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NEW YORK – As a young NBA coach, the fastest path to losing a locker room comes this way: Behave like a player. To fly to California and visit a girlfriend in the middle of the New York Knicks' training camp – engaging Matt Barnes in a Tom-and-Jerry tussle-and-chase – cost Derek Fisher dearly. Fisher lost the moral high ground inside Madison Square Garden, lost a measure of gravitas as a leader of men.
The embarrassment of his unfilmed "Real Housewives" episode didn't cost Fisher his job as Knicks coach, but it did start him on a slippery slope toward his firing on Monday. That October weekend odyssey was Fisher's choice, and the blame for it all – including the failure to return to New York in time to conduct a Knicks practice – belongs to him.
Still, sometimes culture influences behavior inside organizations. Think Fisher never saw Phil Jackson bolting town to see Jeanie Buss? As one member of the Knicks organization wondered, "Where would [Fisher] get the idea that it was OK to fly to California on an off day to see your girlfriend?"
For better and worse, yes, Jackson's lifestyle and sensibilities set the tone with the Knicks. Fisher lost players with his discombobulated rotations and revolving roles. Inside the locker room, the Knicks had come to struggle with understanding how they fit into this team, league sources said. Above Fisher, Jackson worried about how that impacted the development of the roster. What's more, there were times Jackson felt Fisher had strayed too far from the triangle offense, still a sacred part of the Knicks president's program.
For Fisher, there was no advantage to longtime Jackson disciples Kurt Rambis and Jim Cleamons getting jammed onto his coaching staff 18 months ago. The Knicks have the resources to hire elite coaches, and Jackson pursues the familiar, the comfortable. His coaching tree is too small, too unaccomplished to cling so tightly to it. Rambis and Brian Shaw have no business as candidates to coach the Knicks – but there's a world of Jackson sycophants that delivers the idea credibility.
Everyone can forget about Tom Thibodeau's candidacy, because Jackson would never cede control – never mind to someone who sees basketball so diametrically different than him. Anyway, Jackson has never hid his disdain for the Jeff Van Gundy coaching tree; in truth, most everyone else's coaching trees.
In a lot of ways, Jackson exists in a parallel universe to the NBA. He hires coaches out of his world, personnel scouts out of his world. The idea of Rambis, Shaw or Cleamons as long-term Fisher replacements is embarrassing. Jackson isn't using the Knicks' vast resources to lure the best player personnel staffs and coaches to the Knicks, just likeminded people, just his guys. Nevertheless, he probably never promised owner James Dolan a different vision. Every executive has the right to execute his vision, but this is far too narrow, too exclusive.
There are two kinds of employees with the Knicks: Jackson's guys and Dolan's guys. Jackson tried to move out some of Dolan's people, but never got his way. Within both groups, there are some real, smart, talented people. Jackson has made solid personnel decisions in free agency, and wisely kept the No. 4 pick in the 2015 draft to select Kristaps Porzingis. Still, the coach, the system, will be important in free-agent recruiting, because most believe Jackson is a short-timer on the job.
The Knicks have a real chance to sell Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook in 2017 – New York and Porzingis have his attention, yes – and Jackson ought to start constructing an elite coaching staff to begin that process with Westbrook and with free agents beyond him.
Golden State assistant Luke Walton is closest to a legitimately coveted candidate with ties to Jackson and the triangle – and he's still largely unproven, too. Walton intrigues Jackson, but truth be told: Why would Walton come East without an assurance Jackson is committed to the long run in New York? There's still a strong belief Jackson will eventually find his way to his fiancée Jeanie Buss and the Los Angeles Lakers. Walton will be competing with Thibodeau for the Lakers job in the spring, and who knows: Jackson and Walton could be reunited there.
Walton is a West Coast guy, the way his boss, Steve Kerr, is too. Kerr turned down Jackson and New York, because he had far more attractive choices. Porzingis makes the Knicks job intriguing in the long run, but make no mistake: One way or another, Jackson will be gone before the next Knicks coach has cycled through New York. To think the next Knicks president/GM – Steve Mills or Isiah Thomas – will stay true to the triangle is absurd, and so hiring one more triangle coach is almost guaranteeing him Fisher's fate.
Nine losses in 10 games – including five straight – was the end of the line for Derek Fisher on Monday. He lost credibility in the preseason and lost his grip on these Knicks in the past month. Fisher tried to push past that triangle offense, and Phil Jackson resisted those wishes. Jackson doesn't want to come downstairs and do the job himself, but yet he still demands it done his way, on his terms. His coaching tree is full of failures trying to be him, trying to run his vision. Another is on the way to New York, and history has shown: There's only one Phil Jackson, and unless he wants to coach the Knicks himself, he ought to let someone else do it his way.
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