One-and-a-half seasons, ninety-six losses, two ejections, and one Matt Barnes brawl later, the Derek Fisher era has come to an end in New York. Phil Jackson finally peeked his head out from his Zen garden only to announce announced that Kurt Rambis is an NBA head coach once again. What until recently looked like an oddly stable situation at Madison Square Garden is threatening to become typically Knicks-y, and fast. Fisher’s dismissal and their recent losing streak has created a lot of questions for the Knicks, and this final stretch of the regular season has the potential to be as compelling anything that has come before it. Here are some things to keep track of as the season enters its home stretch.
Can the Knicks make the playoffs?
The Knicks sit five games behind the eighth-seed Charlotte Hornets going into the All-Star break. To make their first playoff appearance since 2013, they’d probably have to jump a handful of teams that are arguably more talented than they are, including the Detroit Pistons and the Washington Wizards. A playoff push is becoming increasingly unlikely by the day, but it isn’t inconceivable. Nobody expected the Knicks to be able to scrape their way into the playoffs this season. If they do, it will be a major over-achievement for a team that, roster overhaul notwithstanding, still just isn’t all that talented.
Will Kurt Rambis change anything?
Kurt Rambis doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation as a head coach, but the remaining twenty-seven games of this season will be a chance for him to prove himself in the job once again. He now has the opportunity to leave his own stylistic mark on the Knicks, and if the results are good, he’ll likely have the chance to coach them long-term. Rambis is expected to double down on the Knicks’ commitment to running the triangle offense, but beyond that, anything is possible. Will he integrate the starters into the bench units? Will he finally let Langston Galloway supplant Jose Calderon as the starting point guard? Will he make Kristaps Porzingis a focal point on offense? Will Sasha Vujacic continue to play minutes for an NBA team that’s openly expressed a desire to make the postseason? How many Did Not Play—Coach’s Decision’s will Jerian Grant log in the season’s final stretch? These are the sorts of questions Rambis will have to answer in the season’s home stretch, and how he answers them will have great implications, not just for the fate the Knicks’ season, but for his own career prospects.
Will lineups stabilize?
One of the quickest changes Rambis could conceivably make would be to shorten the average game rotation to somewhere around nine players. This is something Fisher experimented with at times, usually relegating backup centers Kyle O’Quinn and Kevin Seraphin to the bench and letting Porzingis ride out stretches at center instead. Shortening the rotation worked well when Fisher did it, so it will be interesting to see if it’s something Rambis implements. He’s mentioned a shorter rotation as an ideal goal of his in his first few media availabilities, but has also suggested that sometimes it’s unrealistic to keep rotations so short during the regular season.
Has Kristaps Porzingis hit the rookie wall?
Porzingis has had a truly impressive season so far. He appears to be (but really isn’t) neck-and-neck with Karl-Anthony Towns in the Rookie of the Year race and has blown any expectations people had for him coming into the season far out of the water. Still, there have been indications in recent games that he’s hitting up against the proverbial rookie wall. He’s struggled to establish any type of position on the block or at the elbows, and has been forced into taking a lot of bad, off-balance shots as a result. He’s had games where he’s dragged on the defensive end, notably the Feb. 1 game against the Golden State Warriors, where he looked to be on the verge of collapse as he struggled to chase Draymond Green around the perimeter. In essence, Porzingis has looked flat-out exhausted recently, and it’s hurt his already mediocre efficiency on offense and dragged down his generally impressive defense. The All-Star break will give him a chance to recover a bit, but the rookie wall is real, and whether or not he can overcome it will be one of the major subplots as his season in the NBA comes to a close.
Will the Knicks make any trades?
Since we last touched on this topic, Phil Jackson has come out and indicated that he has an interest in making a move as the trade deadline approaches. A trade might be hard to come by given that the Knicks are severely lacking in assets, but that won’t stop them from being receptive to trade proposals as they look to get some help in the backcourt. Jackson suggested that the entire roster short of Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony is available to be included in trade talks, though it’s hard to imagine that they’d be jumping to part with key rotation players Lance Thomas and Langston Galloway. Still, Fisher’s dismissal gives the impression that the front office has decided to take a much less conservative approach to this season than previously indicated, so there’s a good chance the Knicks will be open to sending off some starters and rotation players in their attempt to bring back a skilled point guard.
What’s the truth about why Derek Fisher was fired?
Anybody who claims to understand exactly why Derek Fisher was fired is either lying or named Phil Jackson. Everybody around the organization, including Fisher himself, was apparently blindsided by the dismissal, and it’s easy to see why. Though Fisher certainly wasn’t a great head coach, he had shown signs of marked improvement over the season. He had gotten better at game management, shown flashes of good rotation strategy, and had arguably gotten the roster to overachieve over the balance of this season. Jackson implied that the firing had something to do with the team’s recent string of losses, but that wouldn’t make much sense. Nobody expected the Knicks to win a lot of games this season, and their schedule, which was particularly tough in the stretch leading up to the break, hasn’t been made any easier by injuries to Anthony, Porzingis, Thomas, and Calderon. Jackson also alluded to some communication breakdowns between Fisher, his staff, and the front office, which may be getting closer to the truth of the matter but still doesn’t sound like a reasonable justification for firing a head coach one game before the All-Star break. Some wacky rumors about Fisher’s dismissal are already starting to fly around. More of the story will come out sooner than later, and when it does, don’t be surprised if the truth is more strange and uncomfortable than Phil Jackson let on.