February was not kind to the New York Knicks. The Knicks went from 22-22 to 25-35 in just over a month. Oh and by the way, head coach Derek Fisher was fired. This surprised many but after the Cleveland Cavaliers fired David Blatt, this should surprise nobody. Coaching changes in the NBA boil down to one simple question: can your head coach win a championship? Ultimately, Phil Jackson’s answer was no. Now many Knicks fans and media are losing hope and optimism. Many are now asking whether the Triangle still works and if a 13 time NBA champion can run his own team. Some who previously bashed the team’s owner now hope the same man will make basketball decisions rather than his president and general manager. It truly is incredible.
I believe the answer to both questions is a resounding yes. After Jackson entered office, many saw the team as a science experiment on the Triangle. Let’s get this straight: there is no system which works without talented players and the same holds for Phil’s Triangle. After interviewing Coach Tim Cone, we learned the Knicks often didn’t fully run the Triangle and abandoned the offense during crunch time. Fans who think that the team loses due to a lack of pick and roll can see how well the Los Angeles Lakers are performing with their league-leading 22.7% P n R usage rate. Similarly, many people simplify Golden State’s success as an offensive juggernaut that run fast paced pick and rolls. While pace is certainly important to the Warriors offense, ball and player movement is even more paramount. It is also worth noting that Golden State has the league’s second lowest pick and roll rate with 10.2%. Just because P n R is the most commonly known play does not mean it is the easy answer to why an offense isn’t working. The Knicks inconsistent defense and below average guard play are more sensible explanations than the tired “Lets blame it on the triangle” excuse. Even former Knicks coach, Jeff Van Gundy would agree as he told the Michael Kay Show:
“Whatever happens in New York, it’s not a referendum on whether the Triangle works or not. They will be judged ultimately by winning. It’s not if they win, the Triangle is good and if they lose, then the Triangle is bad. There’s a lot of things that go into winning and losing. Right now, I think an inordinate amount of media attention is focused on the triangle instead of all aspects that go into winning. But when you read the coverage of the Knicks, 99% of the coverage is always trying to either validate or invalidate the triangle instead of talk about all aspects that go into winning.”
Jackson showed a good first instinct on the major basketball decisions thus far in his Knicks tenure. When he first took the job, it was no secret that Jackson wanted Steve Kerr as his head coach. Kerr even verbally agreed to become New York’s coach before a change of heart. Kerr translated his intelligence working as a GM and basketball commentator to being one of the best NBA coaches, winning a title in just his first season in Golden State. Too bad Kerr won’t be getting enough credit for his brilliance. Many will just assume winning a championship is easy with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green (à la Phil and the Bulls/Lakers).
Secondly, Jackson and his front office including Steve Mills and Clarence Gaines collectively made the unpopular but correct decision in drafting Kristaps Porzingis. You can bet if they picked a crowd favorite like Justise Winslow or Willie Cauley-Stein, they would have faced criticism for not selecting the “obvious” pick, Porzingis. This is why Phil Jackson deserves full autonomy because his instincts are right more often than not. However, this doesn’t preclude us from making some suggestions. Here are six coaching candidates we hope get serious consideration for the Knicks vacancy this summer:
Candidate 1: Luke Walton
The numbers say it all.
Luke Walton: 39-4
Derek Fisher: 40-96
Luke Walton burst onto the scene when he filled in earlier this season for Steve Kerr It was very telling when Kerr chose Walton to take over rather than the veteran assistant Golden State coaches. His stellar record proved that Walton can more than just hold his own with a championship caliber team. It’s really impressive that the Warriors didn’t skip a beat with Walton especially since teams often show complacency under interim coaches. The time Walton spent learning from Kerr is invaluable and will aid him when he becomes a head coach.
The uncanny similarities Walton shares with Phil are also fascinating. Like Jackson, Walton wasn’t a star player but rather a smart player who absorbed coaching especially after a serious injury. Just as Jackson sat and learned sitting next to the legendary Red Holzman, Walton too learned from Jackson while recuperating from a serious back injury in his Lakers days. Walton told the Daily News, “The only passion I ever had was basketball. And there were times where I felt that that was being taken away from me. Phil Jackson noticed how depressed I was, how I became quiet and to the side. I saw where I was going. So to keep me from being depressed, to keep me sane, he let me into all of the coaching sessions. He let me into their circle.”
Walton’s high basketball IQ and eagerness to learn caught Jackson’s attention. I still remember how surprised I was reading the praise Jackson gave Walton in Eleven Rings: “He didn’t have a killer jumper, nor was he gifted at creating his own shots…But he loved moving the ball and playing the game the right way. He was also gifted at shifting the flow of the action from one side of the court to the other, a critical move in the triangle offense. Many coaches don’t place a high value on such skills, but I encouraged Luke to grow in that direction. Eventually, he blossomed into one of the best facilitators on the team.”
Assuming he says no to Los Angeles, Walton coming to New York is the closest thing to the Steve Kerr coaching the Knicks. Walton would quite easily be our first choice as Knicks head coach.
Candidate 2: Tom Thibodeau
Tom Thibodeau certainly wins the fan vote. It’s understandable considering his recent success with the Chicago Bulls. Sources close to Thibodeau already revealed that he covets the Knicks job and “would crawl to Madison Square Garden”. While Thibodeau seems like the perfect candidate, the fit is not so easy. A Jeff Van Gundy disciple, Thibs spent 30 long years as an assistant coach, including seven years with New York, before finally getting his opportunity with the Chicago Bulls. Not many treat their job with more intensity and preparation than Thibodeau. He is a very accomplished coach that has always prioritized defense and gotten the most from his players.
Thibodeau’s critics would argue that his style easily wears on players leading citing increased minutes and injuries. This is a valid concern but not the reason I can’t see Thibodeau working out in New York. The only trepidation I have is the potential tension between him and management. For any type of long term success, I believe harmony must exist between the front office, coaching staff, and players. Everyone being on the same page is vital for winning in any sport.
San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich recently gave a beautiful quote on how the Spurs make it work. One tidbit includes him talking about the front office-coaching dynamic: “We need people who can handle information and not take it personally because in most of these organizations, there’s a big divide. All of the sudden, the wall goes up between management and coaching and everybody is ready to blame back and forth and that’s the rule rather than the exception.”
The Knicks won’t be going anywhere unless the front office and future coaching staff share the same basketball philosophy. By all means, Jackson should interview and talk with Thibodeau but Jackson reserves the right to make his own decision. If both parties decide that they share the same vision and are willing to work constructively, perhaps Thibodeau could make his return to Madison Square Garden after all.
Candidate 3: Ettore Messina
Widely regarded as one of the best European basketball coaches, Messina might be the NBA’s most accomplished and underrated coach. Despite winning four Euroleague championships, four Italian league titles, and five Russian league championships, Messina is willing to continue learning about coaching. His reputation as a defensive coach with a system offense containing ball and player movement made him a natural fit for the Spurs. These are principles of the triangle offense. Serving as an assistant coach for the Spurs, Messina knows these are also very important in San Antonio.
While I still think there’s a chance Messina becomes Popovich’s successor, he may listen to coaching offers. Messina already is a big fan of Porzingis and has his own opinions on how to develop the Knicks young star: “I think everybody’s absolutely believing that he’ll be a great, great player in this league. He can shoot the 3. He can go to the rim. He’s got a lot of [confidence] in my opinion in his game. And Toni probably at his age was a better blender. He could do more things off the dribble. I would — for the love of the game — I would love to see him improving that part of the game.”
Messina sees a transcendent player in Porzingis that would fit seamlessly into his offense. He is a terrific choice as head coach not just for the Knicks, but almost any team.
Candidate 4: Monty Williams
Monty Williams never deserved his firing after leading Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans to the playoffs last year. Giving no justification, the Pelicans were applauded for hiring a brilliant basketball mind in Alvin Gentry. Gentry was generally given credit for the Warriors’ championship and fast paced offense. Never mind that Kerr was the one responsible, it’s fair to say the Pelicans haven’t replicated the success of the Warriors or Monty Williams’ Pelicans.
Jackson was very specific about the qualities he wanted in his next head coach. While many media dismissed his message as rambling, I felt Jackson clearly wanted a leader. If nothing else, Monty Williams is a leader of men. The former Knick is respected around the league and a big part of Team USA Basketball. Williams has shown that he can properly develop and win with young star players like Anthony Davis. Williams will also be able to pick up Jackson’s offense with open arms.
But more importantly, we would like to send our condolences to Monty Williams and his family. As they go through their darkest hour, we have no doubt that they will make Ingrid Williams proud. Please watch this speech by Williams and tell me he can’t coach a basketball team in New York City. This man deserves to be a head coach once again.
Candidates 5/6: Shaka Smart and Tony Bennett
Shaka Smart, as his name would have you guess, is well, pretty smart. He could’ve attended Harvard, Yale and Brown but chose Kenyon College in Ohio instead primarily because he knew the basketball coach. The second youngest college coach to ever register 100 wins, Smart has a shot at 1000 if he wants to continue for another 30 years on the pace he is currently on. At VCU, he successfully worked with under-recruited players through five core values of appreciation, enthusiasm, competitiveness, unselfishness and accountability. Then he stunned many when Commonwealth made it to the Final Four in 2011 even following their best player Larry Sanders leaving for the draft the previous year. His teams embody a “havoc” style of play that aims to force live ball turnovers, bad shots and fatigue of the opposition. Pressure, full court and trap defenses are not uncommon but are harder to enforce in the pros and remind you of those employed by Rick Pitino. Offensive sets are built on ball screens and are uptempo in order to get open looks at the basket. Smart appears amenable to the triangle and stands to pick it up pretty quickly with his willingness to learn and grow.
He is probably more likely to leave his position in Texas now since he is early into his contract and ways away from building something although he is well on his way with a solid first season. If you want someone with more tangible results, UVA’s Tony Bennett is a good choice also. Smart and Bennett are like two sides of the same coin: both Wisconsin raised, both having coached in the state of Virginia and both premier defensive coaches with Tony perfecting his father Dick’s respected pack-line defense after taking over for him in Washington State. Bennett, not the famous New York musician, is next in line in the ACC with the coming retirements of the greats there, having held his own tactically against each of them and is a fantastic teacher himself. Should the Knicks choose the collegiate route, it may not be such a bad thing. Many around the NBA prefer under 40 and 50, young executive types that have been solids hires in recent years like most notably Brad Stevens, Quinn Synder, Fred Hoiberg and Billy Donovan. Jay Wright from nearby Villanova and his 4 out motion offense is another one of my favorites in the college game. After all – I might be convinced to take Wright over Smart and Bennett, and his $5000 suits are made for Broadway!