Knicks coaching job criteria: The best qualified for losing


The last time Mark Jackson was a candidate to coach the New York Knicks, in 2008, he was passed over by the team president, Donnie Walsh, who worried that Jackson, without experience in the role, might be daunted by the likelihood of prolonged failure on the big stage in his native New York.

Walsh opted for the established veteran, Mike D’Antoni, who maintained his sanity by wisecracking his way through 32-50 and 29-53 seasons before a roster rebuild produced a short-lived competitive renaissance.

A decade later, Jackson is said to be back in the hunt, the Knicks are still a mess and their new management team would be well-advised to make a similar character evaluation — choosing the best qualified personality for losing.

OK, that’s just one of the criteria to replace Jeff Hornacek, the coach who was fired Thursday after two losing seasons. But it will be a crucial one as the Knicks move forward with a team dealing with a probable yearlong absence of its franchise talent, Kristaps Porzingis, and likely to get much younger before it gets measurably better.

“We’re in the talent acquisition phase,” said Scott Perry, the first-year general manager, deploying a euphemistic plea to a steadfast fan base that has seen only one playoff series victory in more than a decade and a half.

At a news conference Thursday to explain the dismissal of Hornacek, the team president, Steve Mills, eagerly conveyed a mandate of patience from the owner, James L. Dolan, who once went nuclear on a security employee for not recognizing him at the entrance of a Madison Square Garden lounge.

We have heard such declarations of patience before, as recently as 2014 when Phil Jackson, who was team president then, promised the most meticulous of reconstructions before locking himself into a 30-year-old gunner, Carmelo Anthony, and propping up the failing careers of Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose.

As for the Mills-Perry tandem, their perseverance with the intriguing Frank Ntilikina, the 19-year-old French-Rwandan point guard, lasted all of a half-season before the talent acquisition committee complicated his development by reeling in the uninspiring Emmanuel Mudiay in a trade with Denver.

In the spirit of supporting do-overs, we’ll give Team Dolan the benefit of the doubt.

But all candidates should take the Brett Brown psychology quiz.

Brown is the Philadelphia 76ers’ coach and perhaps the greatest survivor of continuous losing in the history of the league. In his first head coaching position after years as a trusted assistant to Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, Brown compiled a 75-253 record while braving the franchise’s so-called process — a lose-large-to-eventually-win-big approach — begun by Sam Hinkie, who didn’t last long enough to enjoy the fruits of his failure.

With his weathered face and thick New England accent, Brown determinedly stayed on message until the electrifying combination of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons overcame early career injuries, fortified by enough role players to win 52 games this season. The Sixers earned the third playoff seeding in the Eastern Conference.

Philadelphia by reputation is not the most tolerant of towns, though mostly relative to the ups and downs of the Eagles. New York is a far greater challenge made worse by nearly two decades of organizational dysfunction begetting public disdain. And while Dolan has been the common denominator since the late 1990s, mistrust and infighting between coach and front office has been a staple — or sickness — of the Garden for decades.

Is it something in the walls, or the water? Knicks chroniclers could write books on the epic feuds between Hubie Brown and Dave DeBusschere; Rick Pitino and Al Bianchi; Pat Riley and Dave Checketts; Jeff Van Gundy and Ernie Grunfeld; Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas.

Most were the result of mismatched egos, while a couple of the relationships began in unity and fractured in the heat of the fray. And then there was Phil Jackson, who hand-picked two coaches and subverted both of them.

If ever anyone stepped into a no-win situation, it was Hornacek, who signed on in June 2016, months after Jackson removed Derek Fisher, his first hire.

That summer, Jackson added the Chicago veterans Noah and Rose, telling friends he had assembled the fourth-best team in the East. At least one of those friends told Jackson he probably shouldn’t share that evaluation with Dolan, just in case he happened to be off on his projection.

Which he was, but only by eight places.

Hornacek was done in by unrealistic expectations. His authority inside the locker room was usurped from the start by Jackson’s apparent belief that he was the most handsomely paid (at $12 million a year) offensive coordinator in the history of professional sports, hired primarily to impose his beloved triangle offense on the coach of his choosing.

Like so many predecessors, Hornacek was fired rather unceremoniously, shortly after a victory Wednesday night over the Cavaliers in Cleveland, which concluded the Knicks’ 29-53 season. The story broke overnight, or before Hornacek had the chance to get some sleep and enjoy a shower and shave before his execution.

Mills told reporters, “I don’t think it was a complete shock to Jeff,” citing an ominous meeting two weeks ago, but Hornacek publicly lobbied to stay on before the game Thursday night.

Stay classy, Knicks.

At least Hornacek was not escorted out the building after showing up for work, which was Don Chaney’s fate one distasteful Garden night during the 2003-04 season. With another year and $5 million left on his contract, Hornacek becomes the newest member of Dolan’s exclusive Club Go-Away, which still includes Jackson.

Many Knicks’ coaches and executives have enjoyed lengthy quality time off with pay, one reason, as Perry said, “this will be an attractive job for a lot of coaches. And there will be a lot of interest in the job.”

Mark Jackson, for one, did well in developing a winning culture at Golden State, while Stephen Curry was a superstar-in-the-making. Jackson was a canny, charismatic point guard everywhere he played, including New York, and could be a godsend for Ntilikina.

But he also quarreled with the wrong people in the Warriors’ front office, fueled by what insiders considered a self-righteousness that prompted his firing and the coming of Steve Kerr with the team on the threshold of a championship.

Is Mark Jackson a good fit now? The best fit? That is for Mills and Perry to determine as they begin the Knicks’ latest coach acquisition phase.


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