Derek Fisher was always a blank slate to me as a player, a Phil Jackson poser point guard a la B.J. Armstrong and Steve Kerr: not a "real" point guard, but a dude who played alongside all-time greats and thus had nothing to do beyond bring the ball up-court and shoot wide-open threes.
As my basketball IQ grew I came to appreciate Fisher's value, but he never captured my imagination. When Jackson brought him in as the Knicks' new coach, I felt...nothing. His first press conference was impressive. So? His personality as a player didn't exactly pop. I never had a feel for Derek Fisher. But not feeling anything is beginning to feel right.
Call it nirvana. Or the wisdom that comes with aging. Or the lack of energy that comes with aging, weariness masquerading as wisdom. But after all the coach archetypes paraded in front of Knick fans over the years-- the winners; the iconoclasts; the everymen; the fall guys; the moral nomads; the snake oil salesmen; the alleged recruiters; the whatever-the-hell-the-last-one-was-supposed-to-be-- the blankness of Derek Fisher works. Symmetry, thy name is a coach on a learning curve working with a roster on one too.
The Knicks need to establish a foundation, culturally and stylistically, before they try to get anywhere meaningful. A boat needs ballast before setting sail.The free agent harvest isn't until next summer, an end product they have little control over, at best. This entire season is time they can work on their major arcs. Not all arcs are Xs and Os.
Last week, Tim Hardaway Jr. said that despite the losing, this year's Knicks, apparently unlike last year's Knicks, "were actually trying. This year, we're actually out there trying to give it our all." Iman Shumpert admitted finger-pointing "was a problem last year," and that sometimes last year's Knicks "came in with the wrong mindset, so we're getting our asses kicked." Ex-Knick Metta World Peace spoke of an exchange he had last year with JR Smith. Fisher said these issues were apparent both from "watching film" and "direct conversations with the players."
When the Knicks lost a heartbreaking seventh game in a row at the buzzer vs. Utah, I was curious to see how Coach Fisher would respond to a burgeoning crisis so early in his administration. And at first, I was discomforted. Fisher's postgame Q&A seemed straight out of Jonestown.
He wasn't simply calm. He seemed pleased. He claimed he felt "excitement" after the loss, along with "belief in who we are and what we are made of." Odd, but perhaps this was transparent coachspeak, trying to keep spirits up in the ugly early stages of an 82-game season no one from the top of the organization down to the players pretends is anything more than evaluating for the next 82-game haul. Then Fisher said something that made me feel dark and clammy inside, inducing a terror I haven't felt since Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni and Glen Grunwald were all wacked after succeeding (succeeding by 21st century Knick standards). He said, "That was New York City out there."
So Fisher had finally played his hand, and it was a losing hand: the overmatched out-of-towner making the clumsy opening move of trying to fit in by labeling something universal as "That's so New York City!" What was he talking about? What was "New York City" about coming in second to Salt Lake City? Come to think of it, what's "New York City" about being 2-8? No one comes to New York to go 2-8, metaphorical or otherwise. I finally had a read on Derek Fisher. Nothing special. Just a dude. Right place. Right time. If Phil'd returned to the Lakers, Fisher'd be coaching there; if Phil'd stayed in Montana, Fisher'd be an anonymous assistant somewhere.
Late in the second quarter of the win over Denver, the Knicks were up 56-37. They'd outscored Denver 25-6 in the quarter. It was a slaughter. JR Smith was cooking and was midway through what would become a step-back swish when the whistle blew, disallowing the basket. The Knicks had called timeout before the shot. I figured Fisher would look upset about having cost the team the bucket. Maybe he'd even say something mean to the ref. Displaced anger is the heartbeat of America.
MSG showed a replay of Fisher calling the timeout. Never flinched. The lost two points never fazed him. He'd seen something in the Knicks' action that compelled him to stop everything, stop all the success as it was succeeding, and point it out. Drawing attention to such detail illustrates an ability to focus in the moment-to-moment while maintaining the scale of vision necessary to see the big picture. Denver's a lottery team who'd likely played their worst quarter of the season. What the Knicks were doing well won't matter two or three Junes from now. What Fisher noticed might.
In the middle of the second half, the Nuggets made a run. Fisher didn't call timeout, electing to let the players figure out how to stop it. Admirable, certainly, especially after watching Mike Woodson burn through them after every 6-2 run last year. But other coaches do that, too. That's nothing new. Nothing that pops.
Maybe coaches are like musicians. Maybe the best ones get you to hear the notes they don't play. With 2:34 left, the Nuggets hit a three off a JR Smith turnover, cutting the Knick lead to 13. Fisher called timeout. He wasn't upset. Certainly nowhere near as animated as he'd been when the Knicks were up 19 in the first half. The game was no longer in question; the Knicks would win. Yet that's when he called timeout. He'd seen something he thought the players hadn't, something he wouldn't wait for them to figure out. I don't know what it was, but I'm growing to trust not knowing what Derek Fisher's up to. He marches to his own beat, and the jams of June play notes only he's heard.