Best Potential Fits for Next New York Knicks Head Coach Under Phil Jackson
By this time next week, the New York Knicks will have officially welcomed Phil Jackson into the front-office fold. And while the positive vibes wrought from New York’s considerable coup are bound to linger on, the next order of business will be exactly that—getting down to business.
First and foremost on Phil’s list of to-dos: Finding a replacement for Mike Woodson, whom most expect to be let go at the end of this season.
For as many challenges as these Knicks face—a burden-saddled salary cap, a lack of future flexibility and the fate of Carmelo Anthony—inserting a coach capable of stewarding this creaky, leaky ship is near the top of the list.
Today, we’ll look at five possible candidates, ranking them not only in order of basketball fit, but philosophy as well. It's a subject the Zen Master himself knows a little something about.
The rumors have already begun in earnest. Like this one, from the New York Post's Marc Berman:
Brian Shaw, a former Lakers guard and longtime Jackson assistant, could be another, even though he signed on with Denver last spring for his first head coaching job. The Nuggets are struggling — eight games under .500 — and there are rumors he has lost some of the locker room.
Spoiler alert: Shaw didn't even make this list.
Think the rest will all be tried-and-true triangle disciples? Think again.
5. John Calipari
New York’s ties to Creative Artists Agency (CAA)—the organization that represents Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and a host of other big names at all levels of basketball—are well-documented.
It’s not inconceivable to think that James Dolan might try to strike a compromise with Jackson whereby the former gets to pick the Knicks’ next coach. In this case, don’t be surprised if the University of Kentucky’s John Calipari winds up patrolling the sidelines next season.
Coach Cal didn’t have much success during his first NBA trial as head coach of the New Jersey Nets from 1996-97 through a 3-17 start in 1998-99 and as an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers the following year. But his collegiate track record, combined with his uncanny ability to recruit, could prove to be game-changers for a franchise already looking ahead to the 2015 free-agent class.
More skeptical Knicks fans might cry conspiracy. And rightly so. But don’t be surprised if Jackson’s considerable compensation package arrives with strings attached, namely specific concessions on the personnel front.
4. Steve Kerr
This was one of the first rumors to pop up during New York’s initial courting of Jackson. And you know what? It’s not so outlandish.
There’s the Chicago Bulls connection, of course, where Kerr was an integral part of Jackson’s second title three-peat (1995-96 through 1997-98). Kerr is well-versed in the triangle. And should Jackson decide to install his system as a matter of cultural import, he could do a lot worse than the guy who ran the Phoenix Suns from 2007-08 through 2009-10.
No coaching experience? No problem. Assuming the Knicks hold fast to their current core of Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire—whom Kerr knows well from his time in Phoenix—and Tyson Chandler, having a skipper willing to take a laissez-faire approach could be the way to go.
What’s more, Kerr’s affable demeanor and TV-ready personality would play well in the circus that is the Madison Square Garden media world.
3. Phil Jackson
Come on, what would a list of coaches be without the 11-time NBA champion himself?
At 68 years old, Jackson’s stamina and patience would, not surprisingly, be called into question. Also, there’s that part about Jackson telling HBO’s "Real Sports" back in 2012 that the Knicks were too “clumsy” for him to ever consider coaching, via ESPN New York’s Mike Mazzeo:
They don't fit together well. (Amare) Stoudemire doesn't fit well with Carmelo (Anthony). Stoudemire's a really good player. But he's gotta play in a certain system and a way. Carmelo has to be a better passer. And the ball can't stop every time it hits his hands. They need to have someone come in that can kinda blend that group together.
A couple of things: First, this was two years ago. Second, this is Phil Jackson, who has a reputation for speaking off the cuff.
Jackson’s comments on Melo are particularly instructive. If he thinks the ball sticks to Anthony’s hands too much, isn’t that an ideal impetus for installing, say, another offense? One named after a basic geometric shape with three sides, perhaps?
It’s unclear whether Jackson would simply insert himself into the position after an exhaustive search or if he would take over at midseason following a lackluster stretch by whomever he handpicks.
2. Lionel Hollins
There’s certainly some merit to Jackson taking the safe route. Lionel Hollins, jettisoned by the Memphis Grizzlies after four straight years of improving the team’s winning percentage, is as tried and true as they come.
Hard-nosed, no-nonsense, old school to the point of conservatism. Whatever superlatives you use to describe Hollins, he’s the kind of coach who doesn’t just command the respect of his players, but demands it.
With a core as fiery and fray-tested as New York’s frontcourt, that kind of clout could be a boon, or it could backfire completely depending on the team’s fortunes.
At the very least, Hollins would insist on the kind of defensive accountability that Mike Woodson—he of the points-per-game gospel—never truly wielded beyond sound bites and symbolism.
In his four years at Memphis’ helm, Hollins transformed the Grizzlies into one of the league’s most elite defenses, depth of the metrics notwithstanding. Last year, they made it all the way to the Western Conference finals, despite fielding an offense that would’ve made most Big Ten teams look like the 1984 Denver Nuggets.
Hollins wouldn’t have to worry about offense with these Knicks. Just everything else.
1. Jeff Van Gundy
In New York’s history of big-name gambles and star-struck approaches to franchise management, Jeff Van Gundy was the quintessential counterweight. He was an NBA anti-hero who arrived as a relative unknown but left a certified Knicks legend.
Sadly, Van Gundy’s departure in 2001—after five consecutive winning seasons, two trips to the Eastern Conference finals and an unlikely berth in the 1999 finals—was just one of many pocks that mark James Dolan’s cantankerous tenure as Knicks owner.
As he told ESPN Radio 98.7 FM last June, however, Van Gundy laments not only the timing of his departure, but the anger that incited it, via Ian Begley of ESPN New York:
I quit the Knicks so I know what quitting is. I did. I quit. And it's something I regret to this day. I live with it every day and I regret it. And I let my emotions come into it. And I was just emotionally spent. I made a bad decision and I quit.
What better way for Jackson to mend the bitter bridges of the past than by bringing Van Gundy back into the Garden family?
Like Kerr, Van Gundy has masterfully used the media to bolster his reputation as a basketball lifer. Fair or not, it’s the kind of clout that commands respect, particularly when coupled with his accomplishments as, you know, the Knicks head coach.