Sunday afternoon, Peter Botte of the New York Daily News reported that Turner Sports analyst Steve Kerr met with Phil Jackson Friday night to discuss the Knicks head coaching vacancy. Of course, this is hardly a surprise. Kerr has long been thought of as the favorite for the job. Jackson has said that Kerr would’ve been his choice to coach, had he become the president of the new Seattle Supersonics. Now that he holds that title with the Knicks, Kerr is again his coach of choice.
Kerr has expressed a desire to get into coaching and has a good relationship with the master of zen. He’s articulate, intelligent and spends lots of time around the game calling not only NBA games, but March Madness as well. He even writes from time to time. But while Kerr is generally regarded as a smart basketball man, his hire would not be met with universal applause among the fan base. The former sharpshooting guard is not unfamiliar with day-to-day operations of an NBA franchise, thanks to his three years in Phoenix, but he has no prior coaching experience.
However, there is a recent precedent for coaches without any previous experience being successful. The Warriors took Mark Jackson off ESPN and gave him their head gig in 2011. While he’s come under scrutiny this year for his unimaginative offense and unwillingness to stagger his lineups, he’s also led the Warriors to their fifth 50-win campaign in franchise history and has a .526 winning percentage over three seasons. In Brooklyn, Jason Kidd has overcome a poor start to the season and led the Nets to the playoffs.
Last year, super-smart friend-of-the-blog Jared Dubin noted at Grantland that first time head coaches are slightly more successful than retread coaches. Retreads do better initially, but over time the first year coaches on average have a higher winning percentage. Of course, each situation is different and no two coaches are the same, but it’s clear that the Knicks don’t need to bring an experienced coach in order to be successful.
Kerr’s inexperience will also be less of a factor because of who works above him. Jackson spoke last week about him and Kerr sharing similar coaching philosophies. They have a good relationship and it can be anticipated that Jackson will be hands on in helping out his new coach. Jackson has said he won’t force his new coach to run the triangle, but he does believe in system basketball. Kerr’s experience playing under Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Lute Olson won’t automatically make him a good coach, but it can’t hurt either. He is sure to have picked up a few things here and there that will be useful to him.
As general manager in Phoenix, Kerr generally did a good job in talent evaluation. His Shaquille O’Neal experiment failed miserably, as did his drafting of Earl Clark 14th overall (Once a Knick, Always a Knick!), but he did draft Robin Lopez and Goran Dragic. He also traded Boris Diaw and Raja Bell for Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley. That move might seem insignificant now, but it worked out well for Phoenix. Both players were key contributors to the Suns improbable run to the Western Conference Finals in 2009. If hired by the Knicks, Kerr won’t have final say on personnel, but it’s encouraging to see that he’s had success in that department in the past.
Because he’s never coached before, Kerr’s coaching style and schematic philosophies are relatively unknown. Listening to him call a game on TNT doesn’t tell you much. However, Kerr was on the Below the Rim podcast with Brian Windhorst in early-March and gave some insight into his coaching philosophies.
When asked about Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek, Kerr likened himself to his former teammate.
“I think Jeff and I are a lot alike personality wise.” Kerr said. “I think I would have a similar demeanor to him on the sidelines and I think I see the game in a similar way.”
Windhorst noted how the NBA has shifted to a more offensive game with a greater emphasis on up-tempo play. He asked Kerr whether he’d have his teams playing up-tempo.
“I don’t think I would be seven seconds or less. I love watching the Pacers play. Maybe I’m in the minority.” Kerr said. “I like size. I like teams that can put two bigs on the floor and defend the paint and still stretch the floor offensively and put a good attack on the court at that end.”
It’s not surprising that Kerr isn’t a SSOL guy. In 2008, he and Mike D’Antoni clashed over philosophical differences. Ultimately, the situation resulted in D’Antoni leaving and joining the Knicks.
“I don’t believe in four guards and a big.” Kerr said. “I still believe in playing two bigs, but if you can have the type of versatility where you can accomplish both, I think everyone still wants to push the ball.”
For Kerr, the most important part of any offense is ball movement.
“But the biggest thing is ball movement on offense; forcing the defense to react and respond. I just hate isolation basketball. And so as a coach I would absolutely demand a lot of ball movement and spacing.” he said. “It’s why I love watching Dallas play and San Antonio and Portland. Those teams just flow and there’s a beauty to the game and that’s what I would aspire to as a coach.”
In hearing Kerr talk like this, you see where him and Jackson agree philosophically. The triangle is a system based around ball movement and having multiple players who can play in the post. It’s also an offense that emphasizes pushing the tempo. Jackson’s Laker teams of the 2000s played at an average pace of 95.21 possessions a game. That’s not blistering fast, but it certainly isn’t slow. It’s encouraging to hear Kerr talk about floor spacing. With defenses evolving schematically and players more athletic than ever, spacing the floor is monumentally important to any successful NBA offense. Of course, being around the game as much as he is, Kerr should understand this as well as anyone.
Even if Carmelo Anthony re-signs, the Knicks aren’t going to compete for a championship next season. In that regard, they’re well suited for a more inexperienced coach. Because Kerr has never coached before, there will be an adjustment period. That is especially true if he’s implementing the triangle; which is complex and takes a while to fully implement. However, assuming ownership doesn’t muck things up, Jackson will likely demonstrate patience with his new coach. He rebuilt the Lakers in the mid-2000s. He understands that building a championship team is a process. Jackson may be able to accelerate that process in the summer of 2015, but until then his hands are pretty much tied.
If the Knicks were right on the cusp of contending, the conversation would be different. But as is, the Knicks are a team that can afford to, and probably should, bring in a younger, inexperienced coach. And as Brooklyn did with Kidd, Jackson will likely surround his new coach with experienced assistants.
While Kerr was the general manager in Phoenix, Bill Cartwright was an assistant under both Terry Porter and Alvin Gentry. Cartrwright’s name is one that has been thrown out there in the Knicks coaching search. Of course, Cartwright was one of Jackson’s guys in Chicago. Whether Kerr and Cartwright have a close relationship is unknown, but the fact that they’ve at least been part of the same organization before is noteworthy. You get the feel that Kerr and Jackson just have great synergy, something that has obviously been missing in the Knick organization for a long time. There will be skepticism surrounding his hire, if it comes to fruition, but that’s true of nearly all coaches. He’s got a good relationship with Jackson and he’s a smart guy; he’s a good fit for the Knicks. And in Kerr’s own words, he “hates” isolation basketball. Even the biggest skeptics have to like that.