In Kurt Rambis, Jackson Hopes to Find Coaching Spirit He Didn't Find in Fisher

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In Kurt Rambis, Jackson Hopes to Find Coaching Spirit He Didn't Find in Fisher
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Whatever Phil Jackson doesn't know about running an NBA front office, he absolutely does know about coaching.

So Jackson fired Derek Fisher as New York Knicks head coach on Monday morning in an effort to get the foundation of his business model right—and give the teaching opportunity to another of his disciples: Kurt Rambis.

Rambis has a real opportunity in New York, no matter his negative image from bombing as the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2009-11.

And what an epic stage this Knicks job is.

Rambis is one of Jackson's closest friends in the world, for one.

Jackson also knows that Rambis knows how to coach. The two of them have had private discussions about what the Knicks weren't getting from Fisher, a coaching newbie who struggled to find a voice other than former player/leader.

Fisher, 41, didn't practice this unproven group long or hard enough, didn't teach or stress enough defense and didn't know how to inspire players after they grew desensitized to his speech-making skills.

Fisher sketchily leaving the team during training camp and getting into an altercation with Matt Barnes over a woman Fisher reportedly was datingand misleading team officials in the processalso shook the trust and communication that Jackson wanted as lynchpins of his Knicks leadership group.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It didn't get Fisher fired, but Jackson went into this hoping for a glowing mentor relationship with an open exchange of ideas and grounded in real honesty. Jackson probably undermined that some himself by trying to be respectfully hands-off so Fisher was secure in his job, but Fisher clearly didn't bring an open learner's mind to this and warm Jackson's heart either.

Fisher has undeniable leadership skills, but Jackson just didn't see sufficient growth in his coaching skills—an area where Jackson is perhaps the foremost expert in the world.

So here is the much-maligned Rambis, presumed by the masses to be nothing more than a bespectacled seat-warmer for someone the way he actually was for Jackson with the Lakers in 1999.

In the years since, though, Rambis has made Jackson a true believer in how well Rambis knows the game—and the philosophies about the game that made Jackson great. The question is whether Rambis has the leadership skills to make it all apply.

Rambis, who turns 58 later this month, went 32-132 as Timberwolves coach. It was so horrible that he fell off the radar even for recycled head coaches.

The quirky Rambis failed to convey any sense of command while in Minnesota, but looking back on the people's help he most needed is interesting.

Then-general manager David Kahn has been revealed to be the ultimate clown of sports executives in the way he tried to justify drafting Jonny Flynn over Stephen Curry or Wesley Johnson over DeMarcus Cousins—or all the failed moves after those.

Kevin Love, the top player Rambis couldn't bond with, has shown to be lacking in the intangibles that make a good team leader or even No. 1 superstar.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Rambis, though, still carries stigma from that disaster to the point that people overlook his success as Pat Riley's player, Jackson's assistant and even someone willing to go learn as Mike D'Antoni's assistant with the Lakers in 2013-14.

There's a reason Jackson made Rambis one of the highest-paid associate head coaches in the NBA to help Fisher.

Everyone's assumption is that Jackson is a sage with a grand plan and he's not an interim-thinking guy. Well, his motto has always been to stay in the moment—and that's his plan here.

Give Rambis a chance to earn the job if he can reach the players, win the winnable games Fisher left on the table and maybe rally the Knicks from five games out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

If not, then maybe Luke Walton (not at all an East Coast guy, though) or Brian Shaw (an immediate option as a Rambis assistant, actually) become stronger considerations. Tom Thibodeau, a proven excellent coach, is less of an option because of his lack of relationship with Jackson.

Fisher was a rising son in Jackson's basketball family, but Jackson had to be honest with himself when he didn't see Fisher's ego shrinking properly to move from heralded politician to simple teacher.

The formerly .500 Knicks' listless play for chunks of the past 10 games showed Jackson that the players needed someone sharper technicallyeven just in having a stabler rotation to get them to know their roles and play together better.

Jackson believes in Rambis' ability in that area. "I have complete confidence in his ability to coach this team," he said at a press conference Monday.

Starting immediately, Rambis will also work more hands-on with prized prospect Kristaps Porzingis. Rambis' strength is teaching big men, and he has had a major role in center Robin Lopez's better-than-expected work for the Knicks.

Yet more than a change in Porzingis or jump-starting a hobbled Carmelo Anthony (sore knee), Jackson is in search of something simpler: a group of guys eager to play hard and play the right way.

Always embracing the idea of being a contrarian, and too respectful of the profession to want a coaching carousel with his team, the deeply loyal Jackson would love it if Rambis could rise from the dregs of the coaching business to steal the show on Broadway.

 

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @KevinDing.

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