The Charlotte Hornets are the talk of the league after stunning the San Antonio Spurs Monday evening. A former Knick featured very prominently in that game, and the New York fans are distraught that the franchise let him get away.
I'm referring, of course, to Steve Clifford -- former assistant under Jeff Van Gundy in New York, and one of the finest coaches in the league. His Hornets are 10 games over .500, ranking 8th in the league in defensive efficiently and an astonishing 11th in offensive efficiency, turning around years of scoring futility for the franchise.
How has Clifford done it? He achieve success by doing the least Knicks thing imaginable: He changed his philosophy to suit his players. Gone are the days where Charlotte ran the majority of their offense through Al Jefferson in the post. The front office grabbed some underrated perimeter players, and Clifford changed to a more perimeter-oriented offense.
At The Hive's Nick Denning stated Clifford's case for Coach of the Year back in late December, and it perfectly illustrates what the challenges he's faced and how he overcame them:
Seven new players are on this season's roster, and Clifford re-did his entire offensive system to utilize their strengths, along with the returning players from last season. As a result, we're seeing numerous Hornets having career best starts -- Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lamb, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller to name a few. Other players, such as, Jeremy Lin, and Spencer Hawes -- are finding success after being in bad situations last season.
And that doesn't even factor in the loss of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, one of the league's best defenders. The Hornets front office made some good under-the-radar moves this summer, but it's not as if they've thrown championship-level talent Clifford's way. Hell, they drafted ninth in one of the finest talent pools in recent history and came out with Frank Kaminsky (Next four players drafted: Justise Winslow, Myles Turner, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker. Ouch).
Clifford gets the most out of players like Marvin Williams and Kemba Walker by putting them in the position to succeed. Could you imagine what he'd do with a talent like Kristaps Porzingis?
Sadly, Steve Clifford won't coach the Knicks next year. But he should be the template for any candidate moving forward -- a defensive coach who is willing to adapt. Essentially, the opposite of almost every coach the Knicks have had for the past decade.
Just check down the list of New York's most recent head coaches -- Mike D'Antoni, Mike Woodson, Derek Fisher, Kurt Rambis -- and it's hard to find a guy with a flexible ideology. Woodson had the most success with his outside-the-box small-ball approach, then willingly torpedoed it in the name of his basketball beliefs. Perhaps Fisher could have grown into that kind of coach -- he had shown some encouraging signs -- but of course he was fired and replaced by the ultimate Triangle zealot in Rambis.
I've supported many of the moves Phil Jackson has made over the past few years. He's cleaned away much of the trash on the roster, and has given us at least a few players who could contribute on a winner. He even went outside of Triangle orthodoxy in acquiring Porzingis and Robin Lopez, neither of whom appeared to be traditional Triangle bigs. If only he could do the same thing in picking his next coach.
Aside from a few progressive roster moves, there is little indication that Phil is comfortable looking outside the Triangle Club. It's not so much the antiquated offense that's killing the club, but that damn stubbornness, the lack of willingness to adapt. Particularly in Kristaps' case, they're pounding a square peg into a round hole. Let's be honest, though -- this obstinate streak was present at MSG long before Phil arrived. If the Zen Master doesn't find a coach who's willing to change with the times, he'll be replaced ... probably by a guy even more pig-headed than he.
We need you, Phil. We need you to be the change. If it doesn't happen this summer, it might never happen.