The New York Knicks, in their illustrious franchise history, have had an uncanny tendency of turning the issues that face normal teams into launchpads to dysfunction. True to form, the Knicks have responded to a downturn in their feel-good season by firing head coach Derek Fisher.
New York had not fared well of late, especially in the standings. Nine losses in 10 games dropped the Knicks to 12th place in the Eastern Conference, some six games back in the loss column from the eighth-seeded Pistons. Why that might be grounds for firing Fisher, however, is a mystery. Four of those losses came by way of the Warriors, Thunder, Raptors, and Clippers. Another two were doled out by clearly superior teams in the Celtics and Grizzlies. New York lost a few close games along the way that it could have won, but Fisher’s roster was in no way good enough for guarantees against even comparable competition.
Let Monday speak to the importance of a team keeping an honest pulse of its place and progress. This season was to be the Knicks’ return to respectability. Carmelo Anthony was back in the lineup after battling a knee injury the season prior. Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo were brought in to stabilize the starting lineup. That Kristaps Porzingis came on strong almost immediately helped the Knicks to outperform expectations early, but their slide of late might be little more than a regression to the mean. One of the biggest problems with judging coaching based on streaks is that the NBA season is inherently uneven. Most every team will go on runs of wins and losses—particularly those hinging on the rise of a rookie as he runs into the wall.
The issue, as usual, isn’t that Fisher coached so well as to be above firing. It’s that the internal logic in dismissing him doesn’t track with the reasons for hiring him in the first place—much less a realistic view of the team. Why hire someone entirely new to the coaching profession if growing pains aren’t part of the calculus? The reason for hiring Fisher to a five-year deal in the first place seemed to be the promise of the coach he might eventually become. Instead, in a season where New York was contending for little of value, the Knicks decided to bail on Fisher for the sake of… well, chaos.
There’s so little to be gained in a decision like this, save confirmation that the Knicks think more highly of their current group of players than would seem prudent. A 23–31 record isn’t unreasonable for a team with iffy options at several position and a lackluster bench in general. Nor is New York’s position in the East especially dire; while 11 teams in the conference have better records to this point, none of Detroit (4–6 in its last 10), Charlotte (6–4 after a losing spell), Washington (3–7), or Orlando (2–8) is playing some exceptional brand of basketball. The ebb and flow of the Knicks’ season might have allowed them a more favorable spot in the playoff bubble, which is all that could be really be expected of them.
Instead, the team will be turned over to interim head coach Kurt Rambis, who famously led the Timberwolves to a 32–132 record (.195) from 2009–2011. His selection for the job was inevitable—both because he had the ‘associate head coach’ title that typically pegs a successor for these occasions, and because Rambis is so safely familiar to team president Phil Jackson. It also does exceedingly little to change New York’s trajectory in any positive way. The Knicks’ fate remains fixed to the underlying roster issues that complicated their season in the first place.