Derek Fisher stood before a throng of reporters Tuesday, dressed to the nines, with an intense look on his face and sincerity and certainty in his voice as he was officially introduced as head coach of the New York Knicks.
And Phil Jackson's clone.
Succeeding Mike Woodson was never just about succeeding Mike Woodson. Agreeing to coach the Knicks would always mean something more, no matter who the candidate was or what he had accomplished.
In the end, after having eyes for only Steve Kerr, the Knicks ended up with Fisher, who is now tasked with doing more than simply absorbing and executing everything Jackson has to offer.
"I believe in system basketball," Jackson said at his own introductory presser in March.
That hasn't changed.
There's a reason he wasn't lusting after high-profile prospects such has Jeff Van Gundy, Lionel Hollins and Mark Jackson. There's a reason he didn't get the Knicks caught up in possibly poaching sideline-wanderers like John Calipari, Billy Donovan and Kevin Ollie from collegiate ranks. It was never going to be them or anyone like them.
Jackson has wanted to pluck someone from his triangle tree all along. There would be no new, foreign blood. There would only be those schooled in the systematic ideals that helped him win 11 NBA titles as a head coach.
He wanted, as ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne previously explained, a blank slate:
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.
Fisher is Jackson's protege. He won't show up to training camp and try to implement his own system and ideals. The Knicks are going to run the famed triangle, or some version of it at least. New York's newly instated head coach has already admitted as much.
"What we will do is do what we feel like is best for the team," he told reporters, per Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney. "I love the triangle system. I believe with the roster we have we can utilize it to be more efficient, to be more effective, to give ourself a chance to play better defense by getting higher-percentage shots."
Running the renowned triangle to a T won't be an option. Some of its foundation is antiquated and, frankly, too complicated for anyone who isn't Jackson to understand and institute.
Countless others have tried their hand at installing it and failed. Kurt Rambis is a name that springs to mind here. He won just 32 games in two seasons while guiding the Minnesota Timberwolves with a triangle-based offense. Fisher faces similar limitations as a Jackson disciple, roadblocks that will only be compounded by how the NBA has evolved over the last few years.
Well, except for one cyclopean-sized caveat: Phil Jackson is in the house.
The Zen Master's fingerprints are going to be all over these Knicks. This includes Fisher.
Think of them as co-head coaches. Jackson won't be pacing up and down the sidelines or traveling with the team, but he'll be there in Fisher, who has essentially agreed to become an extension of the Zen Master and the vessel through which he coaches this team.
Not a Puppet
Thorough reviews of Fisher's press conference reveal that there were no strings protruding from his suit jacket.
Protege doesn't mean puppet. As frequently as Fisher will bend to Jackson's will, he's not in New York to break or be some moppet who doesn't think for himself.
Was he Jackson's second choice behind Kerr? For sure. But he's also a leader of men. He spent the last 18 years as a point guard racking up five championships—all of which came under Jackson—and piggybacking his way to the most playoff game appearances in league history.
Ask any of Fisher's past teammates, and they'll wax respect about their pseudo coach.
Luke Walton once said Derek Fisher's locker room speeches should be accompanied with dramatic music. That would have worked here, too. Wow.— Alan Hahn (@alanhahn) June 10, 2014
Circumstances never mattered. Wherever Fisher played, it was always the same story, as The New York Times' Scott Cacciola skillfully explains:
In Los Angeles, Fisher played peacemaker between the team’s two tempestuous stars, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Fisher later stepped into a challenging role as the president of the players union, which he led during the 2011 lockout.
With the Thunder, Fisher was praised by his teammates as a sort of coach on the floor, and he formed particularly close ties to Kevin Durant, the league’s most valuable player.
Coach Fisher is a player person, a mediator of sorts who is looked upon fondly by peers. Picture how much more respect they'll have for him now that he possesses legitimate control.
These Knicks need that leadership, that glorified amalgam of a cheerleader, enforcer, caretaker and confidence-builder. There are still egos to be stroked in New York (Carmelo Anthony). Wild cards to be kept in check (J.R. Smith). Youngsters to counsel (Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr.).
Fallen stars to assist and galvanize (Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire).
Derek Fisher, on WFAN radio: “We’re not here to be nostalgic and celebrate the past. We’re here to win right now.”— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) June 10, 2014
Woodson wasn't the man for that job. Certain players, despite what they say, quit on him. Last year's Knicks lacked morale and resolve, and they never preached openness.
Not even one of the greatest coaches ever is armed with the social dexterity and spirit-lifting sleights Fisher has come to own. Jackson isn't a man who will pander to varying outlooks and Zen-clashing personalities. He doesn't coddle or recruit, sugarcoat or skirt, console or soothe. Never has, never will.
Nor does he have to.
Derek Fisher: "I (started) preparing myself for being a head coach of a NBA basketball team when I was six years old." #Knicks— Barbara Barker (@meanbarb) June 10, 2014
This is why Fisher is in New York: to be the softer, modernized version of the basketball sage he will emulate only in system and not in demeanor.
Additional Building Block
No need to shirk what's obvious: This is still mostly about Jackson.
The Knicks' new coach isn't a savior. There is no such thing as a lone rescuer for this type of situation, but the face of New York's restoration project continues to be Jackson.
This is still his team.
Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News does a nice job summarizing this dynamic, though he does so by failing to acknowledge what Knicks fans and basketball critics must understand:
Jackson is the official star of the Knicks for the time being, since neither he nor Fisher nor anybody else has any idea if Carmelo Anthony would want to stay in a situation like this, why he would want to stay with a team that will be grinding to make the playoffs again next season.
“It’s more about Phil than ever,” one NBA coach said on Monday. “This is going to be all about his ability to recruit players, because you’re talking about a guy (Fisher) who got voted out as president of his own players’ union.”
Jackson is the unchallenged star of this rebuild. Not Anthony, not Fisher. No arguments here. And the latest dealings in Land of the Knicks are definitely about him.
But they're not all about him.
One person cannot finish what Jackson has started, not even the Zen Master himself. The Knicks will try to retool through free agency in the coming summers, and his legacy won't be enough.
Begging stars to sport orange and blue isn't his thing. He won't canonize Anthony's offensive brilliance this offseason, and he most certainly won't plead with future targets.
A well-liked Fisher won't either. The difference is that he can relate to whomever he's talking to. Even if Jackson were to pull out all the stops, he's slinging his own code of ethics. Fisher is outside proof.
LeBron James reportedly wants to team up with Anthony "eventually," according to USA Today's Sam Amick. If the Knicks—James' impending free-agency decision willing—are to make a play for his royal highness next summer, they'll need more than the promise of Jackson lording over them from afar.
Kevin Durant becomes a free agent in 2016. Fisher, now a former teammate, has an in with him.
So happy for my brother @derekfisher, I can speak for the whole state of Oklahoma when I say we will miss u and we love u. Good luck coach— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) June 10, 2014
Too far ahead of the game? Perhaps, but it's all relevant to the Knicks' future. They needed Jackson, and they needed Jackson to find someone like Fisher.
"We want to add more banners to this building,'' a determined Fisher told reporters.
Banners aren't earned by one individual.
Winning takes a team of players, coaches and front office personnel working in harmony. This is no different. Jackson offers opportunity, a plan and potential means. Fisher is the one who must make sense of it all.