Chemistry Will Start at the Top for Knicks with Fisher as Coach, Jackson as Boss

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Chemistry Will Start at the Top for Knicks with Fisher as Coach, Jackson as Boss
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NEW YORK — If there is one thing we have learned about NBA coaching these last few, volatile years, it is this: Experience and knowledge and acumen all matter, and yet none of them matter unless the coach and front office are in harmony.

Mark Jackson molded the Golden State Warriors into an elite defensive team, won 51 games and was fired anyway.

Lionel Hollins took the Memphis Grizzlies to the Western Conference finals, a first for the franchise, then lost his job.

Their greatest weakness was not tactical, but tact. Both had strained relations with the people who employed them.

Keep that in mind as you consider the prospects for Derek Fisher in New York.

Fisher accepted the Knicks' head coaching job on Monday, multiple sources told Bleacher Report. The Knicks have scheduled a press conference for Tuesday morning.

Fisher, 39, will bring a wealth of knowledge to the job—as an 18-year NBA veteran, a five-time NBA champion and a general student of the game.

What might matter most however, is his bond with the man who hired him: Phil Jackson, the Knicks' team president.

Jackson and Fisher spent nine seasons together, as coach and player, with the Los Angeles Lakers. They toasted five titles together, navigated the Kobe-Shaq feuds together, took bus rides and plane rides and all sorts of metaphorical detours together, over two separate periods between 1999 and 2011.

The rookie Knicks president and the rookie Knicks coach know each other well.

Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

There is a mutual trust, a mutual understanding and a general agreement about how basketball should be played.

Those were Jackson's clearly stated priorities on the day he took the job in March, the same priorities that made Steve Kerr his No. 1 target once Jackson fired Mike Woodson. Kerr, like Fisher, has played for Jackson and is steeped in the triangle offense, the equal-opportunity system that Jackson cherishes and wants to install in New York.

Being triangle-fluent was not a prerequisite for the job, but it was a strong attribute. Kerr was Jackson's first choice based on their 20-year friendship.

When the Knicks lost Kerr to the Warriors—who offered a much better roster and proximity to Kerr's family in California—Jackson turned his attention to Fisher, who was finishing out his season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Like Kerr, Fisher was a natural choice.

From his earliest days with the Lakers, Fisher emerged as a forceful leader and a skilled communicator, a calming presence amid chaos, whether in the locker room or in the huddle in a tight playoff game. Whenever reporters needed thoughtful insight, they sought out Fisher, who always had a knack for putting everything in perspective.

Players saw Fisher the same way. Though he was never an All-Star, Fisher always commanded the respect of his peers, from Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal in L.A. to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Fisher remains close to Bryant and has forged a strong relationship with Durant.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Never endowed with great athleticism or foot speed, Fisher carved out a long career with his work ethic and his dedication to the game—qualities that bode well for someone making the transition to the bench.

Fisher certainly has the personality and the intellect to succeed as a coach. In Jackson, he will have the perfect mentor, a daily resource on strategy, practice routines and player management.

This, too, is what Jackson wanted when he embarked on his big Knicks adventure: a student to mold.

As I wrote in March, the idea of mentoring young coaches has long held a strong allure for Jackson. He wants to pass along some of the wisdom accrued over his two-plus decades of coaching. And yes, he would like a protege to carry on the triangle offense, which was taught to Jackson by his mentor, Tex Winter.

Fisher had planned to retire after this season, regardless of other opportunities. As it happened, several opportunities presented themselves once the Thunder were eliminated from the Western Conference finals. The Lakers called to gauge Fisher's interest, though the discussions did not go far. Fisher also could have joined Scott Brooks' staff in Oklahoma City.

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According to sources, the plan in New York is to surround Fisher with a seasoned staff, with Kurt Rambis likely to be among the first hires. Rambis is close to Jackson and coached Fisher in L.A. Rick Fox and Luke Walton, two former Laker teammates, are strong candidates. Bill Cartwright, who played for Jackson in Chicago, is another possibility, though Kerr is also wooing him to join the Warriors staff.

New York is not generally the best training ground for a rookie coach, and the Garden is not the healthiest job environment for anyone, period. But for Fisher, this is the ideal starting point for his coaching career, with Jackson there to guide him and a roster ready to be revamped.

Thirteen months from now, the Knicks will be flush with salary-cap space, with Jackson and Fisher as their lead recruiters.

In the meantime, Fisher has time to learn on the job. The Knicks have no hope of contending next season, regardless of whether Carmelo Anthony stays or goes. They are in a holding pattern, waiting for Amar'e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani and Tyson Chandler to come off the books.

But it is in July 2016 that Fisher's presence might prove most valuable. The grand free-agent prize then? Kevin Durant.

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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