On Monday, the New York Knicks hired Derek Fisher to be their new head coach, and agreed to pay him a king's ransom in the process. On Tuesday, the team — led by president of basketball operations Phil Jackson — held a press conference at the Knicks' Greenburgh, N.Y., practice facility to introduce Fisher as the 26th coach in franchise history and engage in the customary talk of renovation, refurbishment and return to greatness.
"There have been teams that have walked the halls of the Garden that have experienced championship-level success," said Fisher, who is less than two weeks removed from logging 32 1/2 minutes in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. "There have been great coaches and great players that have come through this organization, and we know, without a doubt, that we can re-establish what that means, what that is, how to create that, how to live in that on a daily basis. I'm excited. I look forward to this as much as I have anything in life as a professional."
Let's join Fisher in looking forward, and run through the major takeaways from Tuesday's introduction.
1. Fisher is, at this point, exactly what Phil Jackson wanted.
The Zen Master reportedly wanted a young coach with whom he had a personal relationship, whom he could mentor as a professional, and who was familiar with the triangle offense. Check, check, check.
The 39-year-old Fisher goes from being the second-oldest player in the NBA to its third-youngest coach, behind only Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics and Jacque Vaughn of the Orlando Magic. He spent parts of nine seasons playing point guard in Jackson's triangle system with the Los Angeles Lakers, but he's also a blank slate, having never served as a coach — head, assistant or otherwise — on any level. (More on that in a sec.) And as both teacher and pupil discussed during Tuesday's introductory press conference, there's quite a relationship there.
"I can't say enough words about Derek because I've known him for quite a few years and we've gone through a lot of situations together," Jackson said.
Later, Jackson lauded Fisher's ability to communicate.
"More than anything else, it was the ability of Derek to speak the truth from what the sense of the group was," Jackson said. "The coach can't always do that. He relies on his leaders to do that, and Derek was one of those players that's unique in his ability to speak to the players, both in their spirits and in their hearts."
Fisher called the opportunity to reconnect with Jackson, and build on "the history that we have together" from their years in Los Angeles, "something that is extremely exciting."
"Even if Phil and I did not have history together, the opportunity to work with and learn from one of the greatest basketball coaches and basketball minds that we've ever seen, as a basketball person, that's an opportunity that is worth pursuing, worth exploring," he said.
Still, the 18-year NBA veteran made clear that while the personal relationship was a significant factor in his decision to go straight from playing in the Western Conference finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder to replacing Mike Woodson on the Knicks' sideline, he'll enter Madison Square Garden with a determined sense of purpose.
"I'm taking a tremendous amount of pride in coming here and doing my job," Fisher said. "This is not a ceremony. This is not for PR. This is not for Phil and I to just hang out again as friends. This is to go to work, get our job done, and we want to add more banners to this ceiling in here."
2. Fisher's inexperience is chock full of experience (or something).
No, Fisher has never coached a game in his life. But, as Jackson and Fisher hammered home Tuesday, that's not the same as starting his coaching career from scratch.
"Obviously, Derek's in the learning process, but we think that his experience for the last three or four years has been more an assistant coach/player role," Jackson said. "And he's learned under some of the best coaches: Don Nelson, Jerry Sloan and, obviously, the latest was Scotty Brooks." (There was this one other coach, too. Tall guy. Threw up the Dynasty sign a lot.)
It's not easy to sell a total lack of job experience as a plus, but Fisher did his level best.
"Every experience that I've ever had and gained in the sport of basketball all leads to this moment," he said. "The good things, the bad things, the success, the failures, the mistakes, the triumphs, the championships, the early playoff exits — they all matter, and they all provide an experience for me that I look forward to sharing with our players and helping us reestablish the championship culture that exists in the DNA of this organization and in this city."
Fisher heaped praise on New York ("This is an amazing, amazing city, an amazing community"). He compared his journey to Manhattan to start his coaching career to the journeys undertaken by immigrants for who "have come to this city for hundreds of years looking for an opportunity to build something special, to create something new." He affirmed his intention that the Knicks will "operate and do business at a level of excellence and [with] a culture of success." And then he addressed the elephant in the room.
"There will obviously be a lot of talk about my inexperience as a head coach, and that is obviously factually true," he said. "I have not been a head coach in the NBA or college or high school. But I am experienced.
"Basketball is a game that I am experienced in playing, understanding, leading in, guiding in, helping another group of people achieve the greatest gift in the world as a professional athlete, and that is being a champion," he continued. "That, I have experience in. And that's the experience that I plan on sharing with these players, sharing with this organization [...] We will be committed to being the best, and our players will understand that, and that's what we're going to get back to. That is the bar that we will set again, within this team and within this organization. That's why I'm here. That's why I took advantage of this opportunity, to be a part of that process."
And just how large a role will his former head coach play in Fisher finding his own way in that process?
"Well, we'll figure that out as we go along, obviously," Jackson said. "I see a role simply as a guy who's willing and ready to offer support, and ready to step into a private session if need be, and talk about alternative things that can happen on the basketball court."
3. In a classic interview move, Fisher claims his strength comes from accepting his weakness.
Fisher understands that some people expect him to be ill-prepared for this job. As he sees it, though, he's been preparing himself for this moment since he was in first grade.
"I played my first game of organized basketball when I was six years old, and although I was one of the better kids on that team, I've very rarely been the best player, the most talented, the tallest, the highest-jumping, the best shooter on the basketball team," he said. "So right away as a young person, I immediately had to start thinking about the game of basketball and how it was played, and where I could find my advantages, and how I could be most effective, even though I wasn't physically the most gifted or talented.
"So for the last 33 years, that's the way I've always viewed the game. For the last 18 years as an NBA player in this business, that's the only reason I've been around [...] I thought the game as a coach. The angles, the advantages, the disadvantages, the spacing, defensively, the best way to do things, especially as a guy that continued to age in this league — how can I defend and still be effective?"
Whether that cerebral approach to playing defense will help him improve a Knicks team that finished 24th among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession this past season, of course, remains to be seen.
4. Fisher might not just run the triangle (but yeah, mostly, he'll be running the triangle).
When Jackson was introduced as the Knicks' president of basketball operations back in March, he trumpeted his belief in "system basketball," even if the system being run wasn't necessarily "the vaunted triangle offense" he deployed en route to 11 championship runs with the Lakers and Chicago Bulls. An experienced hand at facilitating the triangle from his days in forum blue and gold, Fisher emphasized his love for the triple-post offense, but suggested he'd be willing to integrate some other wrinkles, too.
"[The triangle system] is one that I'm well versed in, that I know extremely well," Fisher said. "I'm not sure if I've quite mastered it — I'm sure Phil would disagree, and Tex Winter would really disagree, that I ever mastered it — but I know it well. But I've also played for other great coaches that don't run the triangle, and it's not necessarily the only way to play basketball.
"But what we will do is do what we feel like is best for our team. I love the triangle system. I believe, with the roster we have, we can utilize it to be more efficient, to be more effective, to give ourselves a chance to play better defense by getting high-percentage shots. I believe in the system [...] but ultimately, we have to do what's best for the players and for the team to be successful."
5. Phil Jackson does not speak jive.
He made that much clear during his discussion of the qualities that make him feel confident that Fisher will be able to command the Knicks' locker room.
"I like the fact that he's current with the players," Jackson said. "This is a generation that's a little bit different than the one I grew up with. Guys that were listening to the Grateful Dead are not doing that anymore. Derek has kind of gotten into that beat, and he's hip-hop ready to get going with this group of guys in their language."
He's hip-hop ready to get going sounds like A) promotional copy written for a groundbreaking "urban" comic-book character introduced sometime around 1987 and B) something my dad might have said while trying to describe a problem he had with the clothes someone was wearing sometime around 1993. That was not something I expected to hear during a basketball-coach-hiring press conference in 2014. The New York Knicks: Always keeping you on your toes!
6. No, seriously, for real, you guys, James Dolan is not involved!
Fisher, in response to a question about what relationship he developed with the Knicks' much-maligned owner during CBA negotiations while Fisher was with the union: "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Dolan, obviously, as a businessman and what he's established here, but we don't have that type of personal relationship or rapport, per se. We spent some time in small rooms and bargaining sessions, et cetera, but other than that, we don't speak or haven't spoken. During this process, I've only spoken with Phil and with [general manager] Steve [Mills]."
Mills, vigorously underlining: "Jim and I have never had any conversations about Derek. I think what's most important for Jim is that Phil and I have a good relationship with Derek, and we feel like he's the right guy for the job. I think that's what's most important to him. We were together last night at the Rangers game. We didn't have a single conversation about Derek or this event today."
7. The Knicks are very aware that Carmelo Anthony has a choice.
Now that Fisher's signed on, the biggest remaining question for the Knicks is what will happen with their leading scorer and All-Star forward. Anthony can exercise an early termination option in his contract this summer, eschewing the final year and $23.3 million remaining on his deal to pursue free agency. He's expected to do so; he's consistent said he will.
From there, it's up to Anthony whether he wants to re-up with a Knicks franchise that can offer him a longer, more lucrative contract than any other team (roughly $129 million over the next five seasons) or to pursue pastures simultaneously less green (the out-of-town max: four years, just under $96 million) and perhaps greener (“Without a doubt, at this point in my career it’s about winning," Anthony said in his season-closing press conference).
Whether hiring Fisher meaningfully moves the needle in Melo's decision-making in either direction remains unclear, but the messaging coming from MSG on Tuesday seemed to be that the onus is on Melo, not them.
"As far as Carmelo is concerned, we obviously believe and feel that Carmelo is one of the top players not only in the NBA, but in the world — we want him to be here," Fisher said. "But ultimately, he has that choice. We'll do everything that we possibly can do to give him the confidence that we can get the job done, that we can put a team together that he can be proud of and that he feels like has a chance to contend in the NBA."
Fisher, later: "I've obviously not been on the same team as Carmelo. We've played against each other for years and, like I said earlier, he's one of the great ones. In due time, I'll continue to speak with all of our players, not just Carmelo, but there won't be any hesitation to let him know that I'm excited about the opportunity to possibly work with him. But like we said earlier, it will be his choice."
Jackson: "[Knicks GM] Steve [Mills] and I are planning to meet with Carmelo and some of his people in the near future. We want to express to him again our desire to have him back on the team. We haven't had a plan one way or another, opt-in or opt-out, because that's his choice. He sought that in free agency, so he's got the right to do that."
Fisher, again: "That's a big part of not only who I am as a person and have been as a player, but also who I'll be as a coach — ultimately, the decision to be great, to be a part of something special, to want to be the best that you can be, is ultimately your choice. Carmelo's in a position as a player where that's his choice."
OK, so, everyone agrees that 'Melo has a choice, and that the Knicks — totally capped out and over the luxury tax for 2014-15, with very little flexibility to add free-agent talent, without picks in the 2014 and 2016 NBA drafts (due to prior trades) and without the ability to trade their 2015 first-round pick (due to league rules), and with very few players on the roster who profile as trade chips or candidates for internal improvement — have an uphill climb when it comes to becoming the kind of title contender on which 'Melo wants to play. (A smiling Fisher, however, did tell reporters, "I'm not as down on the roster and the team as some of you in the room are.") But Fisher, Jackson and Mills sounded an optimistic note that Anthony's final choice would be to return.
"We obviously firmly believe that here is [the best] place for Carmelo and we're going to do our best to [...] help give him some confidence that, with the personalities involved and our commitment to working hard to achieve a certain level of success, that this is a place where he can have what it is he wants," Fisher said. "He wants to be on a great team, he wants to be around great people that want to achieve greatness. He's great and he deserves that. That's what we want to work to create with him, and hopefully we can do it."
Jackson joked about using Fisher's hardware to help with the convincing.
"I think I'll have Derek wear all five of his rings the first time he comes in and talks to Carmelo," he said. "Say, 'This is what we're working for,' you know."
New York enters the 2014 offseason a long, long way away from earning that kind of jewelry. But every long journey begins with a single step; with Fisher now in place, perhaps a Knicks organization that has long seemed to erase every step forward with two steps back can finally start putting one foot in front of the other.
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