Even the most plugged-in figures in the NBA coaching business are puzzled by Jackson’s meandering search
As the coach hirings and firings continue to swirl, one man stands still. A conversation here, a secret interview there … but for the most part, Phil Jackson has been quiet.
Having spoken informally with Luke Walton and more formally with David Blatt and Frank Vogel, Jackson still doesn’t have a head coach nearly three months after firing Derek Fisher amid the Knicks’ third straight losing season.
Or does he?
Even the most plugged-in figures in the NBA coaching business are puzzled by Jackson’s meandering search — except when you consider the possibility that the search never really began. One theory that was making the rounds in league circles at the Chicago pre-draft combine last week is this: Maybe Jackson already has his coach.
And it’s him.
Well, not exactly Jackson — but Jackson coaching behind the scenes with his friend and former assistant Kurt Rambis orchestrating it from the bench.
It’s a farfetched idea that’s so unorthodox, Jackson and Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan might just go for it: Jackson as the de facto head coach behind the scenes, with Rambis on stage as the glorified associate head coach.
On a sunny Friday in Chicago, Rambis strolled through the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, made his way out onto Michigan Avenue and ambled down the street. He was wearing jeans and carrying a backpack. To 95 percent of passersby, he was just another tall guy fetching an Uber XL.
Later, Rambis took a seat right behind the basket during 5-on-5 drills. Owing to past failures and shortsightedness, the Knicks don’t have any picks in next month’s draft, but have to do the grunt work anyway, in case they buy one.
Jackson, 70, has been vacationing in Montana, though the New York Daily News reported Sunday that the Zen Master took a break from the great outdoors to meet face-to-face with Vogel, who was let go by the Indiana Pacers despite making the playoffs in five out of six seasons — including two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Knicks haven’t been to the conference finals in 16 years.
Before you dismiss the idea of surrogate head coaching, let’s make a few things clear: This is only a theory, though an informed one proposed to me during the combine by an executive within the NBA who has some experience with how business is conducted at the Garden. Several other equally plausible explanations for Jackson’s pedestrian search exist:
1. Like Dolan, Jackson is a contrarian and doesn’t care how anyone else conducts a coaching search. He’ll do it his way, on his time.
2. Dolan, who has been known to mettle with basketball affairs, isn’t keen on Jackson hiring his friend and paying him millions of dollars a year to serve as a body double.
3. Jackson honestly isn’t sure what to do yet.
“Maybe he’s decided that he wants to take a bigger bite out of the apple,” one league source speculated, “but needs some time to figure out if he can do it or not.”
Maybe Jackson will cave to convention and hire an accomplished coach like Blatt or Vogel, the latter of whom would bring instant credibility to a team that needs a steady hand to assure Carmelo Anthony that winning and competing in the postseason is within reach. Remember the heartfelt good-bye that Paul George posted on Instagram after Vogel was let go? George is friendly with Anthony and could easily assure him that he’s in good hands with Vogel.
Could Jackson coach behind the scenes with Rambis orchestrating it from the bench?
But maybe Jackson’s real plan for his executive role with the Knicks is to do more of what he does best. The Knicks aren’t paying him $12 million a year because of his accomplishments as an executive; there aren’t enough decimal places even in MSG’s rich coffers to compensate Jackson for the 11 championships he won as a coach (not to mention two as a player).
At the Garden, they say “once a Knick, always a Knick,” which doesn’t explain why the team won’t interview its biggest legend, Patrick Ewing, but does explain something about Jackson. “Once a coach, always a coach” is what the saying should be where Dr. Phil is concerned.
There’s no one else alive whose coaching resume can compare to Jackson’s. So getting Jackson to earn his keep by actually coaching the Knicks would be viewed as a coup — if only he were physically capable. Reality dictates that Jackson can’t do it anymore; the grind of the road, even in first-class, layback seats on the Knicks’ charter, would grind his artificial joints into dust. The monotony of it would drive him to distraction.
But there’s nothing wrong with Jackson’s coaching mind. And when you have the most decorated championship coach in NBA history in your employ, why pay a coach who hasn’t won anything the going rate of $7 million a year to do it his way? Why not just have a president of basketball operations and coaching?
Rambis would do it Jackson’s way, and maybe that’s been the point all along. How the Knicks sell it, and whether everyone involved has the devil-may-care fortitude to actually pull it off, is the great mystery of Jackson’s weird search.
Maybe, just maybe, the de facto coach of the Knicks is already in the building, staring back at Phil Jackson in the mirror.
Van Gundy to Rockets? Meanwhile, the man who famously (and dismissively) once referred to Phil Jackson as “Big Chief Triangle” while coaching the Knicks could be gaining momentum as the Rockets’ top choice: current ABC/ESPN broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy.
Houston interviewed Charlotte assistant Stephen Silas last week, and Silas — son of veteran NBA coach Paul Silas — was impressive, league sources said. But the Rockets have traditionally hired coaches with head coaching experience. Van Gundy not only has that, he has it with the Rockets, whom he coached from 2003-07.
With Van Gundy, it’s always been a question of whether he’s willing to leave his now decade-long life as a broadcaster for the rigors of coaching that left him burned out and exhausted when he was fired by the Rockets after a 52-win season in 2006-07.
Houston also has expressed interest in Mike D’Antoni, Jeff Hornacek and Frank Vogel, who previously interviewed with the Rockets during their 2011 search that ended with Kevin McHale getting the job. They’ve also interviewed TNT broadcaster (and two-time Rockets champion) Kenny Smith.
Who believes in Magic? After the surprising resignation of Scott Skiles last week, the Magic launched into what will be a thorough search — including reaching out to former interim head coach James Borrego, who also has interviewed with the Grizzlies. Jeff Hornacek (who impressed the Magic during their 2013 coaching search) and Frank Vogel also are on Orlando’s radar.
But at the Chicago combine last week, league sources indicated that one option that is very much on the table is promoting assistant Adrian Griffin. Orlando just had a turnover on the coaching staff last summer when they hired Skiles, and promoting Griffin would provide an opportunity to have consistency for a young roster of players who are maturing together.
As for the Grizzlies, they interviewed Hornets assistant Patrick Ewing last week and also have been granted permission to sit down with two rising assistants — David Fizdale of the Heat and Nate Tibbets of the Trail Blazers.