Ranking Best Potential New York Knicks Coaches by Fit
It's been two weeks since Steve Kerr spurned Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks to take up the Golden State Warriors on their offer to replace Mark Jackson in the Bay Area. The Knicks are still without a coach, though the Zen Master remains in hot pursuit of his first sideline protege.
Who that will be is anybody's best guess at this point. Just about every recognizable name with even a threadbare connection to Jackson and his vaunted triangle offense—from Los Angeles-based assistants (e.g., Kurt Rambis and Tyronn Lue) to those currently locked into other duties (e.g., Derek Fisher and Brian Shaw) has been thrown into the mix to be Mike Woodson's successor. So, too, has pretty much every experienced coach with an itch to return to the sideline and the desire to do so under the bright lights at Madison Square Garden.
Which is to say, every coach who is unemployed at the moment.
It could be some time before Jackson has put together a complete list of candidates, much less pared it down to a select few favorites. Until then, let's have a look at some of the potential hires who've been mentioned in connection with the vacancy and figure out, in order, which would work best with what the Big Apple has to offer under the Jackson regime.
7. Kurt Rambis
Shortly after Kerr turned down the Knicks' offer to stay in California, ESPN's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne reported that Jackson would consider a number of his former assistants for positions in New York. That group included Kurt Rambis, Jim Cleamons, Frank Hamblen and Bill Cartwright.
Only Rambis, though, was mentioned as a head coaching candidate, with the others sprinkled in as possible fillers for the rest of the staff.
Rambis won four championships as a member of the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers and another two as one of Jackson's right-hand men during the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal era. He also served as interim coach of the Lakers for most of the lockout-shortened season in 1999, just prior to Jackson's arrival, and spent two years at the helm of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
But his stint in Minneapolis isn't exactly a resume highlight in this regard. His attempt to install the triangle proved futile, as the T-Wolves' record of 32-132 under his reign would suggest.
Granted, Minny's misery wasn't all Rambis' fault. After all, he was hired by and worked under then-general manager David Kahn, who was fired in 2013 after a tenure that might be lightly described as disastrous.
Still, Rambis can't be removed from that stench entirely. As well-versed in the triangle and as closely connected to Phil as Rambis may be—including the relationship between Rambis' wife and Jeanie Buss, Jackson's fiancee—Rambis, with his uneven resume, reads more like a last resort than a first or second choice in this particular pageant.
6. Mike Dunleavy
As far as free-agent coaches are concerned, few can hold a candle to Mike Dunleavy's resume. In 17 seasons as a head coach in the NBA, he racked up 613 regular-season victories and 71 postseason wins. He took one team (the Lakers) to the 1991 NBA Finals and nearly led another there (the Portland Trail Blazers) in 2000.
It doesn't hurt Dunleavy's case, either, that he's already spoken with Phil Jackson about the opening. While not an acolyte of the Zen Master, Dunleavy insists that he knows the triangle well and understands how to deploy it as part of a larger offensive system.
Dunleavy recently told Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio, via ESPNNewYork.com's Ian Begley:
One of the things for me, as a player, I played in the triangle system down in Houston. It was kind of left over from when Tex Winter coached there. All my teams, I’ve run it for us as a transition set for us. Like, 'Hey on misses we’re going to run out of this into the triangle.' And part of that was also the fact that I was thinking at some point in the playoffs we’re going to run into Phil’s teams. And by the time we get there my guys will know the triangle very well to be prepared to play them. So maybe I’m the outside guy from the other guys that he’ll talk to: former players for him who have played in the system and other guys who have coached under him in the system. But at least I do know the system.
Dunleavy, though, might not be as beholden to the triangle as Jackson might prefer. According to ESPN's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne, Jackson would prefer to work with a younger coach whose philosophy he can shape after his own, much as Pat Riley has done with Erik Spoelstra in Miami.
At 60, Dunleavy hardly fits that bill and, as a result, finds himself as a dark horse of sorts in this race, despite his extensive credentials.
5. Derek Fisher
Derek Fisher has yet to call it a career on the court—he (probably) will once the Oklahoma City Thunder's playoff run comes to an end—but that hasn't stopped his name from rising toward the top of the Knicks' wish list.
According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Fisher was the front-runner to be the next head coach in New York as of last week and, for his part "has a strong interest in becoming a head coach next season."
In some ways, he looks like the perfect pick. For one, he spent nine seasons as a player under Jackson in LA, where he won five titles while operating as the nominal point guard in the triangle offense. He's well-respected among his peers, dating back to his days as president of the Players Association, and he knows a thing or two about dealing with drama, from the Kobe-Shaq feud to Billy Hunter's excommunication from the NBPA.
That latter experience should come in handy for Fisher, given the internal turmoil that's characterized the Knicks during James Dolan's tenure as owner.
Fisher's lack of training as a coach is reportedly part of his appeal to Jackson. Hypothetically speaking, Phil wouldn't have to worry about clashing with Fisher and, instead, could fashion him as a puppet—or, rather, an extension of himself closer to the team—as he sees fit. As Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal put it:
It's easier for [Jackson] to mentor them than to bring in someone like Jeff Van Gundy or [George] Karl, seeing as they already have established coaching philosophies. That way, he gets to run his triangle offense, essentially buoying the team with his view while not actually standing on the sideline and dealing with the day-to-day minutiae.
In practice, though, that absence of coaching acumen could just as easily hurt Fisher in New York. Jason Kidd's success with the Brooklyn Nets may seem like an appealing blueprint for the Knicks, but he benefited tremendously from the veteran leadership and championship wisdom of the roster he had on hand.
Fisher, on the other hand, would have to earn the trust of a team replete with big (and often difficult personalities), and whose sage voice (Tyson Chandler) seemed to abide by whatever insurrection brewed beneath Woodson's nose in New York this past season.
Fisher has the makings of a good coach down the road, but he would do well to take a year or two to feel out the profession before then—which he might do, per USA Today's Sam Amick.
4. Tyronn Lue
To that end, Tyronn Lue should have a leg up on Fisher in pursuit of the Knicks job.
He was a teammate of Fisher's with the Lakers from 1999 until 2001, winning two titles while playing in Jackson's triangle offense along the way. Like Fisher, Lue is young in coaching years, with plenty of room to grow—and, in turn, plenty of room for Jackson to play a part in that growth.
Lue, then, probably has a better handle on this whole "coaching" thing than Fisher does at the moment. He might also be of value to Jackson in the Zen Master's attempts to keep the Knicks competitive. As The New York Post's Marc Berman recently wrote: "But what could help Lue’s candidacy most is that he’s a friend of Carmelo Anthony, having met him through former Nuggets and Knicks teammate Chauncey Billups, who is best friends with Lue."
That's a rather roundabout connection to New York's prized free agent-to-be, but a connection nonetheless. If Jackson is keen to retain Anthony at a reduced rate, he'd do well to hire someone whom Anthony trusts to fill the existing vacancy.
3. Brian Shaw
Brian Shaw is about as close to a perfect fit as Phil Jackson will find right now.
He played for Jackson's Lakers through the duration of the Kobe-Shaq three-peat. Two years after retiring, he began a six-season stint as an assistant on Jackson's staff in LA, which netted Shaw two more rings. After two years working under Frank Vogel with the Indiana Pacers, he finally got his shot to be a head coach with the Denver Nuggets in 2013-14.
The trouble—for the Knicks, anyway—is that Shaw is unlikely to leave the Mile High City at this point. "Brian has said publicly – and privately to us – that his desire is to be here, and we feel strongly about him as our coach," Nuggets president Josh Kroenke told Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. "I don't foresee a scenario or circumstance where he's going to be anywhere but with the Nuggets next season."
If Phil had his way, he'd probably pluck Shaw from Denver outright. But the Knicks don't have any picks to offer the Nuggets as a means of prying the coach from them, and Shaw, for his part, seems comfortable in Denver at the moment.
2. Tom Thibodeau
Like Shaw, Tom Thibodeau already has a gig—and a pretty good one at that. The Chicago Bulls should contend for the Eastern Conference crown next season if Derrick Rose returns to his former health. They could be even better off if they decide to clear room for Taj Gibson and incoming rookie Nikola Mirotic by cutting ties with the decrepit Carlos Boozer.
Why, then, would Thibs want to part ways with the Bulls? According to Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher (see video above), Thibodeau's relationship with Chicago's front office has been shaky for some time and didn't grow any stronger once Luol Deng, a Thibs favorite, was jettisoned this past season.
Moreover, Thibodeau reportedly considers the Knicks gig to be a "dream job," the only one for which he would willingly leave the Windy City behind.
He lacks any discernible ties to Jackson or the triangle offense, but his ability to teach defense, particularly to players who aren't regarded as good defenders, could prove even more valuable. According to NBA.com, the Knicks ranked 24th in points allowed per 100 possessions in 2013-14—down from 16th in 2012-13 and fifth the year before—despite returning a core group that was similar to the one from the two prior seasons.
If Thibs could turn Kyle Korver, Marco Belinelli and D.J. Augustin into passable defenders, who's to say he wouldn't work similar miracles with Carmelo Anthony and Andrea Bargnani? The Knicks aren't exactly devoid of impact performers on that end, anyway, thanks to Tyson Chandler and Iman Shumpert.
On paper, the talent is there for Thibs to turn the Knicks around in a New York minute. The question is, Would the Bulls let him walk away if Jackson came calling?
1. Mark Jackson
The Knicks wouldn't have to worry about answering that question if they wanted to vet another Jackson for the job.
Mark Jackson, that is. According to ESPN's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne, Jackson "has not ruled out a sit-down" with the recently deposed coach of the Warriors.
The contentious end of Jackson's tenure in Golden State doesn't bode well for his chances in the Big Apple. If organizational suspicion was such a problem when Jackson was with the Dubs, how might he handle working for the Knicks, who have been fraught with internal paranoia over the years? And if Jackson had so much trouble dealing with Joe Lacob's meddling, how might he respond to James Dolan, the poster child for difficult, interventionist owners?
All of which is to say nothing of Jackson's lack of experience with the triangle offense.
Those are serious concerns. It's reasonable to suspect, though, that he has learned from that experience in Golden State—his first as a coach at any level, mind you—and would do a better job of dealing with the requisite "palace intrigue" next time. And if Phil wants a heaping helping of triangle on the court for the Knicks, Mark could take it up to some extent.
More importantly, he fits the Knicks' bill in just about every other way. His ties to the city and the team run deeper than those of any candidate out there. He grew up in Brooklyn, played his college ball at St. John's, was drafted by the Knicks in 1987 and returned to Madison Square Garden in 2001.
And, well, he's a heck of a coach. He transformed the Warriors, once a franchise long known for favoring finesse over toughness, into one of the premier defensive and rebounding teams in the NBA.
Not unlike those Knicks teams of years past, for which the long-suffering fanbase still has so much admiration and affection.
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