When the NBA playoffs began, the New York Knicks' coaching situation seemed preordained: New team president Phil Jackson would hire his former sharpshooter from the Chicago Bulls, Steve Kerr, to run the Knicks from the sidelines. Jackson would build a title contender from the front office.
However, that certainty shifted in a New York minute with the Golden State Warriors' first-round exit against the Los Angeles Clippers. If a coaching vacancy opens with the Warriors, Kerr could opt to coach in California where he and his family live, leaving the Knicks scrambling to identify a backup candidate for head coach.
The Knicks have no clear path to a choice other than Kerr, and five coaches who have been linked to the team do not seem like fitting candidates for a variety of reasons. That leaves a host of capable coaches to choose from with little indication as to the team's intentions.
Would Kerr Coach a Team Other Than the Knicks?
When Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal reported that Jackson and Carmelo Anthony shared a cozy dinner and discussed the future of the Knicks, it appeared that all systems were go on the hiring of Kerr.
The plan: Kerr comes on as Jackson's mentee coach, Anthony signs an extension and accepts less money, then the Knicks use that savings and clout to build a winner around the Zen Master's tried-and-true philosophies. Anthony gets a ring, and Phil becomes the all-time godfather of New York basketball.
Jackson would have his fingerprints all over the team, and Kerr would be like an extension of the 13-time champion. This strategy intends to persuade Melo not to use his early termination option to bolt in free agency.
But Marc Berman of the New York Post detailed the possibility of a different scenario for Kerr: "One thing that can derail Kerr’s getting hired by the Knicks is if the Warriors lose their first-round series to the Clippers on Saturday and coach Mark Jackson is let go. Kerr, whose family lives in San Diego, may listen if approached by the Warriors."
The Dubs indeed lost in Round 1, and Mark Jackson could lose his job before Round 2 finishes. If that plays out, Kerr could opt to take the wheel of a team boasting a better roster than the Knicks and a more convenient location for him and his family.
Two Popular Pipe Dreams
If Kerr turns down the Knicks, they have not articulated a clear backup plan. However, two names have gotten bandied about in the past more than any others: Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy.
With Phil Jackson already in the front office, it would seem a logical possibility to see him move down to the sidelines and coach the team as well, if only as a stopgap.
Unfortunately, the 68-year-old Jackson can no longer withstand the rigors of pacing up and down the sideline to harangue officials and shout directions at his team. He underwent knee replacement surgery in 2012, and Berman reported in March that Jackson will need a second such surgery.
Ex-Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy—who presided over a trip to the NBA Finals and made his reputation as a stellar defensive strategist—could also make a return to the team, but this sounds like little more than the feverish raving of late-night Twitterers.
Van Gundy quit on the Knicks 19 games into the 2001-02 season. Despite telling The Michael Kay Show in 2013 that he regrets that decision, via ESPNNewYork.com's Ian Begley, megalomaniacal Knicks owner James Dolan would be highly unlikely to hire a coach who spurned him once before.
Moreover, after Jackson supposedly received unprecedented control of the franchise when he took over the front office, Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reported in April that Dolan had blocked Jackson's move to fire certain employees.
If Jackson does not in fact have total control over all basketball decisions, that only serves to make the backup plan for the head coach even murkier.
ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported that league sources confirmed ex-Bulls player "Bill Cartwright has interviewed for a position on Jackson's coaching staff." This would likely place Cartwright as the lead assistant under Kerr, but if Kerr walks sideways on the job offer, Cartwright could still join the Knicks.
Like Kerr, Cartwright shares a championship history with Jackson from the '90s Bulls. Though intended to be an assistant, Cartwright also has over a decade of experience as an assistant and head coach, unlike Kerr. He also played for the Knicks across 10 years.
Asked about possibly employing Jackson's famed triangle offense, Kerr stated, via Stein: "We share a lot of the same philosophies. I learned a lot of my basketball from him and Tex Winter. Obviously there is a strong connection between us and our beliefs."
It stands to reason that an experienced coach like Cartwright could also employ Jackson's philosophies alongside an able offensive assistant.
However, Cartwright presided over a dark era in Bulls history after Michael Jordan retired the second time. He compiled a 51-100 record as a head coach from 2001-04. That kind of resume is not something the Knicks want to put at the helm.
In January, the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence wrote about rumblings that Tom Thibodeau could be on the move and headed in the Knicks' direction. After the Bulls traded Luol Deng, it seemed the team had decided to pack it in for the season. Even after an admirable fourth-place finish, Chicago fell flat in five first-round games.
Instead of luring Carmelo Anthony to Chicago, Thibodeau could just bring his defensive arsenal of tactics to New York. For what it's worth, Thibodeau is represented by the Creative Artists Association (CAA), the same unholy alliance that represents Melo, J.R. Smith, Andrea Bargnani, fired coach Mike Woodson, executive and ex-player Allan Houston, et al.
Phil Jackson may want to steer clear of CAA coaches like Thibodeau, and if so, it's a good thing that John Calipari apparently intends to stay at Kentucky.
If Kerr in fact decides to replace an ousted Mark Jackson for Golden State, the former Knicks point guard could continue his coaching tenure at his old stomping ground in New York. He led the Warriors to a pair of impressive campaigns in his first stint as head coach, but his postseason results have underwhelmed.
If Kerr goes elsewhere, who should the Knicks target for head coach?
While a pairing of Mark Jackson and Phil Jackson would grab plenty of headlines from the burgeoning Brooklyn Nets, the former probably has too strong a personality for the latter. Mark Jackson forced the reassignment of assistant coach Brian Scalabrine in March, and his prickly persona is part of what has jeopardized his job with the Warriors.
Best Coach Available
There are a whole host of other worthy coaching candidates on the job market, including former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, former Los Angeles Lakers player and experienced head coach Byron Scott, ex-Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo, current assistants Nate McMillan and Lionel Hollins, legends Jerry Sloan and George Karl, plus college candidates like UConn's Kevin Ollie.
They could even try giving Duke's Mike Krzyzewski a call. Patrick Ewing would do backflips if he received the offer.
Jackson may want to install "his guy," a coach who can execute the strategies Phil hands down. That would rule out a host of the above-named candidates with long resumes.
As of now, the Knicks appear to have put all their eggs in one basket along with the prospect of Kerr assuming the coaching mantle. If he chooses to stay closer to home and out of the long shadow of Phil Jackson, the Knickerbockers' coaching search will be in as much disarray as their roster.