Coaches are starting to drop. This time we are asked to make sense of the firing of Knicks coach Derek Fisher. Was this firing justified? Sort of. Let’s weigh the pros and cons:
Pros/reasons to keep Fisher
-Fisher was hired as a beginner coach to learn and grow with a young team. He has done a nice job bringing along Kristaps Porzingis and has gotten solid enough play out of players who previously weren’t very good (Derrick Williams, Langston Galloway, and Lance Thomas).
-The Knicks gave Fisher a bad team last year and they rightfully pulled the plug on the season, which killed Fish’s record and really can’t be imputed to Fisher. Phil Jackson decided to try to contend with Samuel Dalembert and Jose Calderon and it is unlikely that any coach would’ve made the playoffs with that roster.
-As bad as the last few weeks have been for the Knicks, at 23-31, they are really not totally underachieving relative to talent. In addition, if Carmelo Anthony had been healthier, they probably would have three or four more wins, which puts them in the playoffs where they want to be.
-There is no reason to think Kurt Rambis is an improvement as interim coach. Yes, coaches can grow but let’s review his resume. In 1998-99, Rambis replaced Del Harris when the Lakers start off a disappointing 6-6. Rambis inherited the core of a future dynasty (Shaq, Kobe, Glen Rice, etc.) and goes on a decent 24-13 before getting swept by the Spurs in the second round. The Lakers were second in the NBA in offense but a woeful 23rd in defense. Phil Jackson takes over next season and won three titles immediately. Rambis got his first clean shot as a head coach with the Timberwolves in 2009-10 and went 32-132 in two seasons. These teams were not talented at all but Rambis was, again, unable to get them to play any defense (no better than 28th in either season), had the team run the Triangle ineffectively, and was a bit slow to play Kevin Love, when he was clearly the only good player on the team. So, history tells us that it is unlikely that Rambis will offer much more than Fisher.
Cons/reasons to fire Fisher
-The Knicks are 1-9 in their last ten, and they have some really bad losses in the group and have showed a troubling habit of sleepwalking through first quarters. If the Knicks believed that the team was in a tailspin, firing the coach is really the quickest way to shake things up.
-Fisher doesn’t seem to have a handle on his rotation, including strange decisions to play Sasha Vujacic, when he seems totally cooked as an NBA player.
-Fisher seemed to have problems with decision making during games. Emblematic of this was his last decision as Knicks coach, which was to call a futile timeout with his team down by five with three seconds left. A meaningless timeout was taken and the Knicks didn’t even execute the play correctly (the inbounder promptly threw the ball off Porzingis’ leg).
-The whole Matt Barnes incident did not show great judgment. Barnes acted like a crazed lunatic but, as a coach, Fisher is supposed to be above the fray of the usual player nonsense. This isn’t enough to get Fisher fired but it surely cost him some goodwill if the team had a big losing streak.
So, Fisher has shown some improvement and the concept of “trust the process” should ideally trump a short term problem on a blah team like this. Moreover, if James Dolan decided to can Fisher in frustration, it is also a bad sign. Having the owner fire a coach in a rage is bad for the organization and has been the sort of bad decision the Knicks have made routinely in the last decade or so. On the other hand, if Phil Jackson legitimately came to the conclusion that Fisher isn’t the right man for the job, they may as well start over as soon as possible.
It’s a little early to know the answer but the early returns are not promising. Rambis is not the sort of interim answer that brings much to the table. It certainly looks terrible to fire Fisher so quickly after you invested so much in him when the other option is Rambis. Also, Jackson is not likely going to hire the marquee coach that would maximize the present (Tim Thibodeau). Instead, Jackson will want a coach who is a smaller personality and will be willing to run the Triangle. This means the Knicks are probably looking for another young former Laker (Brian Shaw, who lost his cool when the Nuggets struggled, or Luke Walton, who was great for the Warrirors but is far from a tested commodity). In other words, the Fisher firing could help the Knicks but smells of more running sideways at MSG.