Kurt Rambis is 8-17 since taking the reins as Knick head coach. New York is 1-8 in games when they enter the final five minutes with a lead or deficit of 5 points or fewer; that's a .111 winning percentage, well below the .429 the recently fired Derek Fisher had in such spots. Rambis has aliented people over how he's treated the rookies, how he's treated the veterans, for being too close to Phil Jackson and not being close enough to Tom Thibodeau. All understandable. All unfair.
The most logical outcome of Phil Jackson's run as Knick overlord is Rambis as Phil-coaching-by-proxy. Many would have signed up for Phil on the sidelines in 2013, but hips don't lie, so that ain't happening. Some fans, weary after almost two decades of ineffectual bitching about owner James Dolan, turn away from the man behind the curtain and aim their rotten tomatoes at Phil, blaming him because #$$$ #triangle #goink.
I get it. Phil's there -- rarely, contradicting the implied era of good feelings and transparency that accompanied his ascension to power, but still there more than the owner. And when the team is losing, he's going to be blamed no matter how he's behaving. If he looks distant, he's only interested in cashing his big fat paychecks before hightailing it back to L.A. and the bosom of his future bride; if he looks involved, he's Geppetto the puppeteer, pulling strings, tweeting nefariously, more concerned with power and ego than with winning.
I think Phil wants Rambis as his head coach because they work well together, because they communicate effectively, and because he thinks Rambis is in sync with his vision of
transactional transformational leadership. He may not be right, but that don't mean he's wrong. Here, then, a defense against the most common anti-Kurt arguments:
1. His record sucks.
It sure does! After less than a third of a season at the helm, Rambis is already beneath 21 of the other 26 coaches in Knick history in winning percentage. He's below Herb Williams. He's below Isiah Thomas. HE'S BELOW ISIAH THOMAS?!? The only Dolan hires he beats are Larry Brown, who lasted one season, and Fisher, who lasted 1.5. Ewww.
We hear a lot about Rambis's lifetime coaching record of 64-162, including his uninspiring stint losing two-thirds of his games with the Knicks. The Knicks have nearly doubled their 17 wins from last year - and they're still going to lose 50+ games. This isn't a good team, and it's improved as much as realistically possible.
In the last decade, 14 teams finished a season with fewer than 20 wins. Only two - the '09 Miami Heat (17==>43) and last year's Milwaukee Bucks (15==>41) - won more games a year after sucking than the 31
and counting this year's Knicks have. The Knicks were 22-22, then lost eight of nine, then fell apart some more. That's a lotta losing. But you know what they say.
In Minnesota, Rambis put up losing numbers that would make Sam Hinkie blush if vampires could blush. He's hardly the first coach in memory to struggle with the Timberwolves. Way back in the day, Rambis coached the Shaq/Kobe Lakers for about half a season. He won two-thirds of his games. Average coaches win when they have talent. Great coaches lose when they don't. No matter who coached New York this year, they weren't going to turn Jose Calderon and Arron Afflalo into good defenders.
2. He doesn't play or develop young talent and he alienates veterans.
The first smoking gun for this argument is Rambis allegedly nailing Kevin Love's young glorious tuchus to the bench in Minnesota. To this I say "Balderdash!" At 21, Love played 28.6 minutes per game under Coach Kurt. The following season he played 35.8. Knick ubermensch Kristaps Porzingis, 20, is averaging 28.4 minutes, more than anyone reasonably hoped for this year. Expect him to top 30 next season.
Much of the Rambis criticique addresses his treatment of rookie Jerian Grant. Certainly Grant is one of the few players on the roster earmarked for a future with this team, so developing him and Porzingis are two of the only things that matter in this playoffs-less/draft-pick-less year. Grant has averaged only 16 minutes a game this year and some benchings by Rambis have raised eyebrows. Isn't it possible Grant hasn't played more because he wasn't ready to? It's not like the organization has some vested interest in paying him not to play. He's a first-round pick you traded for. Everyone knows Calderon is not the wave of the future, including Calderon. But you can't just throw a guy out there who isn't ready because #process.
Three years ago, another rookie point guard, drafted 17th (Grant was 19th), put up the same 38% shooting Grant has this year. He shot 24% from downtown, better than Grant's current 21%. His shooting, assists, and minutes have all risen the past few seasons, and now Dennis Schroder is a big enough part of Atlanta's future it's expected he'll succeed All-Star Jeff Teague, linked in trade rumors to New York. We wish these things for Grant. But it's not a crime to make a guy prove he's ready rather than throwing him in the deep end and hoping this is the day he doesn't sink.
There was a lot of press recently about Knick veterans like Carmelo Anthony and Robin Lopez soliciting Rambis for fewer minutes for themselves and more playing time for younger players like Grant. Some viewed this as a negative, the coach needing to be clued in to optimal reality. Consider that coach's perspective: an interim coach leading a team that was always a historical playoff longshot, in an industry and in particular a market where patience is less a virtue than an invite for "LOL, nah," who knows that to keep a job he clearly wants he has to win as much as possible. Grant is guaranteed a seat on the ship sailing for the Knicks' future. Rambis is not. The only capital he can hope to possess is wins. If the organization wanted him to prioritize development at this point, they would have made that clear and I've no doubt he would have assented. If the man ostensibly re-hiring him tells him "Play to win," he's going to play to win.
Carmelo has voiced a desire to be in the mix when searching for the next coach. I am more often than not a Carmelo fan and public defender. I admire several things about him and I'm glad he's here. Having said that, I don't care if he has any input into what happens next, and if that leads him to relinquish his no-trade clause and play somewhere else next year, cool. Carmelo isn't 27 anymore. His role in the future of this team has changed - he's not the Promised Land, he's a brick in the bridge to wherever the Knicks go next. If that bridge consists of his points, rebounds, assists and lovable Dad Melo-self the next couple years, okay. He's fun to watch. If that bridge consists of the draft picks and cap space the team gains from trading him, okay. Winning's funner.
Every year, Carmelo's clout grows weaker. His ace-in-the-hole is that no-trade clause, but that only matters if he's healthy and playing well. Unless LeBron James, Chris Paul, and maybe Dwyane Wade come to New York at a healthy discount, Carmelo and the Knicks are likely to divorce at some point. Why ask his input in 2016 when he's likely gone or diminished by 2018?
The Rambis/Afflalo Communicationgate is weird. It's hard to imagine they both believe 100% in their stories, given the disparity between "We totally talked!" and "Nah-uh no way uh-uh." Haven't seen any other players make a big stink defending Afflalo, which you figure might happen if Rambis was wholly in the wrong here, or if they were dead-set against him returning. Ask yourself: would you rather have Derrick Williams opt-in next year or Afflalo? If you said Williams, that tells you all you need to know about how disappointing Afflalo's erratic play has been. If you favor Afflalo, you're either Afflalo, his agent or his mom.
Robin Lopez has yelled at Rambis in games and disputed his account of their discussions concerning RoLo's minutes. It's possible where there's smoke there's fire, and this indicates a deep-seated problem Rambis has interacting with large human beings. It's also possible no one would give a shit about it if the team were winning. Pat Riley yelled at Anthony Mason and Mase paid him back with interest. (Didn't wanna go old-school, but that's the last Knick run there is to refer to). Is it possible Rambis has an issue with communication? It is. Is it possible he doesn't, and that we don't sweat Draymond Green raising his voice to Steve Kerr because Golden State wins a lot? It is.
3. He's not the Best Coach Available.
Take a look at the contenders and pseudo-contenders. Take a look at their coaches. How many were slam-dunk hires? Steve Kerr had no prior coaching history. Ditto Gregg Popovich. Tyronn Lue has less experience than Fisher or Rambis. Dwayne Casey didn't get above .500 till this year. Brad Stevens, Mike Budenholzer, Terry Stotts, Steve Clifford, Erik Spoelstra -- all rookies with their current squads. The biggest name on any good team is Doc Rivers in L.A., who's unfortunately stuck working for GM Doc Rivers.
James Dolan's hires are mostly dudes with glittering resumes. Mike Woodson led the Hawks to five years of increasing win totals. Don Cheney and Mike D'Antoni were both former Coach of the Year honorees. Lenny Wilkens and Larry Brown won championships. What'd all that get the Knicks? Bupkis. Doesn't mean Rambis is the answer. Doesn't mean Tom Thibodeau is, either.
4. He criticized Porzingis!
Yes, he did. And in a simpler time, we'd have burned him at the stake for such heresy. But we've evolved, ideally, to where we don't conflate all criticism with negativity. Michael Jordan was not a finished product after his rookie year. Shaquille O'Neal had things to learn. LeBron, too. Patrick Ewing could do things 5-6 years into his career no one would have imagined in 1985. KP wants to be one of the greats, to eat his foes like they're gazelles. Nothing wrong with a coach stoking that fire.
I don't know if Rambis is the answer. I didn't know Jeff Van Gundy would be as good as he was, and I never thought Hall of Famers like Don Nelson, Wilkens and Brown wouldn't last more than 82 games. The Knicks are a flagship franchise and should open their coaching search as wide as possible that's one place where they can say f*** you to the salary cap and spend some of the $48.5 million tax break Dolan gets every year on the best coaches. They don't. Maybe Rambis is all wrong. I just don't think he's wrong for the reasons I keep hearing.