Knicks coaching search: Two modern hires who fit what the front office claims to want
The pressure is on Steve Mills and Scott Perry to make the right call and not just hire a big name
Here are a few things that New York Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry have said about what they want from their next coach:
- "It has to be someone that understands today's player … from an analytics standpoint, from a physical development standpoint, from a physical development standpoint." -- Mills
- "A guy who can connect very well with his players and who is equally aligned in terms of wanting to be a very strong defensive-minded team." -- Perry
- "A candidate is going to need enough experience dealing with all you [media]. But also … enough experience in terms of communicating, developing and [showing] some sort of empowerment of getting guys to buy into a vision and competing at a high level." -- Perry
In a perfect world, the Knicks' new hire will be experienced, open-minded and focused on defense. He will inspire his players, manage the media and develop talent. I guess they are going to hire Brad PopoKerr -- cool!
Realistically, New York will not be able to hire a flawless coach. If Mills and Perry choose a big-name coach with years of NBA experience, they risk that he will not be open to new ideas or willing to wait for them to build something sustainable. If they hire an unproven coach, they will risk that he will not have the right personality to handle doing this job in New York.
As with any coaching search, determining who might fit for the Knicks must start with identifying what attributes they are looking for. The quotes from Mills and Perry provide hints, especially when you take into account the story they have been trying to tell about patience. The message from the front office since the end of the regular season has been clear: they do not want to take shortcuts or swing big for quick fixes.
If you are rolling your eyes, that is understandable. Last summer, New York signed guard Ron Baker to a two-year, $8.9 million deal and wing Tim Hardaway to a four-year, $71 million deal. At February's trade deadline, it gave up sharpshooter Doug McDermott and a second-round pick to acquire Emmanuel Mudiay. The Trey Burke signing looks like a bargain, but it's not as if the Knicks have spent the last year accumulating assets, making sure they are financially flexible and positioning themselves for the future. This warrants skepticism.
For the purposes of this exercise, though, we will take Mills and Perry at their word. If they are going to take a slow-and-steady approach, the most important strengths for the next Knicks coach should be are culture-building and player development. This organization desperately needs someone who can lay the foundation for the next era of New York basketball, connect with franchise player Kristaps Porzingis and help Frank Ntilikina and whoever they draft in June become the best players they can be.
With that in mind, two candidates stand out as compelling choices for the Knicks: Villanova coach Jay Wright and former Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale.
Why Wright makes sense
This is not just a reaction to Villanova's two NCAA championships in the last three years (though that type of success doesn't hurt). It's more about how Wright has gotten the job done. He has been lauded as forward-thinking for the way he has approached team-building, and the Wildcats have looked a lot like NBA teams in terms of shot profile in recent seasons.
Griffin went as far as comparing Wright's situation to that of Brad Stevens before he left Butler for the Boston Celtics. Wright will have many opportunities to jump to the NBA if he decides that's the way he wants to go, and if the Knicks do end up talking to him, you'd have to think of it as both parties interviewing each other. Stevens went to Boston because he believed in general manager Danny Ainge and owner Wyc Grousbeck. It was a stable situation, and the Celtics gave him a six-year contract.
New York should consider trying to lure Wright with the same kind of long-term deal. They also can afford to double his salary, as Wright made $2.58 million last year, according to USA Today. He has a track record of player development, playing outside-the-box lineups and building a program that reflects what he believes in. He has a strong personality but little ego. As a college coach making the transition to the NBA, he would not act like he has all the answers. And Wright is tough.
The big question with Wright is whether or not he would even entertain the idea of trying to rebuild the Knicks. The New York Daily News' Frank Isola reported last week that they intended to contact him, but there has been no word about an interview. , pointing out that "no college coach currently has things rolling as well as Wright currently has things rolling." I would argue this is precisely why New York should do whatever it can to make an impression on him.
Why Fizdale makes sense
In a weird way, the problems Fizdale had at the end of his Memphis tenure could actually be a good sign in terms of what the Knicks need. From the moment he took the Grizzlies job, Fizdale made it clear that he would modernize the offense. No longer would they play through the post at the start of possessions, slow the pace to a crawl and try to win ugly.
Fizdale empowered Mike Conley and freed him to play the best basketball of his career. He started versatile forward JaMychal Green over Zach Randolph. He encouraged Marc Gasol to shoot 3-pointers. There was resistance, but he had the right ideas. It is not his fault that Conley got hurt this season; for an example of how he can get the most out of his players, look back at how Memphis pushed the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of last year's playoffs.
Someone has to drag New York out of basketball's stone age, and Fizdale is more than qualified, as long as he and the front office are aligned. He has done just about everything you can do in coaching, starting in the Miami Heat's video room and doing skill work with players in the summer at Tim Grgurich's camp. He earned the trust of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, helping both of them get better in the post. He went to the Grizzlies because it is rare for assistant coaches to get their first head-coaching job with a playoff-caliber team, but perhaps he'd actually be a better fit for a franchise that is starting from the ground up.
One might question whether Fizdale is the best candidate to coach the young guys up. He is most known for working with vets in Memphis and those championship teams in Miami, but it's worth noting that he spent four years as an assistant on a rebuilding Atlanta Hawks team and worked with guys like Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside before leaving the Heat. The Knicks will meet with him this week, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, and they should use that as an opportunity to figure out how he would handle a couple of years where progress will not be measured simply by wins and losses.
Whichever way New York goes, this decision will be far and away the most important thing the front office has done since the end of the Phil Jackson era. Porzingis is heading into his fourth season, and the new hire will already be his fourth coach. No pressure!
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