As the New York Knicks embark upon the first full season of Phil Jackson's reign as president of basketball operations, they'll have a permanent reminder of the Zen Master's presence stalking the sidelines.
New head coach Derek Fisher instantly becomes the most tangible symbol of the Jackson era, a very visible litmus test by which Knicks fans will judge the new regime. To be sure, the 39-year-old would have been a natural choice for any front office.
The career-leader in playoff games (with 259) has an esteemed reputation as a leader and teacher. An 18-year-veteran who finished his career as a valuable bench piece for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Fisher knows a winning culture. He claimed five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, and contributed to three deep postseason runs with OKC—playing the role of a savvy backcourt shooter with a knack for timely plays.
The former National Basketball Players Association president knows what it means to succeed at the highest levels on and off the floor.
But Fisher's selection wasn't just about his credentials. It was about his philosophy and—more importantly—his familiarity with the kind of system Jackson wants to implement in New York.
In short, it was about keeping things in the family.
"In his nearly three months as team president, Phil Jackson has made it very apparent—in word and deed—that he wants to rebuild the Knicks by relying on his own network of associates and alliances," wrote The New York Times' Scott Cacciola in June. "He has gone so far as to underscore the importance of his 'inner circle,' although it might make more sense to refer to his inner triangle."
Fisher spent the majority of his playing career with the Los Angeles Lakers, making him abundantly familiar with Jackson and his Triangle Offense.
Cacciola adds, "Choosing Fisher can easily be perceived as a gamble by Jackson, but he has always been clear about his preference to hire a young coach whom he could mentor. Fisher fits the bill."
Indeed, choosing Fisher registers as a gamble in several respects.
First, Jackson could have gone with a more experienced candidate, perhaps even pulling ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy away from the broadcast booth. He could have snagged player-favorite Mark Jackson after the Golden State Warriors parted ways with him. Settling for a first-time coach translates into ready-made criticism in the event New York gets off to a slow start.
Second, Fisher reasons to be even more of a reflection on Jackson that other candidates would have been. Though his relationship with Jackson will officially be labeled one of "mentorship," more cynical perspectives will view Fisher as a puppet.
In turn, everything Fisher achieves—or fails to achieve—will be a reflection on the guy pulling strings behind-the-scenes.
That's not necessarily a bad thing.
There are plenty of reasons to believe Fisher will turn the Knicks around, perhaps sooner rather than later. Though the roster won't undergo significant restructuring until next summer, New York's culture may be subject to immediate change.
"Fish's career lasting until he’s almost 40 years of age is a remarkable feat," Jackson said during an MSG Network special, per the New York Post's Marc Berman. "He talked about the fact that he never was the quickest, never could jump the highest, never was the tallest. He always was kind of in an underdog role, but he was so well prepared. He spent the offseason working on what he had to do, and he's going to bring that mentality to our players."
"And this is really important for this group particularly here with the Knicks. They have to embrace the fact that this profession requires a total dedication, it's a total thing, and to do that it’s an immersion," Jackson added.
Fisher's fresh perspective and winning pedigree may well rub off on his players.
But those kind of transformations are rarely instantaneous—even as New York's collective patience wears increasingly thin. A more experienced coach may not be more equipped to effect overnight improvement, but more accomplished resumes typically elicit longer leashes.
Perhaps Fisher deserves some time, as well.
"Having just walked out of Oklahoma City, Fisher now walks into a situation that, despite the Knicks' bloated payroll, will come with low expectations as New York waits for several highly paid players...to come off the salary books," notes The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring (subscription required).
Then again, are low expectations even possible under the New York spotlight?
After a 37-45 season that wasn't good enough to crack the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference, the organization needs to demonstrate progress.
Writing for Forbes, David Lariviere observed that, "It's a market where fans want to see immediate results, which will make it difficult for Fisher."
And yet, the real pressure remains on Jackson. If Fisher isn't ready to take the helm in New York, that's something Jackson probably should have seen coming.
Moreover, one can't expect Fisher to work miracles. He's only going so far as this roster takes him, which again means the onus is on Jackson. His ability to surround seven-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony with an elite supporting cast will define his front-office legacy just as much as the Fisher hire.
That task just became a lot taller with the Cleveland Cavaliers' recent consolidation of superstar talent (including LeBron James' return to the franchise and the organization's subsequent acquisition of forward Kevin Love via trade).
"In order to compete with Cleveland, Jackson will have to spend the Knicks’ cap space wisely in free agency in 2015 and/or 2016," writes ESPNNewYork.com's Ian Begley. "The challenge for Jackson will be to build a team centered around Carmelo Anthony that can compete with the LeBron-Love-Irving trio. And to do so while taking advantage of Anthony’s prime years."
Of course, it will take some time before we can issue a final verdict on Jackson's personnel decisions.
Until then, Fisher's debut is all we have to go on.
As the New York Daily News' Mike Lupica put it, "This is all about faith now for Knicks fans."
For his part, Anthony is keeping that faith.
"I don't think we will have another season like we had last year," Anthony told reporters in August. "When I say, 'I believe that we will make the playoffs,' that's where I'm coming from. I think we will have a much better season than we did last year."
Should Melo's prediction come to fruition, Fisher will deserve plenty of the credit.
And by extension, so will Phil Jackson.