Almost immediately after Steve Kerr spurned Phil Jackson’s New York Knicks to take a head coaching job with the Golden State Warriors, all rumor-lovin’ eyes looked to longtime Jackson point guard Derek Fisher as the next likely candidate to take over for Jackson’s yet-to-be-outlined rebuilding project. After all, Fisher would seem to fit in the long line of highly regarded basketball brains – Danny Ainge, Larry Bird, Doc Rivers, Mark Jackson, Jason Kidd, and now Kerr – to be appearing fit for the role of a head man despite no previous coaching experience at any level.
The only two concerns? Well, they’re kind of major.
For one, Derek Fisher currently works for the Oklahoma City Thunder in a reserve role in the team’s backcourt. Not only is he an active player, but his team is set to tip off the Western Conference Finals on Monday in San Antonio. Simply even confirming a rumor of mutual interest would be disastrous for all involved, with New York potentially on the hook for tampering, and with Fisher in line to receive criticism for playing for a championship contender with one foot already out the door.
Secondly, there’s that nagging question as to whether or not Fisher would even want to jump directly to the bench, in New York or elsewhere. Just because he would seem to have the makeup of a great potential head coach, is that something he’d want to pursue after retirement? Be it in 2014-15 (as Jason Kidd jumped, weeks after calling it quits), or some years down the line (as the other names listed above chose to do).
On Monday, with his team meeting the press one final time prior to the Western finals, Fisher was forced into the unfortunate task of having to tactfully discuss a job he hasn’t interviewed for, and may not even want. After the New York Post's Marc Berman initially approached Fisher in a one-on-one setting to talk about his potential reunion with Jackson, other reporters hopped into the scrum to get an earful from Fisher regarding this unique situation. We take our quotes from the Oklahoman’s Darnell Mayberry:
What are your thoughts on the Knicks job?
Obviously, it's humbling. It's flattering. But Phil knows better than anybody at this time of year that singular focus that you have to have, and that's what I'm trying to do for myself and for this team. My future, regardless of what it is, I'm not concerned about it until after these playoffs are done.
You're friends with Phil. You wrote on your blog you're still very close. Has he been talking to you through the playoffs a little bit just seeing how things are going?
No. We touched base right before his official press conference when he accepted the job. And since then, we haven't spoken. Obviously, he's busy in terms of trying to make the changes he needs to make there. But I have a day job as well, and I think he respects that more than anybody. He taught me a lot about how to operate during this time of year. We talk every offseason. I'm sure we'll talk again when the season's over. But I don't have any intentions on reaching out to him. And I think he respects the space that I'm in right now as well.
Jackson would respect that space regardless of NBA law, but let’s also remind that Phil Jackson can’t really have anything to do with officially reaching out to Fisher until his season ends and he officially retires, a retirement plan he told reporters he’s “sticking with” right now.
In talking with USA Today’s Sam Amick, Fisher swore up and down that the idea of coaching the Knicks hasn’t even crossed his mind, something that seems almost impossible even for the most single-minded of competitors:
"I literally have not given any thought," Fisher told USA TODAY Sports when asked specifically whether he wants to be a coach. "I've kept all my options open for years for that reason. I've been asked for more than a decade what I'm doing next.
"(But) I think you have to want to do anything you decide to do that requires the type of time and effort that coaching requires. You go through your process at the appropriate time, and then you decide from there."
The new Knicks personnel boss – we think, as Knicks owner James Dolan still looms – doesn’t need to rush into securing next season’s coach. It’s very possible that Jackson has absolutely no issue with punting the 2014-15 season, even if free agent Knicks scorer Carmelo Anthony is re-signed to the maximum going rate. Jackson wasn’t always a “win now” sort of coach, often seeing the big picture in terms of early season losses or early game deficits, and with the Knicks capped out and without draft picks heading into next season, he might have the right mindset in order to take over a franchise that has really salted the crops at Madison Square Garden.
Or, he could go into it with his small circle and make a series of bum, 1997-era, moves. An Allman Brothers Band-listening version of Larry Brown. His call.
The idea that Fisher would want to immediately step into coaching, as Kidd did, hasn’t even been confirmed. Kidd wasn’t on anyone’s radar as a head coaching hire during his team’s playoff run last year, and though the former All-Star enjoyed moderate success in Brooklyn this year, there is credibility to the idea that athletes need a little time away from the game in order to develop a steadier coach’s mentality. Even if that time is spent away from the game, as Bird did, or on a television screen (Ainge, Rivers, and Mark Jackson).
ESPN reported on Monday that Phil Jackson was open to discussing his open gig with the recently-fired Mark Jackson, but that would seem like a move pitched only to placate New York fans, for both sides. Mark Jackson appears more than content to work every so often at ABC/ESPN while still collecting money from Golden State this year and next, and Phil Jackson likely wants nothing to do with the often isolation-heavy offense that Mark employed with the Warriors.
And with Jackson associates Kurt Rambis, Bill Cartwright and Luke Walton seemingly better fit for assistants’ roles, and with the Knicks unable to pry Brian Shaw away from his job in Denver, Fisher would seem to be that guy. Even if he’s never coached. Even if he’s still playing.
With so many potential options on the potential table for Fisher – front office work, a TV gig, other coaching jobs, time with his family – one has to wonder if Derek, as Kerr did, might want to give this opportunity a bit of a miss. We won’t know for a little while, at least.
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