Best Potential Candidates to Replace Mike Woodson as New York Knicks Coach
Buh-bye Mike Woodson. It hasn't always been fun, but it's most definitely been real.
New York Knicks president Phil Jackson announced Monday that the "team's coaching staff have been relieved of their duties, effective immediately," dropping an ax the organization had been haphazardly sharpening and swinging for months.
Woodson's dismissal, like many other forced exits, is both fair and unfair. He was insufferable for much of this past season, coaching the Knicks to only 37 victories, going down in a haze of big lineups, antiquated play-calling and unforgettable, curb-related soundbites.
But Woodson is also a scapegoat for much bigger problems. The Knicks weren't healthy, nor did they assemble the ideal roster. Their late-season surge was something of a miracle considering how awful they were for most of the year. Woodson deserves credit for their too-little, too-late, but-still-impressive turnaround.
Basically, Woodson is the guy who farted once and was labeled forever, cited as the source of all subsequent cheese-cutting thereafter.
No use harping on his exit, though. What's done is done. A new coach needs to be hired.
He won't be picked up off the street or chosen at random. He will be someone who can coach whatever system Jackson wishes to implement, providing stability while ushering in change at the same time.
Potential candidates will be those with ties to Jackson and his triangle offense, or established, big-name coaches who are most likely to turn New York's basketball culture into something better than it is now.
"The time has come for change throughout the franchise as we start the journey to assess and build...for next season and beyond," Jackson said in a statement, per ESPN New York's Ian Begley.
The search for a new coach, a better, Jackson-endorsed coach, begins now.
Obligatory Honorable Mention: Phil Jackson
A winning percentage above 70.
The Zen Master has everything the Knicks want and need in a head coach, and more. Except, you know, the desire to coach.
Before talk turned to Jackson taking over as team president, Knicks owner James Dolan revealed that he inquired whether the silvery Zen Master would have any interest in coaching the team, per Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling. Jackson declined, and here we are.
"I don’t think that will ever happen," Dolan told ESPN 98.7 FM in New York on the possibility of Jackson coaching the Knicks, via BasketballInsiders.com's Tommy Beer. "We didn’t bring him in to do that."
If Jackson wanted to coach these Knicks, Dolan would let him. The fans would love it. Kobe Bryant would cry.
But it's not going to happen.
Not now, not ever.
5. Jim Cleamons
Pillaging through the Milwaukee Bucks' assistant coaching ranks isn't something teams are known for doing, but Jim Cleamons would be an exception.
Cleamons won nine championships as an assistant under Jackson in Los Angeles and Chicago, and he knows the triangle offense, which may be a prerequisite for any coaching candidate the Knicks consider. The New York Post's Marc Berman named him as someone Jackson would look at in March.
Although Cleamons' one head coaching gig didn't end so well with the Dallas Mavericks, he cannot be deemed a failure or bust. He coached a poorly constructed Mavericks team to a poor record. It's that simple.
To be honest, he's more likely to be recruited as a lead assistant than head coach. His familiarity with the triangle makes him a great addition should the Knicks decide to hire a rookie head coach or a big name who hasn't directed said system before. But don't write him off just yet.
"I know the offense, but I don’t know what his plans are," he told Berman of Jackson trying to hire a coach who runs the triangle. "I’m worried about the Milwaukee Bucks. You have to ask Phil that question."
Everything comes back to the triangle with Jackson. Everything.
Expect his coaching search to unfold accordingly, possibly in Cleamons' direction.
4. Jerry Sloan
Could Jerry Sloan coexist with the man who beat in him two consecutive NBA Finals?
I would pay big money to find out.
Chris Sheridan of Sheridan Hoops named Sloan as one option the Knicks should check out in March, and for good reason.
Then of Sports Illustrated, Sam Amick identified Sloan as a potential replacement for Mike D'Antoni in 2012. Woodson was given the reins instead, but Sloan has always been considered a viable option for a team presenting the right opportunity.
The Knicks can offer the right opportunity.
Sloan never won a championship during his 26 years at the helm, 23 of which were spent with the Utah Jazz. Joining forces with the 11-time coaching champion could help him procure that elusive title.
Like Jackson, Sloan is a system coach. He's not the triangle savant Jackson is, but he values offensive and defensive structure in a similar way.
Whatever system Jackson wishes to implement, the process will run smoother with Sloan leading the charge.
3. Lionel Hollins
How Lionel Hollins is still unemployed is beyond me.
One year after leading the Memphis Grizzlies to the Western Conference Finals, Hollins finds himself on a different kind of sideline, watching the playoffs unfold from afar.
Which is absurd.
Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan made a compelling case for the Knicks to check out Hollins, so let's have him take it away:
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.
Chief among concerns with Hollins is his simplistic offense. Think Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks, whose offensive playbook is wafer-thin—only thinner. Hollins wasn't inventive in Memphis. He worked high-low action with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to death, superfluously encouraging mid-range jump shots.
At the same time, that makes him something of a blank slate open to change. Jackson can give him a system to run with, assistants who are familiar with the triangle and let Hollins' tough-minded, time-honored coaching style do the rest.
With him in the fold, the Knicks immediately become more likely to enact a defensive system that doesn't have them resembling a gaggle of 80-somethings trying to figure out the Internet. That's enough to justify a phone call.
Or, you know, correspondence sent by carrier pigeons.
2. Steve Kerr
Throwing a rookie head coach into New York's fray isn't ideal. We saw what happened to Jason Kidd with the Brooklyn Nets early on. Imagine that happening for the Knicks, a team that is historically unsupportive of its head coaches.
Yet these aren't the same Knicks from a management perspective. Jackson has autonomy—though we're not yet sure what that truly means; he is in the employ of Dolan, after all—and is familiar with Kerr's body of work. If any neophyte is capable of getting the job done, it's Kerr.
Not only did Kerr win three championships while playing in Jackson's triangle offense with the Chicago Bulls, but the Knicks want him. And he apparently wants them right back.
Kerr's name has meandered into the rumor mill many times since Jackson's arrival. Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today mentioned him and current Thunder guard Derek Fisher as two leading candidates in March, when Woodson still had a job.
According to a source close to the situation, Kerr "absolutely expects" to be offered the job. "And if he’s offered the job he’s definitely going to do it," the source told The Post.
The Post has learned Kerr has had conversations with his bosses at Turner Sports about adjusting his schedule as an analyst during the upcoming playoffs should he be named the Knicks head coach.
All signs point to the Knicks at least showing heavy interest in Kerr, who's acute knowledge of the game is on full display whenever he provides color commentary for TNT.
Oftentimes, experience is paramount in these situations. For a Knicks team desperate to return to the playoffs and re-sign Carmelo Anthony, that could still be the case.
But if first-time coaches are a legitimate option, Jackson and the Knicks won't find one newbie more qualified than Kerr.
1. Jeff Van Gundy
Of all the realistic coaching options the Knicks have at their disposal, no one exceeds the potential of Jeff Van Gundy.
For more than six seasons, Van Gundy haunted New York's sidelines, keeping the Knicks relevant while solidifying their status as a hard-nosed defensive team that never lacked effort or fire. Truthfully, he would have been a great fit this season, when the Knicks were a floundering underdog. His run with the 1998-99 eighth-place Knicks that culminated in an NBA Finals appearance is still fresh in the minds of—and cherished by—fans who have seen their team advance past the first round twice since then.
Van Gundy resigned 19 games through the 2001-02 season with the Knicks 10-9 and fading fast. Everyone has his limits while working under Dolan, and Van Gundy presumably reached his.
Quitting is a decision he regrets, though, so a return shouldn't be out of the question.
"I quit the Knicks so I know what quitting is," Van Gundy said in an interview with The Michael Kay Show, last June, per Begley. "I did. I quit. And it's something I regret to this day."
Any wrongdoing on Van Gundy's behalf would be easily forgiven if he agrees to help restore sanity within the Knicks organization. He's notorious for not discussing coaching positions that are still occupied, but Woodson is gone. His seat is vacant. Van Gundy is free to entertain Knicks offers if they come calling.
And if Jackson and the Knicks are smart, if they're truly prepared to start anew with the perfect coaching candidate, Van Gundy's rotary-dial phone will be ringing off the hook.