The New York Knicks are supposed to be one of the NBA’s banner franchises. They play in the biggest market in the world! In Madison Square Garden, THE MECCA and THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS ARENA! (Do people in Estonia know what Madison Square Garden is?) While the Knicks may lead the league in baseless, self-proclaimed plaudits, they fail in many of the more, you know, meaningful and important departments. Like championships. And while legitimate star talent is the best avenue to a title (always has, likely always will be), having a great coach certainly helps. And that may be where the Knicks have failed the most. Twenty five men have coached the New York Knicks, either in a permanent or interim role. Shield your eyes folks…here is the list.
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Mike Woodson’s seat is basically melting at this point. Finding a fan or member of the media who thinks Woodson is a legitimately good NBA coach would prove to be a daunting task. Despite being hailed as a “defensive coach”, the highest a Mike Woodson-coached team has finished in defensive rating in a full season is 12th. In his seven full seasons as a head coach (excluding his 24-game stint after taking over for Mike D’Antoni in 2011-12 and this current season), his teams have averaged to finish 20th in defensive efficiency. Why bring this stuff up? Because this man is the third-winningest coach in the history of the Knicks franchise.
The Knicks have been pretty fickle about their head coaches, historically, and vice versa. The one outlier among the bunch is Red Holzman, of course, the only man to ever lift the franchise to a championship. Holzman was the head coach of the Knicks for 14 seasons. The other 24 Knicks coaches were in their position for an average of just 2.8 years (this includes Mike Woodson clocking in at 3 seasons; we’re going to assume he ain’t on the sidelines on opening night in the fall). Some of them have been fired, others have quit. In something that is so very Knickish, the two winningest coaches ever are part of the latter group.
Pat Riley and his disciple Jeff Van Gundy led the Knicks to their most successful non-title spurt in franchise history. The Knicks were a legitimate contender under Riley, who from 1992 through the 1995 season led them to a ridiculous .680 winning percentage and deep playoff runs each year. If this era hadn’t coincided with Michael Jordan’s apex, the Knicks may have snagged another title. But Riley was always a risk. At the end of the 1995 season, Riley turned down a lucrative contract extension, reportedly wanting control of all basketball matters AND 25% ownership of the team. It’s certainly easy to say now that the Knicks should have given Riley what he wanted, as he’s continued to prove that he simply knows how to build a winning team. But what Riley was asking for was essentially out of line, and so he decided to move on by famously sending a fax (How 1995 of you, Riles).
The Knicks tried to go the opposite route from Riley with Don Nelson, but that experiment flamed out after a 34-25 record to open the 1995-96 season (Oh, to live in the day again where nine games over .500 is considered a mess). So enter Jeff Van Gundy, who led the team to a .590 winning percentage over 7 seasons before, you guessed it, quitting! Now, Van Gundy cited a “loss of focus” when resigning after just 19 games in 2001. But translated, what he really meant was “The decision makers in this franchise are Scott Layden and James Dolan and they just gave Allan Houston $100 million for the next six years. I know where this is going.” And knowing what we know now about Van Gundy’s wit and dry sense of humor, I can’t help but take this quote from the above report as a hilarious troll (emphasis ours):
Noting that team president Scott Layden had urged him to reconsider his decision, Van Gundy said he felt his departure now would give the team “the best chance at continuing on the good streak.” He urged Layden to appoint his assistant, Don Chaney, as his successor, calling him “the most remarkable man I’ve seen since I’ve been in the NBA.”
Since I only started watching basketball in the early 90s, it’s hard for me to judge the Knicks’ historical hires in a fair light. There have been some big names sprinkled in: Rick Pitino, the aforementioned Don Nelson and Hubie Brown (who is hilariously on a near-symmetric career arc to Mike Woodson, down to coaching in Atlanta prior to coming to a Knicks team built around a lone offensive star and nothing else). But recently, you can make a case that the Knicks have whiffed pretty poorly, especially under James Dolan.
After taking Van Gundy’s
joke to heart advice, they promoted Don Chaney, only to fire him midway through the 2003-04 season and dig up the corpse of Lenny Wilkens as his replacement. That went exactly how everyone thought it would. The Knicks decided to go with Larry Brown prior to the 2005-06 season, which is a hire that can’t really be faulted. The Knicks took a swing for the fence, which is something they haven’t done too often when solving their head coaching vacancy. While Brown’s one-year tenure was an unmitigated disaster, he wasn’t exactly set up to succeed. Instead of finding another coach, Isiah Thomas just threw himself into the mix, emphatically completing the franchise’s descent into hell.
Donnie Walsh was hired to clean up the mess and had a clean slate to hire a coach. He went with D’Antoni, who like Brown was not a bad hire at the time. The Knicks weren’t expecting to win and were setting themselves up for 2010 Free Agency, and the hope was that D’Antoni’s system might attract top talent. But who else could they have had when hiring D’Antoni? One unemployed candidate at the time was Rick Carlisle, who had had a lot of previous success in Indiana and Detroit. While at the time Carlisle and D’Antoni had the same number of titles (0), a case could be made that Carlisle would have been a better hire. The Knicks also could have gone the youth route, and Walsh was openly very interested in Mark Jackson. Additionally, an assistant with the Celtics named Tom Thibodeau was starting to make his name around the league. It’s hard to call the D’Antoni tenure a total failure, but he never really seemed to fit New York, especially in the post-Carmelo Anthony Trade world. And D’Antoni has yet to prove that he can coach a team to be a contender sans an in-prime Steve Nash.
To be fair, Mike Woodson earned the Knicks job fair and square. After D’Antoni was dismissed, Woodson led the Knicks to a season-saving 18-6 record in the interim, and followed up with last season’s 54 wins and, finally, a playoff series victory. But it’s been well documented that the Knicks may have won last season often in spite of Woodson, and this year has added fuel to that fire. While the Knicks’ roster is flawed, they probably should be a touch better than 19-31 at the All-Star Break, and Woodson surely deserves some of the blame.
While arguments rage on that the Knicks are mired in a terrible spot flexibility wise, there’s one thing they can do this offseason to improve themselves that doesn’t include trading a draft pick or giving up on a young talent, something that isn’t constricted by the salary cap: hire a good head coach. The Knicks’ pockets are deep, and there are currently-unemployed candidates that would instantly be an upgrade over Woodson, like Jeff or Stan Van Gundy or Lionel Hollins. And that’s not to mention guys who may be available in the offseason (perhaps Thibodeau). Then there’s a guy named Phil Jackson. It’s a pipe-dream to think that he’ll ever coach the Knicks, for myriad reasons, but it’s a fact that he’s out there. Dolan surely has no interest in someone who is open with the media and would want sweeping control of the organization like Phil, but you could bet that any other owner with Dolan’s resources would at least place a call.
While you can pin this recent stretch of mediocre coaching hires on Dolan and the Knicks’ recent brass, bad coaching hires are really a franchise epidemic dating back as long as the Knicks have existed. And they’ll soon likely have another chance to change that.