The biggest story surrounding the Knicks right now is the decision they have to make on the sidelines: selecting a new head coach to lead this team to relevance. Who is the best candidate for the job?
For the majority of Jeff Hornacek’s two seasons as Knicks’ head coach, he was the scapegoat for the team’s general terribleness. In hindsight, much of that hate was misplaced. After all, New York handed Hornacek an inherently flawed roster from the jump that didn’t fit the coaching style he instilled in Phoenix: an uptempo, modern offense. Instead, Hornacek was asked to make it work with a past-his-prime (but still effective) Carmelo Anthony while developing a young Kristaps Porzingis, two players that thrive at very different game speeds. Oh, and to make things even harder for Hornacek, Knicks president Phil Jackson immediately added a past-his-prime (and not at all effective) Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah (?), Brandon Jennings, and Courtney Lee to round out the roster. It was, to the surprise of no one, a basketball disaster, and it remains impossible to fault Hornacek for the way that season ended (31–51).
After the Knicks managed to clear out some of those cobwebs—getting rid of Anthony and Rose, for starters—evaluating Hornacek became much easier and, well, he failed. Hornacek constantly made puzzling lineup choices that appeased neither short-term “win now” visions nor long-term player development philosophies. Simple read-and-react offensive systems are all the rage in the NBA right now, but Hornacek’s offense was too rudimentary, leaving an exhausted Porzingis to fend for himself against defenses solely keyed in on him. On defense, Hornacek’s Knicks showed an even less discernible identity. Finally, after going 60–104 during his time with the Knicks, Hornacek was let go by Steve Mills last week. Not many fans are complaining.
But who will Mills choose to replace him? Let’s dive into the possible candidates.
Every year, there is a hot coaching commodity—a well-liked guy that, despite being unemployed, doesn’t have the stink of an ugly exit from a previous job. Fizdale is that guy. He’s beloved by seemingly everyone he’s come in contact with, including LeBron James, and was let go by his former team, the Memphis Grizzlies, only after his relationship with star center Marc Gasol went south.
But firing Fizdale hasn’t quelled Gasol’s concerns. In fact, Gasol’s mood has soured even more in Memphis amid the team’s sudden tankfest, which makes letting Fizdale go an even worse move in retrospect. If he were to be the Knicks’ head coach, he’d come without the baggage that some of the other guys on this list will carry with them for the rest of their careers.
On top of being nearly universally liked by players, he also constructed an offense that ranked third in total points scored in 2016–17 and third in total assists, according to Basketball-Reference, despite playing offensive black hole Tony Allen for long stretches of time. Sure, Fizdale had talent, but his core players—Mike Conley, Gasol, and Zach Randolph—carried a lot of spacing issues despite their immense skills.
And their defense, notorious for its “Grit ‘n’ Grind” mentality, sported a 107.1 Defensive Rating, good enough for seventh in the league that season. It’s hard to imagine him not meshing well with this young Knicks team. Frank Ntilikina could be Fizdale’s new Tony Allen and Porzingis would jump up another level if Fizdale could inspire him to develop some of Gasol’s playmaking skills.
Bottom Line: Great player coach, would do well with Knicks’ youth.
Jackson, in many respects, is the opposite of Fizdale as a coaching candidate. He has, whether deserved or not, a volatile reputation as a passive-aggressive communicator but is also recognized as the original architect of Golden State’s dominant defense during their title run.
The league has not forgotten Jackson’s success with that naive but precocious Warriors squad. Jackson took a core of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (Draymond Green was buried on the bench), unproven at the time, and implemented the pick-and-roll schemes they still use today. There is perhaps no stronger endorsement for Jackson than current head coach Steve Kerr’s comments from last year’s title run:
“When I was in TV, I was doing Warriors games for years,” Kerr said. “Every year, they were one of the worst defensive teams in the league. [Jackson] came in and made a focus of being a tough defensive-minded team. The year before I got here, the Warriors were the fourth-ranked defensive team in the league — already top-five. We knew what we had. We didn’t change one thing defensively. We started switching more when Draymond [Green] took over that power forward role. But for the most part, our schemes — everything — stayed the same.”
Of course, Jackson is a risk for Mills and Scott Perry. His infamous beef with Brian Scalabrine, in which Jackson basically banished Scalabrine to the G League (the D League at the time), and his firing of assistant Darren Erman after a bizarre internal spying incident reflect poorly on Jackson to this day. Outspoken Warriors’ owner Joe Lacob then smeared Jackson on his way out, saying he was prickly until the day he left and couldn’t get along with anyone in the organization.
Bottom Line: Jackson’s mercurial personality is probably too much for Mills and Perry, who can’t afford another coaching catastrophe. Jackson’s a proven defensive coach, a sore need for New York, but there’s safer candidates on the table, and safety (along with player development) seem to be big priorities for the Knicks right now.
To many fans, rehiring Mike Woodson after him and his entire coaching staff were let go following the 2013–14 season doesn’t make a lot of sense. Allow me to play devil’s advocate, although I don’t totally disagree.
After taking over late in the 2011–12 season for Mike D’Antoni, Woodson’s Knicks finished 18–6, playing inspired ball heading into the playoffs. Although they got bounced in the first round by the Pacers, there was a lot to be encouraged about. Woodson had Carmelo Anthony playing his best basketball since donning a Knicks uniform, and unleashed Tyson Chandler as an interior force. The next season, Woodson’s Knicks won their division, finishing 54–28 before failing to make it to the Conference Finals, his first real disappointment after earning legitimate playoff expectations from fans. The next season went south as Woodson’s Knicks plateaued. They went just 37–45, and Woodson was let go after the team failed to reach the postseason.
If you do the math, Woodson had one great season with the Knicks and one not so great season with the Knicks. I’d call that a decent sample size, but one with enough mixed results that Woodson probably deserved another shot, especially when you consider that they flashed an effective and progressive offense in 2012–13. The Knicks finished first in threes made and threes attempted that season with Woodson at the helm. Unfortunately, basketball doesn’t reward merit, it rewards results, and Woodson couldn’t get his Knicks to make the progress the front office envisioned. The question is: does he merit another shot with this roster?
It’s tricky. While Woodson only had two full seasons with the Knicks, he had a lot of uninspired ones with the Atlanta Hawks, who disappointed year after year. Woodson’s track record as a modern NBA coach also only extends to that one good season with the Knicks. He is otherwise known for old-school isolation offense and gritty defensive principles.
Bottom Line: Contrary to popular belief, New York could do worse, but Woodson isn’t the guy for this job. Stylistically, he’s not what the Knicks want.
Blatt is similar to Woodson in a lot of ways. He’s flexed a signature offense at times (Princeton schemes) but they, unlike Woodson’s three-happy spread offense, didn’t mesh with the personnel Blatt had. LeBron James never looked like he was on board with Blatt’s Princeton offense—for good reason, as the best offense with LeBron is almost always to give him shooters and let him do his thing—and to Blatt’s credit, he scrapped the Princeton as soon as it became clear it would never work.
Unlike Woodson, Blatt has a stellar record as an NBA head coach (83–40), yet was fired amidst a 30–11 season. That’s life playing with LeBron, by the way. Expectations are so high that 30–11 is considered a disaster.
So where did it all go wrong? What problems with Blatt’s tenure as Cavs’ head coach might scare off the Knicks? It all starts with the locker room. Blatt’s Cavs imploded several times, seemingly on the verge of a new meltdown every week. While you could, and probably should, write that off to the circus of LeBron “coming home” being at peak madness, someone’s got to manage that circus, right? Blatt proved incapable of reigning that craziness in, while his successor Ty Lue seemed to strike the right balance.
Bottom Line: Blatt doesn’t have a good reputation as a locker room motivator, which could be an issue for New York’s young, fiery core.
There’s a reason I saved Stack for last. I think, although there’s only about a 20 percent chance the Knicks land him (Stack has other suitors and he’s unproven), that he’s the best coach for this job.
I know what you’re thinking: Stack’s never coached before, at least not on an NBA level. Can he handle a spotlight like the one he’ll see in New York? Those concerns are warranted, but he’s also exactly what Mills and Perry said they’re looking for in terms of strategy and development.
Stack might not have the resume, but let’s run through what qualities the Knicks’ head honchos said they need in a head coach in a recent interview:
• “It has to be someone that understands today’s player … from an analytics standpoint and from a physical development standpoint” – Mills
• “We’re going to be looking for a coach that can not only hold players accountable, [but] hold his coaching staff accountable, a guy who is not only a good basketball mind but a very skilled communicator and effective leader. A guy who can connect very well with his players. …” – Perry
Stack is that guy. Guys around the league rave about his work with Toronto’s G League team. With the Raptors 905, he delivered a championship along with a Coach of the Year award, and ingrained a winning approach in the team. Stack has become known as the ultimate player’s coach—an understanding but hard-willed man that also has a progressive basketball mind. As a player, he’s renowned for his take-no-nonsense attitude, something that might help him keep his team “accountable,” a word Perry used repeatedly.
He’s also, even more so than Fizdale, a coach without any baggage. Stack’s inexperience works both ways here; it’s unclear if he’ll be able to handle the rigors of an NBA head coaching job, but he also has the distinct advantage of coming in with a clean slate. Expectations will be high with Stack, but any mistakes he makes will be judged without the weight of a tainted past.
And more so than any other candidate, Stack’s player development has been top notch. All three of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and Delon Wright, key members of the Raptors’ fearsome bench unit, played for Stack’s Raptors 905 club last season. There’s something exciting and fresh about the possibility of Stack tinkering with Porzingis and Ntilikina, but what really separates Stack here as a candidate is what he might do with guys like Troy Williams, Trey Burke, and Luke Kornet. Could they become what VanVleet, Siakam, and Wright are to Toronto?
Bottom Line: Stack’s getting a lot of attention from other teams right now, especially Orlando. I’d be surprised if the Knicks, with all the turmoil they’ve had recently, can convince Stack to captain their ship. They should try nonetheless, because he’s the best candidate on the market.