By Steve Lichtenstein
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So the Knicks actually think the J-Kidd nouveau-coach experiment worked in Brooklyn this past season?
Knicks president Phil Jackson, not known as someone who would plagiarize off a division rival, will introduce newly retired point guard Derek Fisher as New York’s head coach on Tuesday.
Good luck with that.
Fisher, just as his counterpart across the East River did a year ago, will within days from his team’s postseason elimination head straight from the court to the sideline.
Do not stop at Go, or even bother with learning the tricks of the trade as a bench assistant, front office executive or even broadcaster.
Jackson will surely tout Fisher’s acumen on and off the court when asked on Tuesday about the 17-year veteran’s qualifications to mastermind his (uh–Jackson’s) game plans.
At least Jackson can’t use Fisher’s wondrous wizardry with the ball the way Nets general manager Billy King did a year ago when announcing that Kidd would take the reins in Brooklyn. Fisher was more of a solid role player with tremendously talented teammates as opposed to a future Hall of Famer like Kidd.
As if Kidd’s playing traits automatically gave him an advantage over such non-professionals as Erik Spoelstra and Gregg Popovic anyway.
As it turned out, Kidd’s rookie campaign was, at best, uneven.
And that’s before you get into the pseudo-scandals of Soda-gate and Lawrence Frank.
Kidd may one day turn into a solid tactician, but he was woefully ill-prepared to take charge of a win-now team like the Nets.
There was little semblance of an offense, as Kidd initially talked about how the Nets needed to “make plays” as opposed to “run plays.” The defense was even harder for Kidd loyalists to defend.
King had no choice but to ride Kidd after the Nets’ nightmarish 10-21 start despite all those in the media (including me) calling for Kidd’s scalp.
To be fair, Kidd deserved credit for the Nets’ post-New Year’s surge, though I wonder what would have happened if All-Star center Brook Lopez hadn’t gone down with a season-ending injury in late December. After all, that seemingly devastating loss in actuality provided the impetus for Kidd to forgo the traditional power forward position, which in turn revitalized the defense and allowed for better floor spacing on offense.
Still, it wasn’t all sunshine and smiles in Brooklyn as the Nets fell way short of their preseason goal of challenging the Heat for supremacy in the Eastern Conference. Miami eliminated Brooklyn in five games in the second round of the playoffs.
Fortunately for Jackson, the Knicks don’t have such lofty expectations—for the 2014-15 season anyway.
New York is coming off a dreadful 37-45 playoff-less season. Their marquee star—forward Carmelo Anthony—is mulling over whether to opt out of his contract to become a free agent. The roster is a Bizarro fantasy team, loaded with one-dimensional players and lacking a high-quality point guard.
Former coach Mike Woodson lost control of the team by midseason and was a lame duck the rest of the way. He had to go, and inside he had to have known it.
And that’s where the Knicks took an even stranger turn.
Jackson, who came aboard to right owner Jim Dolan’s ship in March, wasn’t interested in the usual retreads. However, instead of, you know, putting together a list of candidates and bringing them in to interview—like most people who make hiring decisions—Jackson seemed to fixate on one prospect at a time. The only qualification appeared to be that the candidate had to have played at some point in Jackson’s “Triangle” offense.
First there was Steve Kerr, the former Suns general manager and TNT broadcaster, who ended up spurning Jackson’s advances for the potentially better quality of life as coach of the contending Golden State Warriors.
Fisher, who had even less leverage than Kerr because of his lack of any relevant experience , still somehow managed to finagle from the Knicks the same five-year $25 million contract that Kerr signed (Kidd, by the way, reportedly inked a four-year $10.5 million deal last June).
I guess all that mattered to Jackson was that he chose someone with whom he felt comfortable to change the basketball culture in New York.
That means he’s willing to accept the bumps in the road that come with a first-time head coach. And—based on what I just witnessed during Kidd’s inaugural season–I guarantee that there will be a bunch.
It takes time to build a staff and teach new methods, even for a veteran team. Training camp wasn’t enough for Kidd. Injuries, which has become a scourge in the NBA, made it even tougher for Kidd to install his systems. Sometimes, as Kidd realized when he reassigned Frank from the league’s highest-paid assistant coach to team blogger—I mean writer of reports–you have to scrap that plan and try something else.
As for the games, even the most innocuous moments—like inbounds plays—can be precursors to disasters. Kidd’s failure to design appropriate sets off the sideline cost the Nets a key game in January versus the Raptors and then set up a potentially devastating end to their season before Paul Pierce’s blocked shot saved Game 7 of their first-round series in Toronto.
There’s also the art of knowing when to use timeouts to slow opponents’ momentum while simultaneously thinking forward to ensure that there will be some left for end-game preparations. It was that miscalculation by Kidd that led to the intentional soda-spilling embarrassment in an early-season game versus the Lakers.
Finally—and maybe most importantly—coaching is about managing people. Highly-paid and often self-entitled people. Both Kidd and Fisher have the respect of their peers, but losing creates tensions.
Kidd never did lose the locker room the way Woodson did, but who knows how the Knicks will respond to Fisher should they again struggle out of the gate in November and December?
Fisher, after all, will be deemed Jackson’s puppet. Someone whom Jackson can use as a conduit to preach triangulation and other theories of basketball and life. All the while staying far enough away so that Fisher would be forced to take the fall should it all go to hell.
That’s a tough place to avoid for someone with no experience with all the potential land mines. Kidd survived, but the aging Nets wasted a season in the process.
So my suggestion to fellow Knicks fans: Ignore the hype on Tuesday and hope that Fisher is a long-term remedy, despite likely painful side effects in early doses.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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