The New York Knicks' leadership articulated a strategy and successfully acted upon it. Phil Jackson hired Derek Fisher.
Fisher may not have been Jackson’s first choice, but on some level, that small victory is heartening for an organization that has drifted rudderless for 15 years, with a brief stint of respectability steered by Donnie Walsh in between.
Jackson wants to infuse the Knicks with his cultural leanings and basketball beliefs, and who better to do it than Fisher, a five-time champion as the point guard for Jackson’s Los Angeles Lakers and a certified leader of men? This is the guy who could reportedly get in Kobe Bryant’s face at halftime of a Game 7 and to whom Kevin Durant praised in glowing terms in his MVP speech: “Even though he's done so much in this league, played with so many great players, he always wants to learn.”
Fisher’s curiosity should serve him well in New York. In today’s NBA, the ability to communicate credibly with players, and the openness to new influences and information may be the two most valuable resources a coach can have.
As Henry Abbott wrote in a piece wondering if Phil Jackson’s adherence to orthodoxy could hinder the Knicks, there’s so much new information and data that, for a coach, “The only right answer is to be curious.” Decisions guided by curiosity are less likely to be fueled by ego and more likely to be pragmatic.
Fisher’s new neighbor offers an instructive example. When Brooklyn Nets coach Jason Kidd realized he wanted to be a head coach a few seasons before his retirement as a player, he began writing things down. Then a point guard under Rick Carlisle, Kidd kept a journal of how Carlisle and his staff decided substitution patterns and taught the 2010-11 Mavericks’ systems. As a coach, that journal became a starting kit, something that Kidd could reference as he faced new challenges. It’s hard to tell how much his notes helped. The first two months of Kidd’s tenure were a disaster, but he eventually found his footing.
We don’t know if Fisher has an equivalent to Kidd’s coaching journal, but we do know that Jackson has literally written the book on coaching … eight times. This is a good thing. New coaches need mentors and guidance, and Fisher is lucky to work for someone so knowledgeable, and who also respects and cares for him.
Still, Jackson’s influence will loom large in Fisher’s first season as a head coach. Some will openly question whether Jackson is the one “pulling the strings.” Just how involved Jackson is at practice and in other on-the-court settings will be a daily beat in itself. Did Jackson scurry upstairs before reporters were allowed into the practice facility? You can already see the “Zen Master of Puppets” headline in the Post.
The scrutiny will be merciless and at times unfair, but Fisher has as much experience as any player could in such settings -- first as a player during tumultuous stretches in Los Angeles, then as the leader of the NBA Players Association during a time of intense and public strife. His temperament appears fit for the madness of the New York media and the potential franchise overhaul that awaits, even if the Knicks retain Carmelo Anthony.
Jackson’s priorities have changed since he last teamed up with Fisher. The new team president must focus on more than just a title run. He must set up the organization for a sustained run of success.
Fisher’s focus will be in the weeds. The coach-front office dynamic works best when both parties are aligned on long-term goals and how those objectives are served by day-to-day instruction and player management. Fisher will need to define a space for himself to assert authority and maintain the respect and trust of his players while also relying on Jackson, the guy who can decide whether those players stay on the team.
Jackson wants to be more involved with the on-court action than most front-office execs, but doing so risks rendering Fisher as something less than a fully empowered head coach. It’s a question that Erik Spoelstra once had to deal with as a rookie coach under Heat president Pat Riley. It’s no fun wondering if your guardian will one day decide to come down and do your job, too. Fisher carries the benefit of an 18-year playing career and five championship rings, but it goes without saying that Fisher will have less to work with than Spoelstra.
Jackson is an important resource, but Fisher must assert autonomy and be more than an implement of Jackson’s will. He should certainly borrow from Jackson, but how much can he defer? Nothing is ever simple in New York.
The Knicks are at an inflection point. Who really knows what this team will look like going into the 2015-16 season? In that sense, Fisher literally doesn't know what he’s getting into. If the Knicks are lucky, Fisher will have the right mix of personal experience and open-mindedness to navigate a situation very much in flux. In Fisher, the Knicks may not have a solution to all that confounds them, but at least they appear to have a plan.