches every once in a while. More often than not, the results are mixed. The college game is just so different from the pros, and some coaches just can’t make the jump.
Rick Pitino‘s place among this group is debatable, but the New York Knicks made headlines when they hired him from the college ranks in 1987. Pitino, a New Yorker, was 34 years old and had just led Providence to the Final Four. Surely, he could continue developing Patrick Ewing and make the Knicks a contender again.
This turned out to be a tease for the ages. The Knicks made the playoffs in Pitino’s first year, but won just 38 games and lost in the first round. However, New York won 52 games under Pitino the following year before losing to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the East Semis. Still, the Knicks had their coach and would find their way to a championship, right?
Wrong. Pitino abruptly resigned in May 1989 to become the head coach at Kentucky, where he won a national title in 1996. In 1997, he returned to the NBA for three-and-a-half forgettable years with the Boston Celtics. Pitino then returned to college coaching at Louisville and was just hired at Iona.
You can’t help but wonder what could have been if the Knicks got more of his Hall of Fame career.