The courtship of Steve Kerr to become the New York Knicks head coach began Friday evening as the TNT analyst dined with new team chief Phil Jackson. Although both men are closed mouthed as to the matters discussed, Kerr stated in recent days his anticipation of a call from Jackson about the vacant coaching spot atop Gotham. Kerr expressed his interest in the job and has stated that coaching is his next desired job in the league after playing and a stint as general manager of the Phoenix Suns.
Kerr has no coaching experience on his resume, although the path to NBA head coach often does not require previous coaching gigs, particularly for former point guards. Although the former long range gunner was more designated shooter than playmaker, he would add to the considerable coaching tree of Greg Popovich and perhaps add a first significant branch to the Jackson tree. Kerr played for both coaches in his NBA career. Former point guards moving over to a head coaching slot without previous assistant or head coaching experience include the Nets’ Jason Kidd, the Clippers’ Doc Rivers and the Warriors’ Mark Jackson. Although hiring an inexperienced head coach is a risk, the New York Knicks’ courtship of Steve Kerr at least makes some sense given his familiarity with Jackson’s preferred triangle system.
As GM of the Suns, Kerr’s biggest move was to jettison Shawn Marion and acquire Shaquille O’Neal to anchor the team. With that one move, the Suns moved away from the run and gun style which had been successful in the regular season and conference finals worthy in the playoffs. While giving Kerr props for having the guts to make the move, the end result was a mismatched team of runners slowed down by a plodder in the middle. The hope was that O’Neal could add a defensive presence and toughness to the team. Instead, the looming shadow of the Big Diesel slowed them down and the balance of the team was not suited to his game. The O’Neal move prompted a coaching change from Mike D’Antoni to Terry Porter in order to give the team a more defensive oriented approach. The moves did not pan out and the Suns have not been the same since.
Kerr says he has been preparing for a potential head coaching job by picking the brains of experienced coaches, including the Big Tuna himself. Bill Parcells may not know basketball, but he does not about coaching and engineering turnaround jobs. Turning losing teams into winners on a fast track basis was a Parcells specialty. If Kerr is offered the job by Jackson and decides to take the plunge, his first order of business will likely be recruiting Carmelo Anthony to either opt in for the final year of his contract or to accept a longer term deal.
Given the Knicks lack of cap space and first round draft pick this year, turning around the team even with Carmelo Anthony on the squat will require getting better results out of the existing talent on the squad. Tyson Chandler does a decent job anchoring the defense when he is healthy and Amare Stoudemire showed flashes of his old form late in the season, albeit a more ground bound version. JR Smith and Andrea Bargnani are lightning rods for criticism as the former cannot seem to remain under control and the latter appears to be the kind of coach killing talent that everyone always assumes can do more. Raymond Felton at the point is a capable player if not too much is asked of him. The NBA experience of Mike Woodson could not get enough production out of this group and Kerr will have a tough task ahead of him if he takes the job.
Given the existing difficulties with the New York Knicks in terms of a lack of cap flexibility with a star player on the fence as to whether he should come back, if Steve Kerr responds to Jackson’s apparent courtship by accepting a coaching offer he will have a difficult job. The Knicks fan base expects the team to win and rebuilding is not a word often used in New York. Kerr will enter a pressure cooker with the eyes of the basketball universe centered on his every move. Based on his moves with the Phoenix Suns, we know Kerr has guts. NBA fans could find out soon if he has the smarts to back it up.
Commentary by William Costolo