Should Phil Jackson Keep Looking to Former Connections for Knicks' Coaching Job?

John DornCorrespondent IIIMay 16, 2014

Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson directs Derek Fisher, center, and others during basketball practice at Staples Center in Los Angeles, Wednesday, June 16, 2010,  as they prepare to meet the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA basketball finals.  (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Reed Saxon/Associated Press

The first domino of the New York Knicks' head coaching search has fallen, and the team's position is still as vacant as it has been for weeks. 

With Steve Kerr rebuffing his former boss and taking the Golden State Warriors' five-year offer, Jackson and the Knicks are left without Plans A, B and C. Since his hiring in March, Jackson seemed only to have eyes for his former Chicago Bulls player. 

According to The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring, Kerr was the only candidate discussed when Jackson met with Carmelo Anthony to brief him on the team's direction on April 29.

With that option off the table, Jackson will need to open his mind to a new coaching search, post-Kerr. But with few viable backup plans reported to this point, the question on every Knicks fan's mind remains:

What direction will Jackson choose to fill the job?

Turning 69 this September and battling various health problems, he surely can't coach the team himself.

Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson both have past connections to the Knicks and bring prior coaching success. Jackson has a number of his "guys" around the league who are well versed in the triangle, namely Kurt Rambis, Bill Cartwright and Jim Cleamons.

But that's not the route Phil is expected to go, according to's Marc Stein:

ProBasketballTalk's Kurt Helin believes that the Knicks may still employ those familiar Jackson assistants, but not in lead roles.

Jackson is apparently not very interested in more established coaches (ones who would come with their own ideas and ways of doing things).

He may bring in guys that he has close ties with from the past, such as Kurt Rambis or Jim Cleamons, but seems to prefer them in a lead assistant role.

The names Jackson likes are not very “sexy.”

As a novice executive with Hall-of-Fame coaching credentials, Jackson is looking for an Erik Spoesltra to his Pat Riley: a young, bright basketball mind whom he can groom in his vision. Such a strategy has surely paid off for the Miami Heat, and tabbing lesser-experienced leaders has grown into something of a trend around the league.

Just last offseason, the Brooklyn Nets called on Jason Kidd to lead their veteran roster, and after a slow start, he led the Nets to a 34-17 record after December and took home two Coach of the Month awards. The Phoenix Suns won 48 games and barely missed out on a playoff berth under rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek, while Dave Joerger (Grizzlies) and Steve Clifford (Bobcats) also led their teams to the postseason.

According to a study by Jared Dubin for Grantland, entering this season, rookie head coaches went on to post better winning percentages over their tenure (.517) than retreads (.495) since 1996. 

But as a coach who found success with a supremely unique style—one that no other coach has duplicated to the same effect—finding a fresh mind with firsthand knowledge of the triangle won't be easy beyond Jackson's own inner circle. If Jackson is searching for a coach like Kerr who can sync the front office and bench's thinking, he'd likely need to stick to those types of candidates. 

That front office-coaching synergy between Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford is the exact strategy that has led the San Antonio Spurs to greatness over most of the last two decades, so Popovich is perhaps the most knowledgeable speaker to this point. Per Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily Newsthe Spurs coach said shortly after Jackson's hiring:

When you put together a group and there’s synergy between the general manager, a president, as he’s going to be, and a coach — a synergy where you talk everything out and the knowledge and experience flows back and forth — it’s not a problem. He just has to make sure that synergy exists and I’m sure that he will. He’s a smart man. There will be a system and a culture, for sure.

The most sustainable success models derive from strong minds—both upstairs and on the floor—that can cooperate to build a winner. Jackson's interest in Kerr seemed to prove that he understands this as an exec, so it only makes sense that his newest reported candidates are mostly his former coaching subjects.

The three most recent names connected to Jackson's Knicks are, not surprisingly, former Lakers. According to's Marc Stein:

Three candidates who will thus receive consideration from Jackson, sources said, are Luke Walton and Tyronn Lue — former players under Jackson who have already begun their coaching careers — as well as Oklahoma City Thunder guard Derek Fisher— if Fisher elects to stop playing after this season as he has hinted.

The report also states Denver Nuggets coach Brian Shaw as a potential target, though Shaw has given no indication he'd leave that job after just one season, according to Chris Dempsey of The Denver Post.

All three players named in Stein's report have experience under Jackson's triangle—Derek Fisher was the Lakers' starting point guard for Jackson's two most recent championships, and he was a role player during Los Angeles' three-peat at the turn of the millennium. Tyronn Lue was a reserve on those early 2000s championship squads under Phil, while Luke Walton spent parts of nine seasons in L.A..

Lue, 37, has acted as Doc Rivers' protege on the bench, first with the Boston Celtics and currently as a Los Angeles Clippers assistant. Walton, 34, has worked in television for the Lakers, and has been an assistant for the D-League's Los Angeles D-Fenders.

Another name that has been mentioned, according to ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard, is one that doesn't have a direct relation to Jackson.

While Fred Hoiberg never played under Phil, he was a member of the Bulls under Tim Floyd and Bill Cartwright, who ran their own variations of Jackson's principles. He has been the head coach at Iowa State since 2010, and has accumulated a 90-47 record in four seasons. 

This past season, the 41-year-old led the Cyclones to a Sweet 16 appearance. Regarding Hoiberg's demeanor, Bleacher Report's C.J. Moore enlightened us last January.

"His approach is always the same. Always consistency. Always that calm person," assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih said of Hoiberg. "He expects our players to act that way on the court, and it shows."


Hoiberg's teams do not panic. But those close to the coach know he has one of the best poker faces in college basketball because "if anyone opened the insides of him, they would see how tense he is," Abdelmassih says.

That cool helped Hoiberg become one of the greatest shooters in the world. He led the NBA in three-point shooting percentage his final year in the league in 2004-05, but his playing career was cut short because of a heart condition. Nine years later, Hoiberg is one of the hottest coaching names in the game with much of the interest coming from the pros.

That calmness is surely something Jackson can relate to—it's how the Zen Master operated throughout the entirety of his 20-year coaching career.

And though Hoiberg hasn't implemented the triangle per se, his offense would easily serve Carmelo Anthony were the forward to re-up with New York, writes B/R's Adam Fromal.

According to two sources who communicated with The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring, Jackson is expected to lean on candidates with whom he has a past history. But, as the report notes, if Jackson does deviate from his prior Lakers and Bulls connections, Hoiberg will be a name to watch.

After being turned away by Kerr, it's clear that Jackson will now be forced into an expansive search for the Knicks' new head shot-caller. 

It's also clear that Jackson is coveting symmetry between his old-school front office and a new-school hire—not only to aid the coach's development under Jackson, but so that Jackson can construct a team based on his own views. That type of relationship will likely require a candidate with a track record with Jackson.

Of course, an actual interviewing process—which the Knicks have yet to open up, after being married to the idea of a Kerr hire since March—could reveal several potential partnerships, if Jackson is willing to expand beyond his NBA entourage. Hoiberg is merely one non-Phil-related name who could still fit the bill. 

Jackson is 0-for-1 when it comes to major moves three months into his tenure, but Kerr exiting the fold opens up a broader coaching search—one that could turn up an even better match, whether it be a face familiar to Jackson or not.


Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.