From the Courts

Roundtable: The Knicks, Kings Coaching Situations

Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a wild last few days in the NBA. Derek Fisher got the ax from the New York Knicks, while George Karl was fired and then not fired by the Sacramento Kings. Some members of the Today’s SportsNews staff got together to talk Fisher and Karl.

John Doe: Let’s start with Fisher. Did his firing surprise you? Do you think he deserved to get canned?

John Doe: I couldn’t have been more surprised that the Knicks decided to cut ties with Derek Fisher, especially considering he was essentially just a year and a half into his five year contract. Not that it makes a difference that Knicks owner James Dolan now has to pay Fisher to go away, but for an organization that’s been dedicated to “process over results,” it surprises me that they fired a coach that was brought in to grow and become the leader for the franchise moving forward after such a small sample size.

It was confusing to see Fisher let go mainly because this was his first season coaching a roster with actual NBA talent on it, and more confusing because the team was projected to win 31.5 games coming into the season and is on pace for about 35 wins. With that said, it’s come out over the last two days that Fisher and team president Phil Jackson weren’t on the same page more from a leadership/commitment perspective than anything hoops/results related, which makes me feel a little bit better as a Knicks fan.

While I don’t think Fisher did a poor job as a coach this season, I do think he’s said and done some things to rub players the wrong way, and like we saw with David Blatt in Cleveland, if you lose your locker room you’re not doing a good job as a leader. That seems to be the case in New York, where his team had lost nine of 10 games prior to his firing.

John Doe: It is hard to ever be surprised by coaches getting fired anymore. What is odd, though, is that the reason given is that Fisher and Jackson weren’t on the same page, which seemed like the primary reason for his hiring. If anything, the Knicks shouldn’t be slammed for firing Fisher, but for doing such a poor job initially vetting him. Seriously, Jackson was supposed to know him well, then Fisher gets fired because the two can’t see eye-to-eye?

That said, if the Knicks really feel like they are better served in the long run by moving on from him, then good. It is always silly to me that we set arbitrary timelines an organization must give a coach before it is allowed to show him the door. Heck, even if this ends up being the ‘wrong’ move, it will only be wrong because the next coach New York hires is an abomination.

The Knicks should be given credit for being forward-thinking on this. Then again, they are the New York Knicks. That might be giving them too much of the benefit of the doubt.

Jason: Yeah, it’s not the greatest look for Phil that his first head coaching hire, a guy who played for him, ended up being no good and they had issues getting on the same page. I do wonder how different things would’ve been with Steve Kerr, but that’s a whole different rabbit hole.

Much has been made of the triangle and it’s role in the firing. Many reporters have talked about how Fisher veered too much from it, with our own Jane Doe, one of Phil’s close friends, even hinting at this. How big a factor do you think that played in this? And how big a factor do you think it’ll really be when hiring the next coach? Phil sent out that message yesterday trying to say it’s not paramount to run triangle, but it’s hard to see him veering too much from it at this point.

Jane Doe: That’s really tough. To answer your first question, though, when Fisher fired, my reaction was, “Welp.”

I wouldn’t say I was expecting it, but I was hardly surprised. I guess I was more surprised that he was ever hired in the first place. And I’m really not sure how much the triangle all plays into this, in all honesty. If you’re going to build a team around Kristaps, is that the best offense to run? It seems an awkward fit, and I would think that even Phil, maybe even especially Phil (who let’s face it, understands the triangle pretty well) would recognize that.

I think there’s maybe some merit to the whole free agency angle and the Barnes thing. I mean, if you’re trying to recruit free agents and you have to qualify it with, “No, don’t worry, the head coach isn’t going to sleep with your wife; that’s a one-time thing,” (and there are rumors that something like this may not have been a one-time thing) that recruiting process might not go so well. But I think they have to say it’s something else.

And while Fisher is no “Byron Scott” when it comes to lacking any semblance of coaching acumen, no one was wowed by what he was doing either. It’s not like you’re thinking, THIS MAN IS IRREPLACEABLE!!!. I think you have some coaches who can make you a winner (Pop, Thibs, Adelman) and some coaches that are destructive to the interest of the team (Scott), but most aren’t going to change your team that much. With the whole deal with Barnes’s wife, Fisher was dipping his toes into that area (though, it’s not entirely his fault, or even mostly his fault).

I think this is an opportunity to go from a coach that players don’t want to one that players do want. I think getting a guy that free agents want to play under is the top priority, not how good they are at the triangle.

Joseph: I think Fisher veering away from the triangle was maybe slightly a part of the decision. There’s no way it could be a huge factor, right? It would be like firing a person for attempting to adjust on the fly on a doomed project after someone else’s initial vision failed. If that’s the largest reason, then maybe Phil should stay sitting on a beach in a tropical country drinking fancy drinks with straws in them — which is how I truly hope he runs the Knicks anyway.

As for the next coach, Jackson can’t be married to the idea that it has to be someone familiar with the triangle. The game is constantly changing, and while I have no idea if the triangle will actually work as it did back Jackson’s run, there’s no reason to continue to operate in a way that’s beholden to a concept which has mostly only worked when Phil used it while coaching Michael Jordan and the Bulls, then Kobe and the Lakers.

As a side note: I’m still holding out hope that Jackson has been spending his time behind the scenes inventing something called the Square, or any other offense nicknamed after a shape, so we could continue to act as if the system is like some sort of science invention that changed the world instead of it simply being the idea of an offense.

Adam Hunger/USA TODAY Sports

Jared: I’m not sure that I totally understood the note he wrote as his version of the “State of the Knicks” address on Tuesday afternoon, but I think Jackson was explaining that the organization isn’t necessarily married to solely running the triangle offense/looking for a triangle-exclusive coach. I also don’t think this is like a Seven Seconds or Less offensive strategy that Jackson envisions his team adopting in terms of X’s and O’s, more the philosophies behind it and how it’s related to teamwork and spacing, both of which have been crucial for every successful NBA team in this new era of pace and space.

I think Kelly hit the nail on the head by saying this move changes the Knicks’ leadership in terms of getting rid of a guy that players don’t necessarily want to play for. I don’t think you can blame the team coming out flat as frequently as this Knicks team has solely on the coach, but there’s been plenty of rumors and speculation that Fisher’s rubbed players the wrong way. We all kind of laughed off the Matt Barnes incident when it happened and have called Barnes names along the way, but it’s likely that Fisher lost a lot of respect from just being involved in that type of thing.

When you look around the league and see Lionel Hollins and David Blatt being fired and George Karl being on the hot seat, and the common denominator is their players didn’t like playing for them. You can point to the Nets being awful, and try to blame LeBron and Boogie for their coaches being in hot water, but leadership is more than being a smart guy with great experience, it’s connecting to the people you’re leading and taking them to new heights. Nobody knows this better than Phil Jackson, so while it’s always going to be fair to say LOLKnicks, it’s almost impressive that Jackson cut his losses here before things completely crashed and burned.

Jason: The only LOLKnicks thing here would really only be if Phil is marrying himself completely to the triangle, which is what a lot of reports have been hinting. He clearly tried to disprove that with his note, and it’ll be interesting to see if he goes through with that.

That being said, who’s the ideal guy to take over? Is it Walton? Thibs? A guy like Blatt or Hornacek? Certainly not Shaw or Rambis, right?

Kelly: I think about it and I keep coming back to Thibs. There are a few reasons.

  1. It’s hard to believe he would publically throw his name out there if he didn’t have a chance.
  2. Some people might think his disposition would work against him, but when you him having dinner with his former stars, it makes you realize just how much they respect him. That’s got to say a lot for a pending free agent.
  3. He had conflict with Gar Forman, but Phil Jackson knows a little more about basketball than Gar. Not trying to be controversial here, that’s just my opinion. I think Thibodeau is likely to be more open-minded with PJ. Call it a hunch.

That’s my guess.

Jason: Dang it, Kelly, you and those controversial opinions. Might have to think about that one involving Gar and Phil. Wait, no I don’t.

Joseph: Fred Hoiberg as the head coach with Billy Gillispie as his top assistant…

I kid!

This is a tough one. I almost feel like New York should try to purposely make the least splashy hire as possible.

I’m not a fan of retread hires. Much rather the Knicks take a shot on some random assistant, but that’s my personal preference more than a smart thought. Plus, unlike Knicks fans, I’m not totally invested in their success. It’s easy for me to say “hire Walter McFormervideoguy” instead of whoever already has a name-brand appeal.

For the sake of actually giving a name, I shall say Thibs. Mostly because he won’t put up with whatever theoretical poop Jackson will give him.

Jared: It’s really difficult to make any educated guesses here because I don’t think it’s clear what Jackson’s thinking. You know he wants to bring in someone he has some sense of familiarity with, as well as someone with knowledge on the triangle, but also learning from the Fisher debacle, it has to be someone with experience. Preferably experience winning games.

With proven winners like Blatt, Thibs and even Scott Brooks available you have to wonder how much Jackson’s willing to loosen the reins on his vision of implementing the triangle. My guess is that it’s less about the triangle and more about him needing to have the final say on basketball decisions, and I’m not sure he feels he can do that with a proven winner under him. I know that sounds silly, but I think that was part of the allure for him wanting Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher to be his first coach, because he could essentially still be in control with a rookie coach.

I think the ideal fit taking these factors into consideration is Luke Walton, who Jackson coached for the majority of his career. With that said, Walton’s resume filling in for Kerr this season may put him above the Knicks job. The only other available coaching candidates that Jackson has history with are Brian Shaw and current Knicks interim head coach Kurt Rambis, but neither are accomplished enough leaders to confidently replace Fisher with for the long haul.

As much as it feels like Thibs should be the guy, there isn’t a slam dunk option here when you consider Jackson’s thought process. I wouldn’t be shocked if Kevin McHale and Vinny Del Negro also wind up in the conversation, but my hunch is that Brooks could be the happy medium that Jackson feels comfortable moving forward with. Unless, you know, he feels like working 75 hours a week and doing the job himself.

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

Jason: Can’t imagine Phil actually coaches himself. Just seems like he physically can’t take that grind.

Walton should probably be the choice if possible, but there could be a serious bidding war with the Lakers, which is hilarious. Phil vs. Jeanie! Who wins?! And all money being equal, not really sure who Walton would choose. Woj made an interesting point about Walton maybe not wanting to go to New York because Phil won’t be in it for the long haul. Phil has an opt-out after next season. How long do you think he sticks around?

Jared: It’s hard not to be naive/pessimistic after 25 years of rooting for the Knicks with all of my blood, sweat and tears, but I kind of resent the sentiment that Phil’s going to look to leave the first chance he gets. To our knowledge, Dolan’s given him everything he’s asked for and wants, and we’re looking at someone who’s been on the job for less than two years! Being able to hitch his executive wagon to Kristaps Porzingis might be a great option for him, and I think he took this job with full intention of being here for the good years too.

Granted nothing guarantees that there ever will be good years, but I think the organization is essentially on the right track, and I think “Phil leaving for L.A.” has been so overblown the last couple of days. Again it’s easy to be cynical when it comes to the Knicks, but Phil broke this team down so he could rebuild it himself. I think he’s very prideful in his work, more so as a leader than anything, and I don’t think he took this job to leverage himself into his next job.

Kelly: Call me a skeptic, but I’m not all in on the Luke Walton bandwagon. Just cuz he sat in the Captain’s chair while the plane was on autopilot doesn’t mean he’s my choice to land on the Hudson River. I mean, other than actually be on the Warriors’ bench while they were reeling off crazy win totals, I’m not sure what he’s actually done to make the Warriors win.

Jason: Walton could easily be not good, but to learn on that staff in that environment is definitely a plus. And he seemed to push the right buttons with them, even if it’s not exactly hard to do that with that team. Throw in his relationship with Phil/triangle and that’s a bonus, although we saw how that turned out for Fish.

Thibs would make sense given how much he seems to want the job, but I do wonder how he’d mesh with Phil.

Changing gears here to wrap this up, what the heck is going on in Sacramento? First George Karl was fired and then he wasn’t. And there’s all these different reports coming out about what’s going on out there. Should the Kings try to make this work to avoid firing ANOTHER coach? Or is this thing too off the rails?

Joseph: It is too far off the rails. Sacramento basically made Karl a lame duck coach without having to. The players now know they could get away with anything because management doesn’t care for the coach. Even if the front office changed its mind and truly wants to make it work, they can’t. It’s like asking if it is too late for a person in a pool to avoid getting wet.

The Divac experiment seems to be going rather poorly, too. All of which helps to make this a situation with no easy solutions other than rebooting the entire thing all over again.

I wouldn’t actually blow it all up, though. Not right now. If the Kings want to try to salvage any sort of dignity, lol, I guess they could do something crazier than holding a team meeting. They could have an entire organization meeting? Owners (majority and minority), management, coaches and players all in one room. Problem with that is finding the competent person to navigate all the voices needed to be heard and lending the “one” voice that would need to dictate the entire thing…Okay, maybe they ought to blow it up.

Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Kelly: I think this thing was off the rails when they hired him, no?

Here’s the other part of the problem with them, though. Who is going to want to go coach there that’s any better? You can’t coach players who don’t want to be coached. Or should I say, Rondon’t want to be coached.

Jared: I’m with you guys; there really doesn’t seem to be any kind of feasible solution here. I can’t remember if it was in an article or a tweet but I saw someone say Kings fans are probably missing the Maloofs right about now, which I can’t imagine they do. However, Vivek seems as incompetent as they were, and it’s sad that this organization is completely lacking leadership from top to bottom.

I say that mainly because Karl was brought in to be the stable leader to help turn things around, and it seems like he’s done nothing but pour gasoline all over the organization since he got there and made his asinine comments about trading star players. As bad as it would look to fire Karl, and as much as it’s just going to keep hurting the organization’s reputation and putting them further and further away from landing another reputable coach, it’s clear he doesn’t have any kind of command over his team, and I don’t think he should be absolved of blame.

I’d love to see everyone get on the same page here because this is the most talented the team’s been in years, but it’s clear they’re still as dysfunctional as ever.

Jason: But hey, at least they came back and beat the Sixers last night, so cue up the Kevin Bacon from Animal House: ALL IS WELL!

One thing I continue to be amazed about with them is just the amount of leaks that come out of that organization. There’s so much different information coming from everywhere. Like, for example, there was different stuff coming out about the meeting Karl and Divac had! Some said it was a lengthy meeting. Others said it was like a five-minute phone call. It’s just nothing but dysfunction there, and I really wonder how much longer Boogie can take it. I’m surprised he hasn’t demanded a trade.

As for a possible next coach, who knows. Maybe one of Vlade’s boys will want to coach the team, like Peja or Bobby Jackson, who recently torched Karl. In all seriousness, there are a good amount of coaching candidates out there, but I can’t imagine they’d want to choose the Kings job over the other opportunities.

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