Phil might want Rambis long-term, which should terrify Knicks fans

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Phil Jackson and Kurt Rambis might be the only ones smiling about this. (AP/Chris Carlson)
Phil Jackson and Kurt Rambis might be the only ones smiling about this. (AP/Chris Carlson)

Things were going badly for the New York Knicks when Phil Jackson made the decision to fire Derek Fisher. The team had lost nine out of its last 10 games to fall to 23-31, dropping five games out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and the Knicks president of basketball operations believed it was "time for us to make a change and get some wins."

The change Jackson made — bringing down the axe on his handpicked protege, and elevating longtime assistant Kurt Rambis to the interim coaching job — has not produced that intended result. New York has gone 8-16 under Rambis, with its offense producing two-tenths of a point more per 100 possessions and its defense allowing four-tenths of a point more.

The Knicks have looked no more like a playoff outfit in nearly two months of Rambis' stewardship than they did under the final two months of Fisher's tenure; they've been a bottom-five offense since his hiring, the league's more midrange-focused outfit, an often-plodding, rarely exciting pile of anachronistic goo slouching its way toward the end of yet another down season. To the extent that firing Fisher changed anything, it made things worse.

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And yet, despite that hoped-for bump failing to materialize, Jackson is "giving strong consideration to making Kurt Rambis [the Knicks'] full-time head coach," league sources tell Marc Stein and Ian Begley of ESPN.com:

Sources told ESPN.com that Rambis, who has served as the Knicks' interim coach since Derek Fisher was fired Feb. 8, is the preferred choice of team president ‎Phil Jackson, who sources say is pushing for a new multiyear deal for Rambis despite New York's 8-16 record since the coaching change. [...]

With Jackson, 70, insisting that he can no longer handle the day-to-day rigors of coaching, sources say he sees Rambis as the coach best suited to not only run the triangle offense he favors but also manage the team using Jackson's long-held principles. [...]

Phil Jackson last publicly addressed the Knicks' coaching situation in March during the team's West Coast road trip and said then that Rambis is "perfectly capable" of coaching the club on a full-time basis.

"Kurt and I have a relationship that goes back to 2001," Jackson said. "He knows the ins and outs, what pleases me and [what] probably I want to have changed. ... We have a relationship that's much more tight [than Jackson's relationship with Fisher]."

The ESPN report dovetails nicely with one filed earlier Tuesday by Frank Isola of the New York Daily News claiming that Jackson's been "more vocal at Knicks practices" since Rambis took over for Fisher, that multiple Knicks players "confirmed that they have noticed Jackson taking a more active role in helping Rambis run the team," and that Rambis "is Jackson’s preferred choice to keep the job because Rambis is more than willing to do things Jackson’s way":

If the Knicks really do belong to Jackson and he has full autonomy over personnel decision, than Rambis will receive a contract extension at some point this spring.

Rambis is Jackson’s one and only choice to coach the team and Jackson even has the blessing of Irving Azoff, the famous manager of the Eagles who brokered the deal with James Dolan to bring Jackson to New York 25 months ago. Azoff, a business partner with Dolan, is also close with Rambis and his wife. [...]

It’s not about results or relationships. It’s about Jackson being able to have more control over the team and the style they play with his guy in charge. And that’s Rambis.

On one hand, the idea that Jackson would prefer to keep Rambis around makes all the sense in the world. As I wrote last month, while Jackson's tenure as the Knicks' primary basketball decision-maker has largely seen him make measured, practical decisions after months of smokescreens and apparent media misdirections, those calls all fit seamlessly into the Zen Master's clear and consistently communicated goal of reforming the Knicks' culture around a system of basketball — namely, his system of basketball, the triangle offense: "In this case, doubling down on that effort by taking a greater role in the Knicks' day-to-day on-court operations seems more thematically appropriate than flouting his philosophy by sitting tight and pursuing a coaching candidate beyond his own sphere of influence."

I wrote that in the context of imagining Jackson coaching half the Knicks' games next season while Rambis coached the other half, but the principle holds for keeping Rambis around to coach all 82. If Phil believes the Knicks are best served by the insistent installation of, and dogmatic adherence to, the principles of his worldview and his offense, and he wants to have a more hands-on role in overseeing that installation and commanding that adherence, then he needs a head coach who will allow and reinforce it all without pushing back to create enough space to have his own say.

That means he's got to have a coach willing to run his stuff his way, which means we're probably talking about Knicks assistant Jim Cleamons, former Denver Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw or Rambis, who's already here, whom he reportedly hired "with the hope of keeping him on as his next head coach," and whom Jackson has said is "perfectly capable" of taking over the Knicks on a full-time basis, according to Isola:

“[...] he has a way of handling players. He’s relaxed yet he has the ability to keep them focused on the important parts of it. He’s a defensive-oriented guy. I had him as my defensive coordinator for my teams in 2007, eight and nine. And I think he has a real good handle on that part. So we’ll see how they go.”

That's the thing: how it's gone is how it's gone for Rambis throughout his NBA head coaching career. Poorly. Retaining Rambis would be the literal definition of insane: repeating a behavior and expecting it to produce different results.

In his first full-time shot at a full-time gig, Rambis famously imploded the Minnesota Timberwolves, going 32-132 in two full seasons on the job, thanks in part to roster-management choices like deciding a rookie power forward named Kevin Love needed to come off the bench, learn the ropes and earn his stripes behind 27-year-old veteran forward Ryan Gomes. In his first 24 games on the Knicks bench, he's managed to:

• Spend about a month messing with the minutes and game of prized rookie Kristaps Porzingis, whom he once compared to a cross between Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki, but whom he now wants to become a back-to-the-basket, work-out-of-the-post type who sometimes serves as a 7-foot-3 small forward rather than the futuristic stretch five he showed signs of becoming during his breakout first half;

• Play Carmelo Anthony, nearly 32 years old and a season removed from major knee surgery, 38 minutes a night for a month and a half straight in a season without a prayer of making the playoffs;

• Start veterans Jose Calderon and Sasha Vujacic — game competitors who can shoot and operate the offense, certainly, but defensive sieves and not part of the Knicks' future — over rookie Jerian Grant and Langston Galloway, who just might be;

• Continue to heap heavy minutes on older players at the expense of youngsters like Grant and Galloway until Anthony and his fellow vets literally went to him and suggested he cut it out;

• Move Arron Afflalo to the bench late in the season, which the veteran shooting guard said happened without even a conversation, which Rambis denied before later claiming that Afflalo — who can opt out of his contract with the Knicks this offseason — would only be helped in free agency by the move ("Him coming off the bench adds nothing but value to him").

In sum: Rambis has overworked his veterans, overlooked his young players, acted in ways that might alienate both camps, and lost two-thirds of his games in the process. I mean, what's not to love?

For his part, Anthony went on the record last month to say that while he believed Rambis should be considered for the long-term job after the season, “I think you still have to at least listen to other candidates out there." There's no shortage of coaching talent on the market — Tom Thibodeau, Scott Brooks, David Blatt, Jeff Hornacek, Luke Walton (should he decide to leave the Golden State Warriors, which seems less and less likely by the hour), Mark Jackson, Patrick Ewing, et al. — but, of course, none of those coaches (with the possible exception of Walton) check off the boxes that Jackson seems to want covered in his next head man, and that Rambis checks off so readily.

The most insane part of all of this is that, to hear Isola tell it, the only thing standing in the way of Kurt Rambis: Full-Time Long-Term Knicks Head Coach is the one person Knicks fans have wished would just stay out of the way for the last decade and a half:

Rambis and Jackson also need the blessing of Dolan, the Chairman of Madison Square Garden. Dolan reportedly isn’t entirely opposed to Rambis but he’s not quite ready to sign off on hiring him either.

We've come, then, to a point where Knicks fans apparently have to hope against hope that James L. Dolan will do right by them. If this isn't the darkest timeline, I don't know what the hell is.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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