By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks fired their head coach Monday in what can only be described as a big shock.
When all is said and done, it might end up being a good thing for the long-term health of the franchise, but it is still puzzling. Derek Fisher was only in the second year of a five-year contract. When team president Phil Jackson hired him, the plan seemed to be for him to grow with a team that was not ready to win. Last year's debacle of a season made that even more plausible.
Whenever a team hires a head coach that was a player just weeks before, there has to be an expectation of a learning curve. Fisher was not going to step in and be Red Auerbach his first year as head coach. If anything, his learning was set back last year when Carmelo Anthony missed most of the season with a bad knee and Jackson jettisoned J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. Fisher was coaching a team whose roster was filled with fringe NBA players. It's hard for a coach to learn in those situations.
Fisher had made progress this season. After playing 12 men a night in the first month, he shortened his rotation and found better results. Recent injuries to Anthony, Jose Calderon and Lance Thomas forced him to abandon that plan in recent weeks. (You can argue those injuries occurred because of the extended minutes.)
The team had improved defensively and sat in the middle of the league for most of the season. Until recently, no one ever questioned that the Knicks had bought in and were playing hard for Fisher. Anthony was playing the most team-oriented basketball of his career under Fisher. With Fisher as his head coach, Kristaps Porzingis is right in the middle of a two-man race for rookie of the year.
Fisher deserves credit for all those things, especially on being able to reach Anthony.
Before the season started, most people predicted the Knicks would finish with 35 to 40 wins. Despite their recent skid, they are still on pace for 35 wins. They are 0-7 this year when Anthony doesn't play. With him in the lineup, they are 23-24. Not bad, right? But apparently not good enough.
Jackson cited the team's recent nine-of-10 losing skid as a major reason for Fisher's firing, but there were mitigating circumstances. Anthony missed three of those games with injury. In the ones he did play in, he was hobbled, shooting just 36-of-108 (33 percent), scoring fewer than 18 points per game and also playing much less defense than he had been earlier in the season. Similarly, Porzingis has been going through a cold streak (41-of-109, 38 percent, 12.7 ppg) and the team was without its starting point guard, Calderon, and valuable sixth man, Thomas, for some games during that stretch. Could any coach have done much better under those circumstances?
Granted, the Knicks did start very slow in some of those games, but they fought back and made most of the games close, spare a couple. They didn't quit in those games when they were down. If they had quit on Fisher, would they have made those runs? Probably not.
If you list the reasons the Knicks are out of the playoff picture (no second-chance scoring, no backcourt defense, no backcourt depth), is Fisher really at the top of the list? Not to me. Is this team really underperforming to its talent level? I don't think so.
The roster isn't that good. If this team is going to take the next step, the personnel must improve, and that's on the general manager.
This is not to say Fisher didn't have his issues. His substitution patterns and rotations were still baffling at times. He would allow Porzingis to disappear too often offensively and not get him enough touches in the high screen-and-roll. His end-of-game management was a struggle sometimes, whether play calling or other decision making. Rookie Jerian Grant hasn't developed much under Fisher.
Those were all weaknesses, and if they didn't get better, Fisher would not have been an upper-echelon coach.
In fact, right now, Fisher was at best an average NBA coach. But was he given enough time to develop into a top head coach? A season and a half is a blink of an eye in the coaching profession, especially with the entire second half of last season wasted on a terrible roster.
Continuity does mean something in sports, and that is something Jackson seems to understand. That should indicate there was probably more going on than just what we saw on the court. Jackson mentioned in his press conference Monday that he had issues with how Fisher worked with some of his veteran assistants, such as Kurt Rambis and Jim Cleamons. Those are Phil's guys. Perhaps it goes deeper than just communication, but unless there are leaks, we'll probably never know.
Maybe Jackson had decided Fisher would never develop into the type of coach that can win. If he was convinced of that, it was better to make the move sooner than later, and Jackson should be applauded for it.
So now the Knicks move forward with Rambis serving as interim coach for this season. They will try to make the playoffs, but at this point, the chances of that are slim.
This summer, Jackson needs to hire a coach that will outlast the two years left on his own contract. There needs to be a stabilizing force for the franchise. There needs to be one for Porzingis too, who is not helped by having multiple coaches in the span of a year. The Knicks haven't had stability since Jeff Van Gundy. That needs to change with their new head coach this summer, or nothing is going to change for the better.
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