There's two ways of looking at the Knicks' firing of Derek Fisher. Should we give Phil Jackson the benefit of the doubt?
Less than two seasons into a five-year, $25 million contract, Derek Fisher is done with the Knicks. Monday's announcement actually served as a refreshing news break. While most of the sports media was spiraling into one, long, 24-hour Cam Newton thinkpiece, there were the Knicks, crashing into everyone and reminding us all that they're still crazy, and capable of anything at all times.
But ... how crazy are they really?
That's where this gets fun. It's always tough to decode what's actually happening inside Madison Square Garden, because it's never clear who's actually in charge. With that in mind, there are two ways to understand what happened here.
The first is basic: The Knicks are being the Knicks again. They have lost 9 of 10 games, all but eliminating the playoff dreams that had caught the league off guard through the first few months of the season, and management is not happy. Just this past weekend, they nearly got run off the court by the Pistons before a comeback fell short Thursday. The following night, Carmelo Anthony couldn't play, and the Grizzlies won ugly in New York. Then Sunday, Carmelo was back in the lineup, but they couldn't hang with the Nuggets.
If you want to say that this roster was always going to lose to a team like the Grizzlies—especially without Carmelo Anthony—that's fine. But any team taking itself seriously as a playoff contender has to be discouraged by what happened against Detroit, and full-on depressed losing to a young (but sneaky fun!) Nuggets team at home. Next to all the other recent losses, and in light of the freefall down the Eastern Conference standings, a coaching change isn't terribly surprising. Better coaches have been fired for less.
Of course, this assumes the Knicks should be grading themselves on a playoff contender's curve. That would be vintage James Dolan, and every bit as irrational and shortsighted as his teams have been in the past. Young coaches need time, and after stumbling through Year 1, Fisher actually seemed to improve in Year 2. New York's early success (22–22 as of Jan. 20) gave Knicks fans reason to be genuinely excited about the future for the only the second or third time this millennium.
The past few weeks have seen a regression to the mean, sure. The team still can't stop scoring point guards in a league that's full of them, and when you're counting on Derrick Williams for meaningful scoring, "regression to the mean" is inevitable. But how much of that can realistically be pinned on Fisher?
If the Knicks made this decision to jumpstart a playoff run with an overmatched roster—led by Kurt Rambis and his .195 career winning percentage—it's a classic misreading of their own team and the league surrounding it. That is the Knicks franchise we've come to know and love. Raw, uncut, crazy.
So, that is option one. It is soundtracked by James Dolan on the kazoo.
The second option requires a little bit more faith in the people in charge. Fisher wasn't so great that firing him was unthinkable, but firing him for the sake of a playoff push would be a glaring departure from the philosophy over the past 18 months. This is the front office that enabled tanking last year, then played the long game in the draft (Kristaps Porzingis over a win-now prospect like Justise Winslow), and free agency (smart, short deals for Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez over max contracts for guys like Greg Monroe). Now management is upending everything to get the No. 8 seed?
The Knicks didn't get everyone excited because they were suddenly championship contenders, or even because they were winning. The important change was that for the first time in years, there's been a real plan in place.
Porzingis is the future of the franchise, and he's surrounded by affordable veterans to help him develop. Anthony remains the superstar to keep them competitive in the present. The team retains worlds of flexibility going into this summer and beyond. It all makes sense. It actually looks like there's an adult in charge of all this, and coupled with the Latvian teenager dunking his way through the United States, there's a lot to like. Still, this is still a rebuilding project, but there's a real foundation in place.
Removing one of the building blocks only happens if there's no alternative. The Matt Barnes incident was a terrible look for everyone involved; if there's more to that story than we know, maybe that was enough to scare management into a change. Maybe players have tuned him out. Maybe Phil Jackson has been watching practices and doesn't like where things are going. Whatever it was, if Fisher's shown he won't make sense two years from now, then cutting ties makes it easier to find someone who will.
For now, Rambis is the interim replacement and they have the next few months to investigate permanent choices. Letting Tom Thibodeau build a defense around Porzingis is an obvious option that could be fun. They could go after another former Jackson player and get into a bidding war for Luke Walton. They could give another shot to David Blatt or Scott Brooks, or look for a young assistant to take over. In any case, the Knicks job looks a lot more attractive now than it did when Jackson took over.
Go back to May 2014 and remember how this started. The Warriors were negotiating with Stan Van Gundy and Phil Jackson was talking to Steve Kerr. Jackson reportedly offered Kerr a four-year deal worth $13.2 million, assuming that the chance to work for his mentor and coach in Manhattan would be too good to pass up. He was wrong. After Van Gundy demanded full control in Golden State, the Warriors balked, and decided to offer his reported $25 million deal to Kerr instead. The Knicks eventually matched the Warriors on the money side, but by then, Kerr realized he'd be getting a much better basketball situation in the Bay Area. That cleared the way for a desperate Jackson to give Kerr's salary to another first-time head coach in Fisher.
It was a domino effect that was disappointing for Jackson at the time, and unless you are Steve Kerr, it looks disastrous in retrospect. It'd be like scouting Porzingis for weeks only to end up with Frank Kaminsky on draft night.
But then, Jackson took Porzingis in June, not Kaminsky. He didn't sign Greg Monroe or Rajon Rondo, and he's not trading Carmelo until it makes sense. That coaching search may have been classic Knicks hubris, but everything since has set a different tone. As the team gets smarter and the future gets brighter, maybe Monday's news is just the next step to excising the mistakes of the past.
We can all draw our own conclusions, and answers will become clear in the coming weeks. This could definitely be James Dolan watching the past two weeks and deciding to blow his kazoo. But if you've been paying close attention to the Knicks, it's more likely that Phil Jackson is worried about the next two years. He saw something he didn't like, and he realized that the only move crazier than firing Derek Fisher now was hiring him in the first place.