The task of reconstructing the New York Knicks’ roster out of the shambles of last year’s disappointing 37-win season is well underway. But that endeavor is still very much a work in progress that won’t truly take shape until next summer.
However, an important part of the Knicks’ overall rebuilding process had to be finished this summer — that of new team president Phil Jackson completely revamping New York’s coaching staff.
Barely on the job for more than a month, Jackson fired each of the club’s coaches who ended last season with the Knicks (everyone from head coach Mike Woodson down to longtime assistant coach Herb Williams) in April.
That paved the road for Jackson to redo things his own way, in terms of deciding who will lead New York’s current roster and the ones to come, after the remainder of his key player moves are completed prior to the start of the 2015-16 season.
Predictably, Jackson has built a new coaching staff mainly comprised of old colleagues and centered entirely around those who are well-versed in each of Jackson’s basketball ideologies.
He initially went after Steve Kerr, the former sharpshooting guard who Jackson mentored while leading the Chicago Bulls to the last three of the six NBA titles he won in the Windy City as a head coach. When Kerr spurned New York and chose the Golden State Warriors’ head coaching job instead, Jackson tabbed Derek Fisher, who won five league championships with Jackson as the Los Angeles Lakers’ head coach.
While Fisher convinced Jackson to bring in two of his old friends — Joshua Longstaff and Brian Keefe — from his post-Laker, Oklahoma City Thunder playing days, Jackson filled out the rest of the Knicks’ coaching staff with assistants from his own championship eras in Chicago and Los Angeles.
Kurt Rambis, who coached Fisher under Jackson, with the Lakers, is now Fisher’s associate head coach in New York. And Rasheed Hazzard, the son of former NBA All-Star Walt Hazzard, has also come on board to work with Fisher several years after he served as an advance scout and special assistant to Jackson in Los Angeles.
Although all of those hirings should help the Knicks turn things around, New York’s most recent addition to Fisher’s bench — Jim Cleamons – put Jackson’s stamp on the new way things will operate for the Knicks in the Jackson-Fisher regime.
Cleamons, a former Knicks teammate of Jackson in the late 1970s, was Jackson’s right-hand man as an assistant in Chicago and Los Angeles, and is known as a guru of the triangle, Jackson’s famously successful offensive system which has recently been introduced to New York for the first time.
Backing two of his new assistant choices, Jackson summarily dismissed failed attempts in the past by Cleamons (in Dallas) and Rambis (in Minnesota) to make the triangle system work during the very brief times they were head coaches, due to factors beyond their control.
“I’ve had assistants Jim Cleamons, Kurt Rambis, etc., [who] have gone off to [become head coaches] and they hadn’t had the support to try and teach the triangle offense,’’ Jackson told New York Post writer Marc Berman last month.
With Jackson now running the Knicks’ show, that surely won’t be an issue in New York.
Instead, everyone will be on the same page with continuity extending from Jackson to his past assistants and particularly to a point guard he coached, as each of those staff members reunite with the Knicks.
Such an environment figures to pay huge dividends for New York moving forward, especially after some of the glaring chemistry issues that plagued the Knicks throughout last season.
Several key injuries and a lack of talent significantly contributed to causing New York’s season to spiral out of control before it ended as the only year of 11 thus far in which franchise player Carmelo Anthony missed the NBA playoffs.
But that might have been overcome, and Anthony could have kept his playoff streak going, had the Knicks remained on the same page with each other and their coaching staff.
Rather, Woodson’s overreliance on an isolation-heavy offense that was centered around Anthony and a defense that got caught in a heap of trouble due to a poor switching strategy, doomed New York’s chances at achieving success all season. Those tactics were a sharp departure from the methods that Fisher’s staff has already begun to employ.
Finger-pointing between a few players and Woodson became a common occurrence as the Knicks’ chemistry never developed anywhere close to the same way it did when New York won 54 games and its first division title in 19 years, the year before, under Woodson.
Yet if there is one immediate and obvious difference from last season to this year, even before the Knicks begin training camp, it’s that there appears to already be a harmony developing between New York’s current roster and the new coaching staff that often didn’t exist with last year’s staff. That much was evident during last month’s summer league, when new players and last season’s holdovers alike started to quickly buy in and quite effectively adapt to the new system Fisher was teaching them, in the same way that Fisher rapidly learned from Jackson.
Of course, it helps when the message is both familiar and consistent. The main principles of what Jackson preached throughout his legendary, record-setting coaching career will certainly be implemented through a coaching staff that Jackson knows extremely well and trusts wholeheartedly. Thus, there’s no worry over having a dissention of voices instead of a clear, steady message from a variety of different sources, for Knicks players to hear repeatedly from their new coaches. It should be as simple as: message sent, message received, time and time again, regardless of who’s doing the talking in a courtside huddle, during a practice session or in a film room.
In essence, it’s the way that arguably the greatest NBA coach of all-time has gone from Zen Master to puppet master, pulling the strings from the perch of his team president role, to sort of “coach” New York without having to actually return to the bench, as Jackson approaches the age of 69 next month following past battles with health issues.
And it’s a manner in which Jackson has overwhelmingly imprinted his own impression on the Knicks long before he finishes the much tougher job of giving his new coaching staff a legitimate title-contending roster which might be capable of executing Jackson’s proven basketball Phil-osophies.