Ranking New York Knicks' Head-Coaching Candidates

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 20, 2018

Ranking New York Knicks' Head-Coaching Candidates

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Round and round the New York Knicks' coaching-search carousel goes. Where will it stop? Only Mark Jackson Nobody knows.

    The Knicks are casting a wide net in their pursuit of Jeff Hornacek's replacement. Six candidates have been confirmed so far. That number will rise if the Knicks come to their senses and consider rifling through Gregg Popovich's coaching tree.

    For now, we'll stick with the names we know are in the running—those confirmed for interviews or with sit-downs already under their belt. 

    Familiar faces won't get special treatment because they've been here before, or because they represent the glitziest hire. The Knicks don't need flash. They don't need instant gratification. They need substance.

    Candidates will be ranked in order of improving fit. The Knicks are rebuilding—or so general manager Scott Perry and team president Steve Mills say. They should target someone who blends experience with innovation and has the background, or measurable potential, to groom players and a system from the ground up.

6. Kenny Smith

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    This last-place finish isn't meant to denigrate Kenny Smith. His lack of credentials are just a major concern. His inclusion in the interview carousel, which was first reported by ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, remains a surprise.

    Smith is an entertaining, insightful broadcaster—his halftime Xs and Os breakdowns on TNT are boss. And he has plenty of NBA playing experience. He repped six teams over the course of a 10-year career and served as a key role player when the Houston Rockets won back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995.

    Smith even has some longstanding New York ties. He was born in Queens, attended Archbishop Molloy high school and spent a few years working as a game analyst for Madison Square Garden Network back in the late-2000s.

    But the absence of any NBA or affiliate coaching experience whatsoever cannot be ignored.

    The Knicks, for the record, should not be above hiring a first-time head honcho. If they're serious about authoring a thorough rebuild, they have the leeway and timeline to experiment. Jeff Hornacek's successor can grow right along with Kristaps Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and this year's draft pick.

    Hiring Smith is a couple of steps too far outside the box, though. Maybe this could work if the Knicks were a more stable organization, with the stomach and track record for remaining patient and not using their head coaches as scapegoats for superstar egos (Hi, Mike D'Antoni) and general dysfunction (Derek Fisher, Hornacek). But they're not. 

    If they're going the first-timer route, the Knicks, being the Knicks, should zero in on those who've been tabbed for the sideline spotlight. 

5. Mark Jackson

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Mark Jackson was identified early on by ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski as one of the three primary favorites to fill New York's vacancy.

    Jackson coached the Golden State Warriors before they were the Golden State Warriors. He turned in a 121-109 record over three seasons, helped build up the defense and earned endorsements from Stephen Curry.

    After being fired in 2014, just before the Warriors won their first championship, he could be seen as the co-author of their success now. Steve Kerr has unleashed the dynastic deity within, but Jackson was there near the beginning and laid the foundation for their immortality.

    Except, did he really?

    Draymond Green wasn't used in nearly the same capacity before Kerr—though, to Action Jackson's credit, David Lee's hamstring injury at the onset of 2014-15 paved the way for Green to become The Dancing Bear more than anything.

    More damningly, Jackson oversaw two of the greatest shooters in NBA history without ever cobbling together an elite offense.

    Sure, Klay Thompson was a rookie in 2011-12, Jackson's first helm. And Curry tallied just 26 appearances in that lockout-truncated campaign. The Warriors' 11th-place finish in points scored per 100 possessions was impressive under the circumstances. But they peaked at 10th, in 2012-13, during the Jackson era while championing an almost-aimless, individual-based machine. They never ranked better than 11th in assist rate and finished sixth and third, respectively, in long-two frequency through his first two years captaining the ship.

    Golden State cut way back on its junky two-point attempts in Jackson's final season, but the front office's decision to fire him following a 51-win crusade and despite Curry's public preferences implied a stubbornness. 

    "Part of it was that he couldn't get along with anybody else in the organization," Warriors owner Joe Lacob said in December 2014. "And look, he did a great job, and I'll always compliment him in many respects, but you can't have 200 people in the organization not like you."

    Another side to this story exists, and Jackson, again, won over some of his players. Maybe he'll be better in new digs. The Knicks aren't in position to find out. They have too much riding on Kristaps Porzingis' future to artificially cap his ceiling with an uninventive offensive mind, and the prospect of him grating on the organization, from the front office to the players themselves, should scare them off.

4. Mike Woodson

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    In a development that had to, on some level, disarm even Mike Woodson himself, the Knicks sought and received permission to speak with the current Los Angeles Clippers assistant, per Wojnarowski.

    Can't you see it now? Carmelo Anthony exercising his early termination option with the Oklahoma City Thunder to come home? At least one of Kenyon Martin, Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace coming out retirement? James White getting NBA minutes?

    Woodson putting his right arm around Kristaps Porzingis, with his left stretched outward, gesturing toward nothing, as he stares into the abyss and zealously whispers: "Contested 19-footers. Contested 19-footers everywhere?"

    Looks like we went a beat or two too far.

    Woodson is more than his "The East is big, man" notoriety. He has coached in New York's pressure-cooker before. Spending time in Los Angeles isn't a public-relations picnic either. He helped groom J.R. Smith for Sixth Man of the Year status. He knows how to play the part of company man. You don't survive in MSG for more than a year if you don't.

    Most importantly, he is a memento from New York's last taste of real success. That 54-win squad from 2012-13 holds a special place in Knicks lore. It also fizzled out in the second round of the playoffs, crumbling under a Mark Jackson-esque offensive model. And Woodson's relative disdain for using Anthony at the 4 doesn't bode well for Kristaps Porzingis' future at the 5.

    Four years is a long time. Woodson may be more open to change following his stint with the Clippers—particularly after a season in which they navigated mass-turnover and injuries and experimented with four-shooters-and-DeAndre-Jordan lineups out of necessity.

    Rolling with Woodson is preferable to Jackson or the far less experienced Kenny Smith. Familiarity beats the unknown when the unknown promises limited gains. But the Knicks need someone who can shape their on-court identity. They have no idea whether Frank Ntilikina is a raw floor general or should-be off-guard, or if Porzingis' future lies at center (it does).

    Woodson isn't the option who will get them definitive answers. Past aversions to small-ball aside, he's spent the last decade or so, as both a head coach and assistant, trying to ensure fringe-playoff outfits built around veterans continue to run in place.

    Charging him with the livelihood of the Knicks' (alleged) rebuild is too safe of a play—unspectacular in its risk, but even more so in its potential reward. 

3. David Blatt

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    Sonia Canada/Getty Images

    David Blatt is another one of the preordained favorites to land this gig, per Wojnarowski. And contrary to a hypothetical Mark Jackson hire, he's a dice roll worth embracing.

    Submission to a feeling of inevitability might be caked in here. Blatt was teammates with Knicks president Steve Mills at Princeton. Which you know means everything in the NBA. Fighter Pilot meme upside does, too. (Related: It does not.)

    Blatt will have more than his fair share of naysayers. His stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers was less than inspiring despite including an NBA Finals cameo. He was fired halfway through his second go-round, with his team 30-11 and sitting atop the Eastern Conference. That doesn't say much about his fit. And the Cavaliers' historic comeback in the NBA Finals roughly five months later only helps reinforce the notion that he was part of the problem.

    Some blame most definitely falls on Blatt. He didn't handle his entry into the NBA with poise and polish. He instead preferred to remind the media and public at large of his preexisting poise and polish.

    He didn't fancy himself a rookie sideline sage. He was revered for his work overseas, specifically with Maccabi Tel Aviv. To suggest he was on a learning curve of any kind would be a personal affront. He was sensitive to his mistakes, to his general newness and over-the-top in his defenses of it all.

    Writing off Blatt would still be a mistake. He never saw the Cavaliers team he was hired to coach. LeBron James came home, and everything changed. Blatt may be guilty of ignorance and, at times, over-coaching. But he wasn't hired to be a hands-off chaperone for a veteran team, and he didn't have enough NBA reps under his belt to see the value in escorting rather than micromanaging a championship team. 

    Both that thirst for validation and his arrival preceding James' return did him in. That time in Cleveland cannot be his legacy. It really shouldn't even be part of his resume—not when he never had the opportunity to showcase the reason Cleveland hired him at all: his ceiling-less offense.

    People are quick to coffin Blatt into the Princeton system. But he's supposed to be more than that. The Princeton offense is the basis for what he does, not the entire construct.

    Early on, when the honeymoon illusion was still intact, certain Cavs players described Blatt's offensive approach as "free-flowing" and "detail-oriented." Never tedious or unfit for the NBA, but "Spurs-esque." That philosophy inherently clashes with James' ball dominance—which is fine. He's good enough, smart enough, GOAT enough, to be afforded that kind of control.

    Coaching New York would give Blatt a better opportunity to bring his celebrated ideology stateside. The Knicks don't have a superstar ego to which he must pander. Kristaps Porzingis is the closest he'll come, and not only is he out until at least Christmas, but he spent the first two years of his career ceding touches to Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose. He doesn't need the ball as a primary distributor.

    Equally pivotal: The Knicks don't have a primary distributor. They've been inconsistent in their development of Frank Ntilikina, Trey Burke isn't a long-term plug and Emmanuel Mudiay isn't someone worth building an entire system around. Latching onto Blatt and his egalitarian principles jibes with New York's question marks at the foremost playmaking spots.

2. David Fizdale

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    Anyone who Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra wishes upon the West should be fine by the Knicks. 

    David Fizdale has 13 years of experience to his name as an NBA assistant, including eight with Spoelstra. Four of those seasons spanned across the Big Three era, so he's no stranger to heightened scrutiny or the pressure associated with high-profile jobs. 

    Coaching a New York team on the, ahem, mend should be worlds easier than pitching in for whatever staff has LeBron James' legacy hanging over every loss. It comes as no surprise he made the onset list of candidates, per Woj. The Knicks like flashy names.

    Granted, Fizdale lasted fewer than two seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies. But his ousting had more to do with the franchise and its bizarre commitment to a disgruntled Marc Gasol. As Matt Moore, then of CBS Sports, wrote:

    "A person close to the situation made clear to CBS Sports that, while the team had been 'trending in the wrong direction,' without the irreconcilable differences between Fizdale and Gasol, Fizdale's termination might not have been necessary. The person, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks, also said that owner Robert Pera did not intervene in the situation despite his relationship with Gasol. The decision to fire Fizdale had been made by management Sunday night."

    Fizdale's failed union with Gasol doesn't say much. It is not a red flag for Fizdale's potential relationship with Kristaps Porzingis. Nor does it prove he's not player-friendly.

    Ask James and Dwyane Wade about Fizdale's ability to relate with his troops. They'll tell you as much. If anything, the Gasol debacle shows Fizzy is more suited to run an up-and-comer—a team more realistic about its expectations, stocked with players to an adaptive process.

    Who knows, maybe Fizdale isn't even on the market if the Grizzlies' season doesn't implode amid an onrush of injuries. They were lauded as pleasantly deep to start the year, and Fizdale made appreciable headway in the push to modernize their offense.

    Gasol began chucking threes. Mike Conley posted the highest usage rate of his career. Memphis went from taking around 58.5 percent of its shots at the rim or from beyond the arc in 2015-16 to 64.5 percent during the 2016-17 campaign, according to Cleaning The Glass. The offense's three-point-attempt rate specifically jumped by nearly 10 percentage points.

    Instilling that degree of change within a veteran contingent isn't easy. That Fizdale invoked such a shift while keeping the Grizzlies in the playoff hunt says something. He should be able to do even more with a blank canvas. 

    The lone wrinkle: The Knicks are not touting the most appealing job. That honor belongs to the Milwaukee Bucks, who are manned by interim head coach Joe Prunty. If Fizdale wants to wait out their postseason run to explore the possibility of coaching Giannis Antetokounmpo, New York must weigh other options.

1. Jerry Stackhouse

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    Jerry Stackhouse joins David Blatt and Mark Jackson as the Knicks' third and final perceived favorite for the job, per Woj. Really, given the current list of candidates, he should be considered the bar-none favorite.

    Stackhouse is miles away from the most experienced name in the pool, but he's not completely green either. He spent a year as an assistant under Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey and has been the big cheese for Raptors 905, Toronto's G-League affiliate, the past two seasons.

    Cutting his teeth at the developmental level is part of Stackhouse's appeal. He'll have no trouble navigating superstar egos. He spent 18 years playing in the NBA. He knows the deal.

    Instructing kiddies and professional fledglings is arguably a tougher task—especially when none of them are sure things. Stackhouse has embraced that undertaking. He led Raptors 905 to a championship last season, and they wrapped this year with the G-League's best defense.

    Although Stackhouse's teams aren't particularly fast—Raptors 905 has placed dead last in pace each of the past two seasons—his offensive approach is not archaic. Both his Raptors 905 squads finished in the top 10 of three-point-attempt rate, and he's talked previously about the importance of adjusting style based on personnel.

    Consider what he told ESPN.com's Zach Lowe during an offseason episode of The Lowe Post podcast (h/t Posting and Toasting):

    “I probably wouldn't like my game as a coach. Midrange twos...I tell guys, ‘All right, If it's the shot clock and [a] guy runs you off and you gotta take a one-dribble pull-up, OK, do it. But otherwise, let's try to get into the paint, pull another trigger, or find something else on the weakside, or just sidestep him and take the three...Guys who have efficient midrange games are always outliers.'"

    A Knicks coach? With an emphasis on shot profiles? It sounds too good to be true—and is exactly what they need.

    Stackhouse shouldn't be counted on for instant results. That only means he's in the same boat as the Knicks. They'll have nothing to play for until Kristaps Porzingis is healthy, and they'll be a work in progress even then. Stackhouse, at 43, is equal parts young, hip and enlightened enough to help them find their identity and see this rebuild through.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.