Four weeks ago, the New York Knicks sat at 19-20, having already surpassed last season's win total. They ranked 15th in the league in points scored per possession and 18th in points allowed per possession; they were, more or less, a slightly-below-average NBA team. They had one present-tense All-Star playing arguably the best all-around ball of his career, one exciting future star providing tantalizing nightly glimpses of his expansive talent, and a head coach who, with the benefit of an actual NBA roster in Year 2, seemed to be making incremental improvements in his second season.
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Then Carmelo Anthony stepped on a referee's foot, missed two games and played 90 total minutes in his first two games back. He started experiencing soreness in his surgically repaired left knee, missed three of the next 10 games, and looked limited in the other seven. (Lance Thomas, New York's second-best wing player, also missed four of those games.) The Knicks have lost nine of 10, falling five games out of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, and now Derek Fisher is out of a job.
It's not quite that simple, of course. ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst reported Monday that the Knicks were "already convinced Fisher was not transitioning from the role of player to coach effectively" before the slide, inviting speculation about whether Fisher's role in the Matt Barnes fiasco contributed to the farewell. (Knicks president of basketball operations Phil Jackson said Monday that it didn't.)
Still, though, that's about the size of it. The Knicks have lost a bunch of games recently, including a nationally televised oof-fest to the Detroit Pistons and a Super Bowl Sunday matinee to the similarly scuffling Denver Nuggets that elicited lusty boos from the Madison Square Garden faithful. That, according to Jackson, is why Fisher's gone, barely a year and a half into a five-year contract.
That thinking — things have been bad for 10 games, so let's fire the coach — feels hasty. Rash. It feels like a product of overreacting to a surprising start, being tricked by one or two good months into thinking you're one or two moves away. It feels, frankly, like a Jim Dolan move, one born out of distemper and impatience.
Jackson denied that on Monday, too, saying he and general manager Steve Mills had discussed firing Fisher for "a couple of days" before telling Dolan of their decision last night. This wasn't Phil getting bigfooted; this was Phil taking a look at the state of the Knicks and believing that associate head coach Kurt Rambis, the "true coach" who rolled up a 32-132 record in Minnesota, was more likely than Fisher to produce ball movement, player movement and results.
"We're looking for better starts, getting out of the gate a bit better, and better finishes," Jackson told reporters Monday. "We have not been a good team finishing games this year. We're looking for our defense to get back to where it was, I think, earlier in the season. I thought we had a pretty good defensive stance as a basketball club."
On these scores, Jackson has a point. Only seven teams have a worse efficiency differential in opening quarters than New York this season, meaning Fisher's club had been digging itself early holes all too often. The Knicks offense has, on balance, produced well in so-called "clutch situations" (the last five minutes of games where the score's within five points) this season, averaging 109.6 points per 100 possessions in 124 such "clutch" minutes. The defense, however, has been a sieve in close-and-late conditions, allowing 110.8 points-per-100.
Phil's right about the Knicks defense sliding over the last four weeks, with New York giving up 107.9 points-per-100 over the last 15 games, a steep decline from their work through the first half of the season. Fisher had shown some improvement in managing New York's rotations, but he often struggled with generating good looks out of timeouts and, like predecessor Mike Woodson, at times showed a predilection toward isolation-heavy play-calling, whether for Anthony or Arron Afflalo, making the Knicks more predictable and more easily stifled on critical late-game possessions. ("We don't run plays" also wasn't a particularly Fisher-friendly sound byte.)
So, yes: the Knicks have been worse recently, and some of Fisher's flaws didn't help. That said, New York's 23-24 in the games Anthony has played this year, and the recent downturn has included losses to the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Toronto Raptors, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics and Memphis Grizzlies — all comfortably in playoff spots, all clearly better overall than the Knicks.
The team's defensive struggles seem to stem not so much from deficient schemes, but rather from the inability of their guards — chiefly veteran starters Afflalo and Jose Calderon, but also reserves Sasha Vujacic and Jerian Grant — to hold up at the point of attack. And while slow starts have been a problem, it's sure looked — especially recently — like New York has sputtered early while working through triangle sets only to pick things up later with a more pick-and-roll-focused attack.
Fisher might not have done himself any favors by saying in a recent radio interview he wouldn't be disappointed if the Knicks missed the playoffs because "we're a developing team with a ton of new players," that "we have to be reasonable about who we are and where we are" and that the team should focus on "process" over results. And yet, coming off the worst season in franchise history, with nearly all of the roster turned over and linchpin Kristaps Porzingis just scratching the surface of what he can become, $20 million in salary cap space coming and the Knicks controlling all their future first-round draft picks after this summer, it's hard to see what he got wrong.
Before this season, I asked if the Knicks were building something or just biding time before another blow-up. Monday doesn't provide a definitive answer; moving on from a coach of Fisher's caliber isn't the end of the world at any stage of your franchise timeline. But Fisher's firing, and Jackson's intimation that he might look to be win-now active ahead of the Feb. 18 trade deadline, suggest that even with new decision-makers in charge, the Knicks might still be prioritizing instant gratification over the hard work of constructing a consistently competitive club.
How much better this iteration of the Knicks can or should be, and how much of that distance is owed to Fisher's shortcomings, seems very much an open question, but Jackson and Rambis clearly believe they know the answer. From Marc Berman of the New York Post:
“There’s a way for them to play better that we should see,” Jackson said Monday following practice in Westchester. “It’s a lot easier to fire the coach than the 15 players. … We want this team to be competitive.” [...]
Jackson believes the Knicks roster this season — buoyed by the emergence of rookie Kristaps Porzingis — is better than the record indicates and the team was regressing in its grasp of the triangle offense.
If he does — if Rambis sparks a finish that puts the Knicks in the playoffs and puts a scare into a top seed — he'll get a long look after the season. If he doesn't, Jackson will look for the Knicks' next potential sideline savior, a list likely to be headlined by two other former Jackson players, sought-after Golden State Warriors assistant Luke Walton and deposed ex-Nuggets coach Brian Shaw.
There will be rumblings about former Knicks assistant and ousted Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. Some Knicks fans will call for the return of team legend/Charlotte Hornets associate head coach Patrick Ewing. It's always possible that Jackson could surprise by casting a wider net. But it sounds like the Zen Master's in the market for someone with whom he's already worked and who's already fluent in his preferred geometry.
"It's always good to have a relationship," Jackson said Monday. "It's not paramount, but at some point I'm going to have to have a relationship with someone who's going to coach this team. [...] The system of basketball is what's important here. [The triangle] happens to be a system that we were familiar with, so it's not paramount, but it's important."
It's understandable to view communication, organizational alignment and a shared vision of the best path forward as fundamental to building a winner. So too, though, is being honest about where you stand in that process. The Knicks' ongoing construction project took a hit Monday, not because it lost the sole foreman capable of completing the task, but because it opened the door to increased doubt that the architect got the blueprint right.
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