Hardened by his years with Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher stands among the league's leading scholars in the field of ego management. But if the rookie coach of the New York Knicks thinks downsizing Carmelo Anthony's opinion of himself on the offensive end will represent his biggest challenge, he should probably think again.
Phil Jackson will be the more formidable hurdle in Fisher's pursuit of his own identity, in his quest to establish that he is the one and only authority figure who matters in the locker room.
Anthony has a contract worth $124 million over five years, more than double the guarantee James Dolan handed Jackson ($60 million), and yet Melo's power and influence are been-there, done-that realities for the old point guard in Fisher, winner of five Los Angeles Lakers titles with a franchise player who had his owner, Jerry Buss, on speed dial.
Upon completing practice Thursday, Fisher said dealing with superstars the likes of Bryant "is not that hard to do when everybody has a common purpose." His chief responsibility in running the Knicks' offense, Fisher added, is to scheme up a way to blend the triangle offense and Anthony's talents together "that doesn't put Carmelo on an island and put the rest of the guys on another island."
The old Lakers point guard should be able to figure that out. But the new Knicks coach will have a tougher time convincing his players, especially Anthony, that he is not a middle manager who can be bypassed when a big issue needs to be taken to the big winner upstairs (And no, we're not talking about Dolan).
In the early hours of training camp, Anthony made it clear that Fisher had the Knicks' attention and respect, and that all basketball questions from players will be directed to the coach and his staff.
"If we have questions on the outside," Anthony said, "Phil's office is always open and he'll talk to us."
Jackson wasn't brought in to hide from the 11 rings he collected with the Chicago Bulls and the Lakers; the last time the Knicks won a title, Secretariat was still two legs away from the Triple Crown. The Knicks needed their own champion thoroughbred, and Jackson, a member of that 1973 team, was the one.
Only Dolan really wanted his guy to coach the Knicks. So did Jackson's fiancée, Jeanie Buss. In his late sixties and still battling health issues, Phil didn't think he was up to the grind. He decided he'd be a team president with an apostle to carry out his vision of how the game should be played.
Steve Kerr was up first, and everyone from Kerr's friends to family members thought New York was a slam dunk, at least until it wasn't. Kerr rejected his mentor for the better contract, better roster and better weather Golden State was offering, leaving Jackson to appoint another heady guard who wasn't afraid to take or make a big shot.
Fisher wasn't afraid of a fight, either, something he proved in the turbulent time he spent running the Players' Association. And restoring the Knicks to legitimate contention will amount to the fight of the century. They don't have much talent and they don't play much defense, reminding everyone that Jackson once called last year's roster "clumsy" for a reason.
The Knicks likely will lose more than their fair share of games this season, and their fans likely will remain patient with Jackson in the house and plenty of salary-cap room to play with in July. That vibe won't last forever. At some point in Year 2 or 3, after that free-agent money is spent and heightened expectations inevitably weigh down his team during a losing streak, Fisher could be subjected to some "We want Phil" chants. Loud ones, too.
Only Kerr knows if that possibility was among his top five reasons to fast-break his way to Golden State. In a different sport and in a different life, Bill Belichick ran away from the head coaching job with the New York Jets because, in part, he didn't want to confront the looming front-office presence of Bill Parcells, who won nine fewer championships than Jackson did.
In his first go-around as an executive, Pat Riley couldn't resist the temptation to fire the Miami Heat coach who had replaced him, Stan Van Gundy, and return to the bench when he thought the Heat were finally strong enough to win it all (Riles was right). He did give Erik Spoelstra a chance to take Miami on four consecutive trips to the Finals, but only after Spoelstra struggled badly enough early for the drumbeat to start for another Riley coup. Spoelstra also had LeBron James on his team.
Fisher? He's got Anthony, and even Melo would concede he's no LeBron James. Fisher also has a shooting guard, J.R. Smith, who just admitted that he's never before put the team's goals "over myself or my scoring," which is something an NBA player shouldn't even think, never mind say for public consumption.
Fisher does have one thing working in his favor: Mike Woodson is hardly a tough act to follow, and anyone who spent time around the Knicks last year knew how little regard Woodson's players (not just Tyson Chandler) had for him.
Of course, those players have their own considerable flaws to deal with. Jackson outlined some of those flaws in an ESPN.com interview with his longtime friend, author Charley Rosen, breaking down every single face -- old and new -- on Fisher's roster. If it was an entertaining and insightful read, it did little to disabuse anyone of the notion that Jackson is the de-facto coach of this team.
"In terms of Phil's presence," Fisher said Thursday, "it doesn't limit me in any way in terms of me being confident in who I am, in trusting that [Jackson] made the right decision...and that I am here for a reason. I am confident in that. And I'll get better as I go along, but I don't view it as more challenging to have someone like Phil around.
"I won't necessarily see myself as Phil's guy. I'm the team's guy. Phil is the president of the team, so our relationship will be what it is in terms of president and head coach. In terms of whether people see me as Phil's guy or my own guy, I won't spend a lot of time on it."
Fisher has consistently cited Jackson as the reason he took the job in the first place, and as an invaluable asset in the education of a rookie coach. They talk every day, and though many feared he'd treat this gig as a high-paying nuisance between beachfront strolls with Jeanie out west, Jackson has been a regular at Knicks practices.
He's been seen doing a little advising here and there, but by Fisher's and Jackson's accounts, the team president has resisted the urge to blow a whistle or stop a drill.
That's OK. Jackson has his familiar loyalists, Kurt Rambis and Jim Cleamons, out there to help Fisher run practice the way he believes it should be run. But for the sake of protecting his long-term coaching prospects, and of improving a team in need of who's-the-boss clarity, Fisher has to find a way to make the Knicks his own.
Given that he works under the greatest NBA coach of all time, that will be tougher than telling Anthony to pass the ball.