The New York Knicks don’t do many things well. One thing they are great at is selling the next savior. Isiah Thomas, Stephon Marbury, Larry Brown, Donnie Walsh, Amar’e Stoudemire, Mike D’Antoni, Jeremy Lin, and Carmelo Anthony are just some of the names that were supposed to restore the Garden to its former glory.
Phil Jackson came to New York roughly two years ago with an impeccable basketball resume. He won 11 rings as a coach, plus another as a player learning at the foot of legendary Knicks coach Red Holzman. There was legitimate optimism within the fan base that the Hall of Famer who roomed with Clyde Frazier as a rookie would finally turn the franchise around.
Sadly for New York, the song at the Garden has largely remained the same since Phil’s hire. There has been no improvement to the on the court product. The Knicks record currently sits at 42 and 102 under Jackson as they limp to the conclusion of another playoff-less season in the mediocre Eastern Conference.
Perhaps more surprising is the fact that the Zen Master has done little to change the circus like off the court culture that has long been a hallmark of the Jim Dolan owned Knicks. The disappointing 2016 campaign has been further marred by non-basketball stories which have reflected poorly on the franchise. Examples include Derek Fisher’s well chronicled romance with Matt Barnes’ estranged wife, Kurt Rambis’ Twitter exploits, and Carmelo Anthony inviting a heckling fan to ask the nearby seated owner for a refund.
Phil Jackson wrote recently that his style of leadership “involves moving the organization or culture of a group towards a higher nature.” For a man with such lofty ideals, this season’s mishaps must be particularly troubling.
Jackson will find himself at a crossroads this off-season as he hires his third head coach. If this one fails, he won’t be around to hire a fourth. Derek Fisher proved incapable making the direct leap from active player to major market head coach. Off the court issues aside, he never established anything resembling a consistent rotation and his Knicks rarely executed well down the stretch of games or coming out of time outs. His interim replacement, Kurt Rambis, has looked similarly over matched. The fact that Sasha Vujacic played a single meaningful minute in the NBA this season is a stinging indictment of both men.
Will Phil Jackson go back to the well again and hire a third man from his limited coaching inner circle? If so, the obvious name to consider is Luke Walton who played for Jackson’s championship Laker teams. Walton coached the Warriors to a 39 and 4 record to start the season as Steve Kerr recovered from back surgery. It is difficult determine how much credit Walton deserves considering Golden State has one of the most talented NBA rosters ever assembled. If hired, he won’t be bringing Steph Curry with him.
Even if one assumes that Walton will develop into a terrific head coach, there is no guarantee that he comes to New York. If /when the Lakers fire Byron Scott, they will likely look to Luke as well. If Walton spurns Phil to stay in sunny California like, Steve Kerr before him, where will Jackson turn?
The best available name on the coaching market is Tom Thibodeau. The former Knicks assistant under Jeff Van Gundy compiled an impressive 255 and 139 record during his five year run as head coach of the Chicago Bulls.
The respected defensive wizard helped develop Derrick Rose into a league MVP and young players such as Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah into All Stars. It could be argued that Thibs is the perfect candidate to actualize the considerable potential and talents of Kristaps Porzingas.
ESPN’s Ian O’Connor quoted a source close to Thibodeau last month saying, “The Knicks are the job he’s always wanted. He would crawl to Madison Square Garden.” Tom’s apparent desire to coach in New York means little if Phil isn’t willing to hire him. The majority of NBA insiders and talking heads seem to doubt that Jackson will employ someone from outside his circle.
Desperate times, however, might force Jackson to widen his net. Even Phil’s fiercest detractors would hesitate to question his intelligence. One would think that he is wise enough to recognize the urgent need for change. With the notable exception of drafting Porzingas, not many of Jackson’s moves have proved successful.
The Zen Master can pass out inspirational books and tweet his collaborative basketball philosophies out to the world, but he will need to hire the right coach to implement real change. Culture is changed on the practice court, in film sessions, and on cross-country flights. It is not going to happen from behind a front office desk.
Will Phil be open enough to hire the right candidate or will he stubbornly die on a triangle shaped vine ? With a 31-year-old franchise player and a notoriously impatient owner, Jackson needs to steady this sinking ship soon. If his next coach isn’t the right coach, Phil Jackson will likely become just another face in the hall of failed saviors who couldn’t reestablish New York as the Mecca of Basketball.