Is Derek Fisher the Coach Phil Jackson Needs to Turn Around New York Knicks?

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Is Derek Fisher the Coach Phil Jackson Needs to Turn Around New York Knicks?
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Though soaked in controversy, the premise of the New York Knicks' coaching search is simple: Phil Jackson is looking for a protege.

Steve Kerr was initially supposed to be New York's pseudo Zen Master, but plans change. More pointedly, Kerr moved on, leaving Jackson to eye another one of his "star" pupils.

Derek Fisher, five-time NBA champion and Jackson disciple, has emerged as the new favorite to replace the departed Mike Woodson, according to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. The two are expected to chat sometime soon as well, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne:

Sources told ESPN.com Monday that Jackson is planning to connect with Fisher by week's end, giving the Oklahoma City Thunder guard some time to decompress after his team was eliminated by San Antonio Saturday night in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.

One source cautioned that the discussion shouldn't be classified as a formal interview, given the long and close working relationship between Jackson and Fisher during their two stints together as coach and player with the Los Angeles Lakers. But another source close to the process told ESPN.com that he thinks Fisher will ultimately find the allure of coaching in New York under Jackson too difficult to pass up.

There are no elements of surprise here. Fisher has been loosely linked to the Knicks' head coaching position since before Woodson was even fired. Once Kerr spurned New York's bright lights for the closer-to-home, better-equipped-to-win Golden State Warriors, Fisher's name began popping up with more frequency—illegally, no less:

Chump-change fine notwithstanding, the Knicks and Jackson have been here before, courting an alleged favorite, speeding toward a likely hire. Last time they reached this point, they were burned—thrown for a loop in shocking yet not-so-shocking fashion.

Assuming, as optimists do, that the Knicks aren't once again singed by their own strangely exclusive coaching search, is D-Fish the man to help P-Jax turn things around in New York? Or are we perhaps bearing witness to a makeshift solution that won't solve anything at all?

 

Why D-Fish?

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Hiring players-turned-coaches is all the rage these days, even if said former players have no coaching experience. 

From Mark Jackson to Jason Kidd to Kerr, the trend has been picking up steam over the last few years. Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal penned an immaculately insightful column in which he dissected and subsequently pieced back together this entire fad. The whole thing is worth two, maybe three—possibly 17—reads, but he began wrapping up his observations with the following thoughts:

The situation in New York serves as a perfect microcosm for the league as a whole, as Jackson's ideal hire will allow for the marriage between coach and front office to have the synergistic harmony that every organization desires.

This, more than anything else, is why the idea of the player-turned-coach is suddenly so appealing to executives all over the NBA. They get to coach the team by extension, and there's much lower risk of discord in such a vertically integrated scheme.

Fisher—like Kerr before him—is the quintessential example of this thinking. 

Jackson isn't looking for a savior with an established track record and laundry list of personal coaching philosophies. He essentially wants a blank slate, someone on whom he can impart his wisdom. 

Someone he can control.

First-time coaches—especially freshly retired ones—are more likely to let Jackson pull strings from afar without much resistance than are veteran sideline-meanderers.

Seasoned coaches like Lionel Hollins and Jeff Van Gundy are going to have a thing or two (or 90) to say about the way Jackson does business. Renowned sages of sound mind and steadfast beliefs won't serve as New York's coaching doormat. A rookie coach will.

There are obvious exceptions, with two of them being Kidd and the other Jackson. The latter was dismissed by the Warriors in a haze of stubborn pride, while the former took exception to assistant coach Lawrence Frank overstepping his bounds.

Not all rookie head coaches are going to be, for lack of a better word, pushovers, hence the other coaching stipulation Jackson has placed upon his search.

From Stein and Shelburne:

Sources close to the process told ESPN.com that the most likely scenario even after Jackson was snubbed by the only candidate he has considered for the position since taking the Knicks' job in March, remains hiring a younger coach Jackson has worked with previously and can mentor.

Roughly half of Fisher's career has been spent playing under Jackson. If the Zen Master wants to work with someone he's familiar with and can trust to implement the famed triangle offense, there isn't a better candidate out there now. 

This is why the Knicks haven't been making splashes while looking for a new head honcho. They don't want a big name. They want a Jackson-endorsed zealot.

Familiarity trumps experience for them, meaning for Jackson, and so Fisher is more appealing than anyone else available.

 

The Perils of Zen

Regardless of how much faith Jackson places in Fisher, the current Oklahoma City Thunder point guard would still be a coaching neophyte tasked with learning the ropes in a big and brutal market.

Does that sound like a foolproof method of success?

It shouldn't.

There is nothing covert—for once—about New York's plans. The list of candidates they've shown interest in leaves nothing to chance. 

Brian Shaw, Kurt Rambis, Jim Cleamons, Bill Cartwright and Frank Hamblen have all been linked to the vacant position, per Stein and Shelburne. Every one of them has two things in common: They've worked with Jackson before and are considered triangle-savvy.

In an attempt to build up New York's future, Jackson is rummaging through his past, searching for the frontman of his next project. Problem is, this "project" has rarely worked when anyone other than Jackson is at the forefront of its development.

Various Jackson followers have tried to install the triangle and failed. Miserably.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
The triangle didn't pay dividends for Rambis in Minnesota.

Rambis is perhaps the most well-documented of the bunch. He spent two seasons guiding the Minnesota Timberwolves. Their offense ranked 29th in efficiency per Basketball-Reference.com, and they registered the lowest winning percentage (19.5) of any team during that time. 

Similar issues apply to Fisher. Those before him have failed to successfully run the triangle, and he could too. 

Things won't necessarily be different because Jackson is there to oversee progress, either. The controversy surrounding his preferred system is two-fold: It's both complicated and antiquated.

"There’s just one small problem," Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan wrote. "Since Jackson’s retirement following the 2010-11 season, the triangle has been relegated to relic—a totem, however title reaping, to a bygone era."

Running the triangle promises nothing. It could be beneficial, or it could backfire in catastrophic fashion. And if it fails, the last thing New York needs is to be tethered to both a coach and team president predominantly schooled in outworn, obsolete art forms.

 

A Risk Worth Taking

Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

This is what the Knicks signed up for when they hired Jackson.

Safe coaching hires don't exist. There are no such things. The Knicks know this only too well. 

Mike D'Antoni, Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas were all considered the right men for New York's job. Not one of them made it out of the Big Apple unscathed or free of failures. 

Bringing in someone like Van Gundy or Hollins won't automatically increase the Knicks' chances of winning anything next season. The same must be said of Fisher. The Knicks aren't looking for a savior on the sidelines. No one man, no one coach can right this teetering ship.

Emphasis has been placed on Woodson's successor because that's all the Knicks have. Jackson is biding his time until 2015 free agency, when he has the flexibility to rebuild the roster. Right now, he's simply looking to change the culture. 

He's looking for a proxy, a bridge between himself and the front office and the players—one he can cross whenever he pleases. 

Said Jackson on the prospect of hiring Fisher, per ESPN New York's Ian Begley:

Derek is one of those lead guards that had a real good concept of the game and liked doing the skill work and the drill work that’s necessary to hold guys to the premises of how to execute. Watching these playoffs and seeing teams execute against pressure defense brings me right back to what basketball is all about. It’s about being prepared to do these types of things that break down defenses [in pressure situations]. That’s the way I was schooled in coaching and that’s the way I intend to school a coach that comes to work for us. 

Is Derek Fisher the right fit for New York?

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For better or worse, the Knicks are tied to Jackson successfully schooling their next coach. But before he can do any schooling, he needs someone who's wiling to be schooled.

That someone wasn't Kerr.

It won't be Van Gundy or Hollins.

It can be Fisher. He, as of now, is the right man for this job, because the Zen Master views him as such.

So long as Jackson believes in him, so long as he trusts in Fisher's ability to follow in his footsteps, there's nothing more the Knicks can ask for.

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