Why did Phil Jackson and the Knicks fire Derek Fisher? Perhaps the better question is, why now? Fisher was fired late Sunday night in a move that most people found to be at least a bit shocking. Former Laker player and coach Kurt Rambis will take over the coaching duties until the end of the season. I’m sure that Phil Jackson, former coach of Michael Jordan and Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers as well as current president of the New York Knicks, has a solid relationship and history with Rambis, but his relationship with Fisher is arguably as fruitful.
Fisher was the starting point guard on many a Phil Jackson squad, including those Laker teams that won the NBA Championship. He has a reputation for being a consummate professional and having a good mind for the game. This is presumably why he got the job in the first place. Phil knew Fisher. He trusted him and had enough faith in his leadership capabilities and basketball mind to help develop this team from the ground up.
According to ESPN.com, the Knicks’ upper management was convinced that Fisher was not transitioning from the role of player to coach effectively or efficiently. They also noted a rift between the already established assistant coaching regime that included Rambis, and the camp of assistant coaches Fisher brought on at the beginning of his tenure. Rambis has apparently already had a meeting with his players to talk about team expectations and make sure everyone is on the same page.
Strangely, Jackson had some good things to say about Fisher, calling him “prepared” and saying that he instilled a mental toughness into this young Knicks team. Jackson also blamed some of the athletes themselves, saying it’s easier to fire a coach than 15 players. There is more, though. An article from the NY Daily News brought the following stats to light: The Knicks have been outscored by 27 of the NBA’s 29 other teams in the fourth quarter. They’re last in fastbreak points, the antithesis of what Fisher claimed he’d do with New York’s young offense. They’ve also been outscored by double-digits in the first quarters of their last three games and they’ve lost nine of their last ten games as of Monday. Jackson also criticized the team’s isolation-dominant offense, yearning for the ball movement that helped make his offenses so potent.
But back to my second question: why now? Sure, last season was terrible, but isn’t that growth in its own right? Granted I’m no NBA player, but wouldn’t you think that a full season of losing together as a group in NYC teaches young players a lot about not only what it takes to win, but also teamwork, responsibility, accountability and how to cope with those that are better than you? It’s important to learn how to lose, something that they shared with their young coach. It wasn’t like Fisher was completely imploding.
Maybe the bare bones of a competitive team are in place, but this Knicks team is far from a finished product on and off the court. The drafting of Kristaps Porzingis, along with the signings of Aaron Aflalo and Robin Lopez have helped, but they are by no means enough. This is not an adaptable group of veterans whose feel for the game can overcome a transition between different defensive schemes, offenses and coaching mentalities to make things easier. Many of these players are young guys who still need to learn how the NBA works. They are still learning how to play the game, let alone how to win. Perhaps this means Fisher wasn’t the best choice in the first place?
Why not let Fisher ride the season out? It really is detrimental to the development of some of the young players to cause a stir at this point in the season. 23-31 is a far cry from last year’s 17-65. As a Nets fan, I speak from experience. I watched the Nets go through five coaches in the past six seasons. This is terrible for continuity. Not putting faith into an existing system or coach is common when you don’t know if you’ll be learning a new scheme next year or next week. It takes a while for players to “feel it” within a particular system. Their confidence in the state of their team affects how they view their role on said team, as well as the team’s winning culture. The stability of the front office is crucial to sustained success. This is a business. If things are dysfunctional at the top, they most likely will be troubled on the court.
Phil is a smart guy. Most fans (myself included) supposed that this was phase two of a rebuilding process that will catapult a lackluster franchise into one with the proper success to match their notoriety and popularity. The team shouldn’t necessarily be in “win now” mode with such a promising future. Did they do it to appease Carmelo Anthony? Perhaps Phil loves Porzingis so much, he wants to coach him himself. You know, make him the next Tim Duncan.
If Phil doesn’t want to coach (and I’m almost certain he doesn’t), there are definitely other credible options. Hey, Dennis Rodman just tweeted about the job! That would most definitely be a wild ride. In all seriousness, other offers could include Tom Thibodeau and David Blatt. An ideal candidate would be Luke Walton, who most recently led the Warriors to an astounding 39-4 while Steve Kerr was out earlier this season.
Walton has already confirmed that he is not entertaining offers until the end of the season. This makes sense given the success of the Warriors and the essential part he played in contributing to it. He deserves that championship. This idea seems to make sense, given the fact that Phil coached Luke for a bit while he was playing for the Lakers. His basketball IQ is also supposedly through the roof.
Obviously the choice to fire Fisher was a business decision that probably included more than just Phil Jackson himself. Jackson also mentioned that the Knicks would soon seek a significant trade. I know that Phil Jackson knows way more about basketball and how to run an organization than myself or any of the reporters who are commenting on this story. Still, one has to wonder, will his next coaching choice be a success? Will this step backward actually take the Knicks two steps forward?