By John Schmeelk
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With Mike Woodson officially relieved of his duties as Knicks head coach, the search begins for his replacement. I don’t expect it will be a very long one, especially since Phil Jackson has had a few months to contemplate his first big — and perhaps most important — decision as president. The obvious criteria would be for Jackson to find someone who can translate his philosophies, ideas and methods from the front office to the bench.
That would seem to indicate that someone without great familiarity with the triangle would be disqualified from the position. That means none of the top college coaches like John Calipari, John Beilein or even Mike Krzyzewski would be in the running. There’s no evidence any of them are even interested in leaving the college ranks, let alone that Jackson would consider them.
Likewise, the Van Gundy brothers, George Karl, Jerry Sloan and other out-of-work veteran NBA coaches don’t seem to be a fit with Jackson. Strike them off the list. There’s no evidence that proven and successful employed coaches like Tom Thibodeau would leave their current situations to coach the Knicks, either.
That leaves people from Jackson’s coaching tree. The list is neither long nor impressive. Kurt Rambis and Jim Cleamons are both veteran assistants with head-coaching experience, but very little success in that position at the NBA level. Neither would be the type of hire that would seem poised to catapult the Knicks back towards championship success. Brian Shaw was a very highly-regarded young coaching prospect, but has had trouble in his first year in Denver with his team beset by injuries. He is also still under contract, and is likely not worth the trouble the Knicks would have to go through to free him from Denver. If he is fired, however, Shaw becomes a real possibility.
Jim Cavan over at Bleacher Report uncovered a great dark-horse name in Virginia head coach Tony Bennett. He runs a system-based offense at Virginia, a mix of the Princeton and triangle systems, and is a young coach on the rise. Cavan also wisely pointed out that a young guy like Bennett would be a great coach to lead a rebuilding effort if Carmelo Anthony does not decide to re-sign with the team. But if the Knicks don’t plan to rebuild, this would be a risky choice.
Derek Fisher is another name that has been mentioned by a number of publications, and he is a logical future head coach considering his leadership of the player’s association and high IQ on the court. 2014-2015 is a transition year for the Knicks, and it would give him time to learn as a coach without the pressure to win a championship right away. This would be an even riskier pick than Bennett, and the Knicks would have to wait for Oklahoma City to get knocked out of the playoffs before making the move. I find this very unlikely.
That leaves the much-rumored Steve Kerr. Many times, the media darling and most popular candidate for the position leaves much to be desired. But in this case, I think all the rumors are true and Jackson has gotten it right. As would be the case with Fisher, Kerr would have a year to get his feet wet coaching the team without the pressure to have to win a championship. Calling games for TNT, he certainly knows the game and the players in it, and seems very intelligent and measured in his opinions. No one around the league will ever say a bad word about him either, which is saying something considering all the grudges held in the professional sports world. Sometimes there is something to be said for having a genuinely good person leading your team.
But what makes me most excited about a potential Kerr coaching regime is his experience as a general manager in Phoenix. He had success there despite having to change coaches and losing a dynamic player in Amar’e Stoudemire.
There were mistakes (like the Terry Porter and Shaquille O’Neal experiences), but Kerr showed he understood how to put a team together and be responsible with the cap at the same time. Many times coaches will fall into traps of demanding certain players even though it will mortgage the future, and Kerr seems like he would have the exact opposite perspective. He understands the concept of building something and being patient. Considering Jackson’s lack of front-office experience, having someone like Kerr — even if as a coach — will help him with player acquisitions and team building. There are understandable questions as to whether Jackson could really get along with a coach and let him do things his way, but Kerr seems like the right person to do just that.
Kerr’s other notable move in Phoenix was his very vocal request to Mike D’Antoni to focus more on defense. There should be nothing more beautiful to Knicks fans’ ears than to hear that the coach wants defense emphasized. It’s something the Knicks haven’t done since Jeff Van Gundy was here. He will also be able to handle the New York media better than most with his broadcast experience.
There are plenty of legitimate questions around a Kerr regime since he has never actually coached before. Can he challenge players while not alienating them? How will he be as a communicator? Can he maximize the skill of the players he is told to coach? Can he nurture young talent? Is he a good teacher?
No one knows the answers to these questions, but he has the other stuff that’s needed to succeed in New York. Of the people on the list, Kerr is the most obvious and best choice. It’s time to make it happen.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and the world of sports.
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