Why would Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks toss a five-year, $25 million deal at a rookie head coach in Derek Fisher, who is just a week or so removed from flinging jumpers as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder?
Because they can. And this is something we’re all going to have to get over.
After a long and complicated and expensive courtship, the Knicks finally agreed to terms with Jackson’s longtime Los Angeles Lakers point guard as he wrapped up an 18-year playing career. We have no idea what sort of coach Fisher will turn into, outside of the idea that he will probably lean on the triple post offense that served both Fisher and Jackson so well in Los Angeles, but that’s par for the course with every coach.
We have no idea how a respected lead assistant coach, an X's and O's mastermind, is going to pull off his first gig as a head man on the job – he could turn into a Tom Thibodeau, or a John Kuester. We had no idea how Jason Kidd was going to work in his first season with the Nets, directly after his playing career, and we have no idea how Steve Kerr is going to work in his first season following an executive and broadcasting career in 2014-15. Hell, we have no clue how Flip Saunders – what with his midrange-heavy offense possibly outmoded – is going to work as coach of a Timberwolves team he helped put together, one he coached from 1995 through 2005.
These are all fluid and unique situations. This relates to the pay scale, as well.
Coaching salaries don’t count against the salary cap, and despite just one second-round appearance in 13 years of James Dolan-led play, with massive player payrolls working against them along the way, the Knicks still have a license to just about print money. They, as is the case with Kidd in Brooklyn, Kerr in Golden State and Brad Stevens in Boston, can afford to pay for the long-term approach as Fisher learns on the job.
Without attempting to get into Derek Fisher’s head too much, one also has to understand that it’s possibly Fisher wanted no part in any combination of working with New York’s current group of players, helming a rebuilding situation, dealing with Dolan, dealing with the New York press, or re-submitting to the grind of having to work an 82-game season. Even the retiring Shane Battier, who has Redwood-sized potential in his post-playing career, took a relatively cushy gig as an ESPN college basketball analyst for his first year away from the NBA. After years in the grind, and checking into (admittedly, five-star) hotel rooms at 2 a.m. in Memphis on a Wednesday, players sometimes want a break from the lifestyle.
This is why the Knicks may have had to pay extra to keep Fisher away from the cable TV headset, away from his left coast-situated family, and to lure him into one of the biggest messes in sports. For Fisher to commit to New York just 10 days after Oklahoma City’s season ended probably speaks less to any possible conspiracy and/or tampering theories, and more to do with … well, five years and $25 million. He’ll figure Dolan, New York City, and the art of coaching out eventually, but those checks will clear right away.
Comparing Fisher’s salary to that of the two coaches still working in June, Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra, is silly. These are coaches situated in small and medium market towns, with owners that have to mind the store. If anything, the only comparison worth kvetching about is pointing out that Fisher (and five other coaches) will make more than Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau next year. Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf has long treated his big-market team like a small-market franchise, though, so it’s not too surprising in retrospect.
And, again, coaching salaries have no lasting impact on anything else but the team’s overall payroll, and not the various salary cap laws.
A coach’s salary won’t force you to let a rotation player go to a competing team in the offseason; a coach’s salary won’t force you into dealing a former All-Star purely for payroll relief and dubious draft picks; and a coach’s salary won’t stop you from adding players to your roster via salary cap exceptions. A coach’s salary is just the raw, payroll number – and New York (along with Golden State, Brooklyn, Boston and both Los Angeles squads) has the cash in hand to not have to mind the numbers.
This is why we shouldn’t mind these sorts of numbers for New York. If the Knicks sign Carmelo Anthony to a potentially cap-killing contract that will cost them dearly several years down the line, sure, rail away. Not against Fisher, though, regardless of how he turns out as a head coach.
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