In the countless hours of discussions during this offseason of review and rethinking, Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher had finally reached a point in their relationship where respect finally went beyond the stage of being polite. One would think after all of the years they spent together as coach and player, there would no longer be a boundary between them. But over the first season together in New York, there was an obvious tip-toeing both did around each other.
What they learned in meetings with each other and general manager Steve Mills is that the “orientation process,” as Jackson called it, had to come to and end. The more they worked together in the offseason on building almost an entirely new roster, the more they realized that they, Fisher said, “found a better rhythm” and as a result, wanted to maintain that into the season.
“Derek’s going to ask me to be a little more present this year,” Jackson announced on Friday, when he, Mills and Fisher had their first media session before training camp opened.
He would go on to explain that last season he would briefly step into some film sessions Fisher held with the coaching staff, but avoided having too great of a presence because he didn’t want to overshadow Fisher’s position as head coach. He would watch practice, but, again, wanted to leave the focus on Fisher and allow his rookie coach to develop as the leader of the group.
Fisher often told me last season that he welcomed Jackson’s insight and input and there were several times during the year that it was evident — with all this team went through — that Fisher could have used more of Jackson’s presence on a daily basis. But, he admitted, “there were times last year, out of respect for each other’s titles, as we learned how to operate from player-coach to President and Head Coach, kind of not wanting to bother each other or overload each other with information.”
So this season, we should expect to see more of Jackson taking an active role with the team. Not necessarily coaching and not necessarily on the court in practice, but perhaps more of an active role in mentoring Fisher and engaging with the coaching staff. As Fisher described it: “Talking basketball, talking shop, learning from one of the great basketball minds we’ve ever seen.”
It’s important for the players to see that, as well. It’s something Carmelo Anthony certainly welcomes. While Fisher has earned respect as a former player-turned-coach, there is no one in the franchise that can deny the cachet that Jackson brings. For Melo to have someone like Jackson to talk with on a daily basis — Jackson also avoided putting too much time into talking to players during the season, again, to avoid undermining his coach — is exactly what stars in this league want.
Which brings us to another reason why this is a signification development. Throughout free agency, the Knicks realized that a certain media narrative had led to a debilitating perception among prospective targets. Agents who represented players with an interest in playing for a legend like Jackson and in a basketball city like New York said most clients were hesitant to sign with the Knicks because there was a sense perpetuated by media reports that Jackson was working from a distance and might not stay the duration of his contract.
This is a franchise that has gone through several transitions in the front office since 2008 and any agent will tell you that after money, franchise stability is a critical factor in any player’s decision-making process.
The Knicks will be back in the free agency game next summer, so it is important that they erase that narrative quickly. Jackson is an asset to this franchise and players need to know he is not only fully invested, but fully involved in the day-to-day process. And the truth of the matter is, as Mills quickly pointed out during the media address, Jackson was part of the day-to-day process last season. He was in New York for most of the season and put a lot of work in with the front office staff.
Jackson called it an “orientation” for him as a team executive. There were mistakes and there were challenges. But once the season ended, they were able to hit the re-set button with a lottery pick in Kristaps Porzingis, a crafty trade for another first rounder in Jerian Grant.
Six players return from last season’s group, two of whom were rookies (Langston Galloway and Cleanthony Early), two were journeymen who found a home (Lance Thomas and Lou Amundson), one was hampered with injuries (Jose Calderon) and the other is Melo, who is coming off knee surgery.
This is a team still quite young and still quite filled with question marks. And as such, Jackson and Fisher have already learned from last season, when both made playoff proclamations before the season.
“I want to stay away from expectations,” Jackson said. “It’s such a long season. We want to talk about competitiveness and home-court advantage.”
Internally, the bar is set much higher. There is an anticipation that this group could develop into a very competitive team. But you have to see how it comes together first. You have to see how Calderon looks — is he in shape? — and if Porzingis is ready to play a significant role in the lineup and if Melo can stay healthy for a full season.
They expect this to be a much better defensive team. They expect it to be grittier. But will it be good enough to make the playoffs?
Fisher, who is now sporting a full beard with some flecks of gray, is no longer a rookie coach. And he has Jackson’s word that he will bring more of a presence to the coaching staff and the team. But, Jackson said, it’s still Fisher’s job to bring this group together.
“His challenge this year is how you use personnel,” Jackson said. “It’s always a coach’s challenge: maximize everybody’s effort.”
It’s also on Jackson to maximize Fisher’s effort. And that’s why the coach wants him there.