Fisher To The Knicks: From A New Yorker’s Perspective

While millions of NBA fans around the world are fixated on the 2014 Finals rematch between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs, the floundering New York Knicks have finally found a way to make themselves relevant in June. Eighteen-year NBA veteran and five-time NBA champion Derek Fisher was hired by the Knicks to become their new head coach next season. Fisher’s great leadership on and off the court, combined with his familiarity with Knicks team president Phil Jackson made him a shoe-in for the job. But as a cynical New Yorker, I wonder what exactly is Jackson’s true motive behind hiring his former Laker point guard as head coach of the Knickerbockers.

From Steve Kerr, to Derek Fisher, to lesser mentioned names like Luke Walton and Rick Fox, most of Jackson’s potential head coaching candidates were all ex-players of his that have zero NBA coaching experience. Meanwhile, veteran NBA coaches such as George Karl, Avery Johnson, both Van Gundy brothers, and highly successful college coaches like John Calipari and Billy Donovan were seemingly all available candidates. While Fisher is clearly well respected around the league and deserves an opportunity to prove himself, Fisher does not carry the coaching clout of any of these other big name candidates.

The pool from which Jackson was selecting his head coaching candidates speaks to a much larger issue. In my opinion, Jackson signing on as team president with the Knicks was the ultimate power play that was unavailable to him at his previous stops in Chicago and Los Angeles. Jackson no longer works under a meddlesome general manager like Jerry Krause, who constantly threatened his authority in Chicago. Nor does Jackson have to deal with a contentious relationship with ownership as he did with the Buss family in L.A. By all accounts, the New York Knicks are Phil’s toy to play with in all phases of basketball operations. Hiring a veteran coach would upset Jackson’s entire power structure that is clearly geared towards himself.

The Fisher signing also signals to me that Jackson may have designs on a return to coaching in the near future. By hiring Fisher, Jackson can keep his vaunted triangle offense in tact. In addition, Jackson can now buy some time for himself to recruit the players that he wants to coach. Three over-priced Knicks are set to be free agents in the summer of 2015 (Stoudemire, Chandler, and Bargnani). This will free up roughly $49.5 million in salary for Jackson to play with in free agency next year. And with players like Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, and even LeBron James possibly on the open-market, there will be plenty of talent to chose from for the Zen Master even if his top-player Carmelo Anthony decides to leave in free agency.

If Jackson does in fact have his eye on a return to the bench, it would make sense for Phil to sit out while overhauling the roster and let Fisher serve as an interim coach while taking a hit to his winning percentage. After all, this current Knicks team would put Jackson’s .705 all-time winning percentage (the highest winning percentage in NBA coaching history) in serious jeopardy. Once Jackson has molded the Knicks to his own liking, I feel as though Fisher would handle a demotion or firing much more gracefully than some veteran coach with an ego to match. If my theory proves to be correct, then Jackson will have used Fisher as a pawn in order to further his own coaching legacy. However, if Jackson does happen to stomp on Fisher’s coaching career, but wins a few titles in the process, all would be forgiven in New York.

So while I look at the Knicks situation with a cynical eye, I believe that the eventual success or failure of this Knicks experiment has little to do with who was selected as head coach. The ability of Phil Jackson to lure top-tier free agents to Madison Square Garden will ultimately be how Jackson will be judged in New York. Until Jackson has the opportunity to land his preferred big fish from the NBA free-agent pond, his head coaching search was a mere footnote in the NBA news cycle.