The first three Interview This Coach Please candidates we've summarized have been relatively normal names in the grand scheme of the NBA in 2016. Our first candidate, Scott Brooks, who has since been hired by Washington, has shown a knack for distilling raw talent like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant into dominant stars. Our second candidate, Becky Hammon, impressed Gregg Popovich enough to earn a spot on his bench, and her career accomplishments indeed indicate a cerebral, discerning basketball mind. Most recently we discussed Frank Vogel's potential fit with New York and how his defensive reputation would suit Kristaps Porzingis' strengths.
That normalcy ends today because yesterday Mike Fratello expressed interest in the vacant coaching gig at Madison Square Garden, and I honestly still don't even know where to start.
For those somehow unfamiliar with Fratello's station within the professional basketball community: Fratello is a nicely-aged Italian-american from New Jersey who currently provides color commentary alongside Ian Eagle for Brooklyn Nets broadcasts on YES Network as well as nationally broadcasted games on TNT. Although our favorite color commentator here at P&T is obviously Walt Frazier, Fratello is probably the best. Fellow broadcast legend and bonafide creep Marv Albert dubbed him "The Czar of the Telestrator" ("The Czar" for short) due to his uncanny ability to draw plays and accurately describe the action on the court visually, and his typical manner of game breakdown is pleasant, informed and fair. Overall, Fratello and Eagle probably comprise the NBA's best overall broadcast booth.
Prior to his broadcasting career, however, Fratello was one of the most respected and successful coaches in NBA history. After coaching under Villanova legend Rollie Massimino in the 1970s, Fratello got his professional start under Hubie Brown with the Atlanta Hawks. Brown, a coaching and broadcast legend in his own right, would eventually move to the Knicks in 1982 and bring Fratello with him for one season. The Knicks finished six games above .500 that season and Fratello was hired as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks the following year (Brown would ultimately fill Fratello's vacancy by hiring Rick Pitino).
With an age-24 Dominique Wilkins and age-22 Doc Rivers at his disposal, Fratello would spend the next seven seasons coaching excellent, deliberately-paced basketball in the most difficult conference in NBA history. Between 1983 and 1990 he would match up against Larry Bird's Celtics, Julius Erving's 76ers, Sidney Moncrief's Bucks, The Bad Boy Pistons, Charles Barkley's 76ers, and Michael Jordan's Bulls. From 1985-86 through 1989-90, Atlanta would finish with 50 or more wins in all four seasons. However, Fratello and Wilkins would never appear an Eastern Conference Finals together, pushing Boston to seven games in 1988 before ultimately succumbing to the far more talented Celtics.
After his stint with Atlanta ended following the 1989-90 season, Fratello took a couple of years off from coaching before accepting a job with the Cleveland Cavaliers prior to the 1993 season. Taking over for coaching legend Lenny Wilkens, Fratello led the Cavs to the playoffs in four of his six seasons in Ohio. If you're familiar with the landscape of the 1990s Eastern Conference, you probably know Cleveland was unable to topple Jordan's Bulls, Ewing's (our) Knicks, and Reggie Miller's Pacers.
Fratello would again leave coaching for multiple years before deciding to accept a job with the Memphis Grizzlies. Fratello's mentor, Hubie Brown, who had been hired by recently-appointed general manager Jerry West, led the team to respectability following its 2001 relocation from Vancouver. Brown, fresh off a 2004 NBA Coach of the Year victory, would step down during the following season so West decided to hire Fratello as a replacement straight out of the TNT broadcast booth. In his approximately two seasons with the Grizzlies Fratello would lead the team to two playoff appearances, where they were swept each time by far superior teams. After an abominable 6-24 start to the 2006-07 season West fired Fratello.
An examination of that firing and the 2006-07 Memphis Grizzlies overall tells a pretty simple story. The prior season Memphis ranked first in the NBA in defensive rating at 88.5, which supported a terrible offense. They also played at the league's slowest pace, a Mike Fratello staple since the early 1980s. His general coaching philosophy has been to play deliberate, defensive-minded basketball. In 2005, Fratello won by pairing Pau Gasol with Shane Battier, both of whom are absolutely perfect for his preferred brand of basketball. During the offseason, Memphis traded Battier to the Rockets for the rights to University of Connecticut wing star Rudy Gay. Gay helped to propel the Grizzlies' offense from 27th to sixth in the NBA, while Battier's absence dropped their defensive rating from first to 29th. Memphis would be a joke until Marc Gasol arrived years later.
As previously mentioned, the hallmarks of Fratello's coaching philosophy revolve around slowing the game down to a crawl and outplaying the other team defensively, while drawing up excellent out-of-bounds plays. During his recent expression of interest in the Knicks' coaching vacancy, he had this to say:
"San Antonio does it. Golden State has incorporated it. There's a number of teams that have parts of the triangle that they use. They just don't use the same wording as Phil and as his great assistant, Tex Winter, did over the years. So you can find a place for it in your offense."
And of course Fratello is correct in that the best offensive teams typically move the ball much more than they dribble it.
While his recent interest in the job is legitimately shocking, Fratello has not completely given up coaching since his most recent NBA stint in Memphis. He helmed the Ukraine Men's National Team in the 2011 and 2013 Eurobasket as well as the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Fratello has guided the always-terrible team to modest success with marginal talent, finishing sixth out of 24 in the 2013 Eurobasket.
It would be worth it for the Knicks to hire Mike Fratello as head coach just for the surreality it all. (He was coaching in the NBA while Patrick Ewing attended Georgetown University!) But it would also be worth it because he has proven himself to be an excellent tactician in multiple eras of the NBA who got way more from his team defenses than his personnel should have allowed. His coaching probably influenced Scott Brooks and certainly influenced Doc Rivers, and he currently stands as the 18th winningest coach in NBA history.
If Fratello's interest is genuine, I think Phil Jackson would be a fool not to interview his former 1990s Cleveland nemesis. It would destroy the last remaining reason to tune into Nets games on TV, but I think it would be worth the tradeoff.
All stats via Basketball-Reference.