By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
Veteran coaches George Karl and Lionel Hollins are still knocking on doors. Longtime assistant and former New York Knicks great Patrick Ewing still can’t get a sniff for a head coaching job even as 19 of the league’s 30 teams decided to hire new coaches since the end of last season.
Including Ewing’s old Knicks with their new president with the famous limp and all that bling.
Phil Jackson wanted to keep his coaching search within his Triangle-of-trust, so to speak, so once former top choice and former Chicago Bulls sharpshooter Steve Kerr spurned him to take the Golden State Warriors’ gig, Jackson tapped the next man up, freshly retired Derek Fisher. The former Los Angeles Lakers point guard put a wrap on a distinguished 18-year career following the Oklahoma City Thunder’s loss in the Western Conference finals just 11 days ago.
On Tuesday, the dapperly dressed Fisher was introduced as the 26th coach of the New York Knicks. Jackson, and Knicks owner James Dolan, awarded him a five-year, $25-million contract to breath some blue-collar life into a high-ego and seemingly incongruent, salary-cap-strapped roster.
Fisher, although, promptly pointed out, as any smart coach would, that he’s more optimistic about the immediate potential of his new team than are most observers.
“I’m not as down on the roster and the team as some of you in the room are,” Fisher said, smiling at reporters gathered at Madison Square Garden.
Fisher has always been something of a political animal.
He was also the perfect set-up man and emotional stabilizer to play next to the Lakers’ high-strung star. Fisher was a steady, level-headed and intelligent quarterback who didn’t need to score to be satisfied, but was always ready to take the big shot. He made plenty of them along the road to five Lakers championships with Kobe and Phil.
Fisher, 39, never was the natural talent or showman like Jason Kidd, his now-crosstown coaching rival in Brooklyn who preceded Fisher by one year in making the rare move of stepping out of the locker room and into the coach’s chair.
But like Kidd, Fisher enjoyed a long career as a successful floor general and garners a high level of respect from the league’s players. With Oklahoma City for parts of the last three seasons, Fisher gained the trust and admiration of the Thunder’s front office and coach Scott Brooks, and served as a hybrid assistant coach-mentor-sounding board for the team’s two young stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
“He’s well-respected in the locker room, knows the game of basketball, great basketball mind and he’s been in situations before,” Durant said during the Thunder’s exit interviews. “Having those guys that respect you and you have that experience, it helps. He’s a great leader, a great communicator … he works extremely hard and he’s dedicated.”
Jackson’s belief is that Fisher will forge a similar relationship with currently discontented Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, assuming he re-signs.
Even if Anthony stays, Fisher’s new job is going to be tough. The roster, despite Fisher’s early protestation, is in tatters. The Knicks do not have a first-round draft pick and because the team’s 2014-15 payroll is already pushing well into the luxury tax, Jackson’s hands are mostly tied to make impactful changes this summer.
It makes Fisher’s situation more dire than the one Kidd inherited after he retired from the Knicks following the 2012-13 season and surprisingly stepped into the Nets’ top job. Kidd took over a better roster, buttressed by former Celtics greats Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and one essentially free of troublemakers. Although the season started shakily with Kidd absorbing heavy criticism, even though early injuries played a significant role, Kidd eventually found his footing and the Nets finished the season strongly, advancing to the second round.
Fisher got a taste of wait awaits before he even woke up this morning. Eccentric shooting guard J.R. Smith proclaimed on Twitter in the early morning hours that he’s done with his sixth-man role:
Perhaps Jackson is taking a big risk by hiring a man with no coaching experience to handle this job. Jackson said he’s betting on Fisher’s experiences playing with this generation’s players, calling Fisher “hip-hop-ready.”
And even the most accomplished coaches, such as Karl, would have a devil of a time flipping these Knicks back into the 54-win team they were just a season ago. With Fisher, Jackson at least knows he’ll always have his ear and will always be on the same page. Jackson can guide Fisher’s entrance into the profession as a firm rudder and in shaping the style the Knicks will bring to the Garden floor.
Then it becomes about Jackson earning his $60 million and crafting a roster of players that can execute the game plan — and stealing Durant as a free agent in 2016 shouldn’t be Plan A, at least not yet. The cold, hard truth is this rebuild is going to take time and patience.
“He always tries to tell you and let you know what’s right,” the Thunder’s Westbrook said of Fisher. “It may not be what you want to hear all the time, but what’s right is what’s right.”
Words Fisher will want to continue to live by as a rookie head coach making the leap onto a very big stage.