Phil Jackson is, and always has been, a man that means everything he says. Whenever he speaks – or, these days, tweets – there is some kind of motivation behind his words.
So make no mistake: as Jackson has gone on a bit of a public relations tour in recent days, every comment he’s made about current New York Knicks interim coach Kurt Rambis have been made with idea of Rambis being a possibility to coach the team next season in mind.
This idea is absolutely unacceptable.
Rambis is a perfectly pleasant man, one who spent 14 years as a hardworking, journeyman player in the NBA before transitioning into coaching, most notably as an assistant in two stints under Jackson with the Lakers.
But Rambis is also a man who had a disastrous run in charge of the Minnesota Timberwolves, going a ridiculous 32-132 in two seasons on the bench there before being fired, and things haven’t been much better during his several weeks in charge of the Knicks.
“I think he’s perfectly capable of doing that,” Jackson said recently when asked if he wants Rambis to be the coach of the Knicks. “We’ve talked many times over the past four or five years about the obvious record that is created behind his coaching in Minnesota and that puts a black mark on his coaching ability at first glance.
“But he has a way of handling players. He’s relaxed, yet he has the ability to keep them focused on the important parts of it. He’s a defensive-oriented guy. I had him as my defensive coordinator for my teams in 2007, ’08 or ’09. And I think he has a real good handle on that part. So we’ll see how they go.”
Here’s how the Knicks have gone: since Derek Fisher was fired on Feb. 8, and Rambis was made the team’s interim coach, they are 5-10 after getting obliterated by the league-leading Golden State Warriors Wednesday night in Oakland. Only four teams – the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns – have been worse.
More importantly, the team’s star rookie, Kristaps Porzingis, hasn’t looked like anywhere near the same player. Part of that could be explained away by the fact that Porzingis, who turns 21 in August, has hit the proverbial rookie wall. But that doesn’t change the meaning of this telling quote Rambis had about Porzingis from the press conference from the day he was elevated to replace Fisher last month.
“He’s got to figure out how to get closer, and operate closer to the basket, so he can take higher-percentage shots … that’s my vision for him: getting down into those areas, and not settling for as many outside shots as he has been recently.”
Here’s the problem with that: Porzingis has a chance to be a truly revolutionary NBA player if he can marry his impressive defensive instincts with his ability to shoot effectively from behind the three-point arc. In theory, he should be exactly the kind of antidote to the smallball lineups that teams have adopted over the past few seasons.
Instead, Rambis would rather him play more like a traditional big man. It’s not that Porzingis can’t be effective that way, but it’s far from an optimal use of his skill set.
That is the issue that, in many ways, is the biggest problem the Knicks face with Jackson moving forward. Because he’s so married to the triangle offense, something he sees as more than just a system of playing basketball, Jackson has a very limited pool of potential coaches he could draw from that would be willing to teach it.
He installed Rambis and Jim Cleamons, two longtime assistants of his, on Fisher’s staff, but it was clear there were disconnects between the Fisher and Jackson camps on what to do and how to do it.
It was clear Jackson was serious about keeping Rambis around when ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne floated the idea in a recent story of Jackson potentially coaching home games, with Rambis coaching road games. Shelburne is as locked in on the Los Angeles NBA scene as any reporter in the business, and has a strong relationship with the Buss family – including Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, who happens to be Jackson’s fiancé.
In other words, it’s easy to believe Shelburne’s reporting is accurate. And Jackson even attempting to follow through on that idea – something Shelburne said the late Dr. Jerry Buss, Jeanie’s father, flatly refused as a possibility in the past – would be disastrous.
“I don’t think that should be accepted,” Knicks star Carmelo Anthony told reporters on the West Coast this week. “I wouldn’t accept that if that was the case.”
Neither should Knicks owner James Dolan.
Here’s the bottom line for the Knicks: for once, being the head coach at Madison Square Garden should be a coveted job. Yes, the Knicks have to figure out what to do with Anthony, who has three years remaining on the five-year max contract he signed back in 2014. But whether Anthony stays or goes, the possibility of coaching a young, blossoming star in Porzingis, along with the fact the Knicks finally have control of all of their first-round picks after this season, should be enough to attract a long line of attractive coaching candidates.
But will Phil Jackson seek out those candidates? He’s expected to heavily pursue Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton, who spent several years playing in the triangle offense under Jackson and who did a masterful job replacing Steve Kerr on an interim basis earlier this season.
But what if Walton decides to stay on Kerr’s staff, or if he chooses instead to coach the Lakers (assuming they do — as they should — get rid of Byron Scott)? Would Jackson try and insist on keeping Rambis over hiring a more accomplished coach on the open market – like, for instance, former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau?
If he would, then Dolan should have an easy decision to make: thank Jackson for his time with the franchise (and specifically for delivering them Porzingis), and send him on his way.
The New York Knicks have plenty of questions to answer. One of them, however, isn’t if Kurt Rambis is the right coach for this team next season. The answer to that one is easy to see.