Firing Fisher: Is This The Old Knicks?


For most followers of basketball, the firing of New York Knicks Head Coach Derek Fisher is the least surprising coaching move this season. Fisher was hardly loved by the New York fan base and the lack of success the team has experienced in the last season and a half was enough to put him on shaky ground. His only source of legitimacy had always been that he was President Phil Jackson’s preferred candidate. While the decision is defensible, it suggests a degree of panic, of reactionary decision-making, that the Knicks brought Phil Jackson to New York to avoid.

Fisher was fired earlier this week

Abandoning the potential development of Fisher – however doomed – in favour of Kurt Rambis means that Jackson considered that Fisher was damaging the development of the team. It certainly wasn’t because Rambis presents a compelling case for promotion. We have ample evidence from his stop in Minnesota that Rambis’ natural habitat is on the bench behind the players – I mean, he’s the guy that benched Kevin Love for Ryan Hollins. He already has a worse career record as a head coach than Fisher.

An argument can be made that Fisher was unlucky. The team had clearly improved this year, and even by some measurements was outperforming expectations. Sure they had lost nine out of their last ten, but this had occurred in the context of injuries to Carmelo Anthony, Lance Thomas and Jose Calderon. Further, that injuries to journeymen Lance Thomas and Jose Calderon could have such a substantial impact on the play of the Knicks reflected that Fisher was constantly combating a roster that could politely be described as ‘top heavy’. He had integrated Kristaps Porzingis into the offence without burdening the rookie, had got Anthony to play defence and pass the ball and had turned people barely on NBA rosters[1] into important role players. Fisher had the support of the locker room, and both Porzingis and Anthony expressed shock at the decision. All in all here was a young coach learning the ropes and getting many things right.

Rambis: not a good coach

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Fisher backer. I probably wouldn’t have hired him in the first place. Fisher was clearly struggling to remedy many of the weak areas of the Knicks. The team had developed some poor habits lately. A normal game became falling behind almost comically before rallying over the middle of the game only the collapse again at the back end of the fourth quarter[2]. Phil Jackson had noted this was a major concern for the team. The rotation remained a source of confusion. Fisher failed to decide between Lou Amundson, Kyle O’Quinn and Kevin Seraphin as the primary back up big, flip flopping between games depending on performance.[3] That Sasha Vujacic was started at the beginning of the year is stupefying, and that he continued to find time on the court is depressing. I can understand the purpose of Vujacic on the roster, but not on the court.

Despite Fisher’s adherence to Jackson’s preferred triangle offence, there was clearly an issue with the coach’s philosophical approach to basketball. Indeed, as Ian Begley and Zach Lowe discussed on the Lowe Post, it seems Jackson was concerned that Fisher wasn’t sufficiently committed to Jackson’s approach to basketball. Upon promoting Rambis above his level of competence, Jackson noted he would bring ‘levity’ to the locker room – the implication that Fisher had been too ‘serious’ – an understandable position for a coach trying to establish himself in the league. Further, Jackson cryptically put a note on your favourite social media network outlining his interest in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and how leadership needs to be focused on self-actualization of players. Take from that what you will – like maybe that Phil continues to exist in a reality different from the one you and I share – but my arm-chair assessment was that Fisher’s leadership was too focused on the court, and not enough on the development of players as human beings. Sounds a bit esoteric to me, but you gotta give the boss what he wants right?

Perhaps, instead of asking why we should be asking why now? Because if after making Fisher one of the highest paid coaches in the competition, if after saddling him with a D-League roster for a full season, if after seeing him turn a ‘thin’ roster into a .500 team, Jackson has chosen to abandon Fisher after one bad run, then the decision seems to lack merit. Jackson brought Fisher on board to develop him alongside this team, and gave up as soon as the going got tough.

The errors listed above are hardly unfixable – hell I could fix the rotation right now. The philosophical differences between Phil and Fisher are much smaller than between Phil and the rest of the league, and if Phil thinks there is a quality coach out there desperate to run the triangle then he’s not living in this world of ours.

All we can do is hope that Jackson’s decision was based on some knowledge, some understanding of basketball that us mere mortals cannot grasp. Because otherwise it just screams of panic in the face of tough times. And that’s exactly what Phil was brought here to stop.


[1] Lance Thomas and Langston Galloway to be precise

[2] They did this again in the first game with interim Kurt Rambis at the helm, including 8 turnovers in the fourth. This is in stark contrast with the success in the 4th quarter over the beginning of the season, in which their metrics for 4th quarter points were excellent, as noted on the Lowe Post.

[3] It is clear that O’Quinn is the most talented, and has the most longevity contract wise.

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