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The Clueless Coaches Ranking
Exactly what it sounds like.
Good morning! First things first: your FIBA World Cup Schedule:
TODAY: USA vs Italy, 8:40 am EST, ESPN2
TOMORROW: Canada vs Slovenia, 8:30 am EST, Courtside 1891 app
With that bit of business out of the way, on to today’s newsletter…
The Clueless Coaches Ranking
We’re back with another edition of “Ask Macri.” Today’s question comes from Earnest M on Twitter, who asks:
I’m not sure if you have ever done the worst BOPO/GM/Head Coaches in Knicks history ranked but would love to see your takes. I know it’s depressing, but I also think it’s refreshing that we finally have a competent front office after so many years of just sheer bad moves and hires.
I appreciate where Earnest is coming from here. When you’re in the muck, the last thing you want to do is compare your current level of filth to other times when you’ve been as (or more) filthy. On the flip side, when things are going well, it’s usually the best time to appreciate just how far you’ve come. For that reason, I’d love to give this a whirl.
Unfortunately, I can’t say I feel comfortable or confident ranking head coaches I never saw coach. I can speak to every coach of the last 30 years starting with Riley, but that leaves out a whole swath of inept clipboard holders. For instance, Eddie Donovan holds the Knick coaching futility record at 55 games under .500 with 84 wins and 194 losses, but he coached his last game nearly two decades before I was born. Who am I to judge?
A more recent example is Hubie Brown. Hubie has been the personification of professionalism ever since I’ve been a fan of the league, getting all of his teams to perform respectably at the very least. With the Knicks though, his winning percentage is only slightly better than that of Don Chaney. How would I go about ranking him having never experienced his tenure?
For these reasons, it only feels right for me to consider the 16 coaches that have helmed the roster for the years I’ve been a fan. On the bright side, even with this limitation, I’ll get to consider the majority of New York’s very worst head men. If you go by winning percentage, nine of the bottom 12 have coached in the last two decades. That should be plenty of fodder for a strong bottom five.
Ranking POBO’s and GM’s is a bit easier. Unlike coaches, the transaction record of a front office executive mostly speaks for itself. You didn’t need to be alive in the 60’s to know that Eddie Donovan (yes, the same Eddie Donovan who couldn’t coach his way out of a paper bag) knocked it out of the park when he, as general manager, selected Walt Frazier fifth overall or pulled off the Dave DeBusschere trade a few years later.
But even ranking execs based purely on the available record can be tricky. For one, front offices (and in particular New York’s front office during the Dolan era) don’t always have definable transitions. Your guess is as good as mine as to when, for example, Donnie Walsh actually stopped calling the shots. Even looking at the current situation, it appears as if Gersson Rosas has been a prominent decision maker for more than a year even though the team has yet to announce his hire.
There are also times when the circumstances of the moment matter a lot. 50 years from now, the return on the trade that sent Melo to OKC may look unremarkable considering he was coming off an All-Star invite just a few months prior and wound up playing five more NBA seasons. The reality was quite different. Scott Perry pulled a rabbit out of his hat by navigating Anthony’s no-trade clause and waiting out the process for a solid return - one that didn’t entail New York taking back bad money in the deal. Of course, if you go by the official record, Steve Mills gets full credit for that transaction.
Like I said: this will be an imperfect exercise.
Considering those limitations though, let’s have some fun, starting today with the five worst head coaches over the last 32 years and moving on to the worst execs in Knicks history on Thursday. First up…
Jeff Hornacek - Both Hornacek seasons began in promising fashion. The 2016-17 Derrick Rose-led squad got off to a 16-13 start, albeit with a point differential that portended a significant drop off. The bottom did indeed fall out, and the Knicks accumulated the second most losses in the league from Christmas onward.
The next season saw the first post-Melo outfit begin with 17 wins and 13 losses behind Porzingis’ All-Star turn. History will blame their eventual 29-53 record on KP’s torn ACL, but the wheels started to come off well before that, with a 6-17 record leading up to that fateful Bucks game.
Kurt Rambis - The specter of Rambis potentially being hired as the full time head coach was far worse than his actual coaching performance. Following Derek Fisher’s firing, Rambis went 9-19 with a group that won once in the 10 games leading up to his takeover. That he did so with Porzingis missing nine games and with Jerian Grant as his starting point guard for the final six deserves some recognition.
He also liked a porn tweet from @GreatAssDaily. So there’s that.
Don Nelson - If you go solely by winning percentage, Nellie is one of the five best coaches in Knicks history, above the likes of Red Holzman and Joe Lapchick. Those who experienced it know better though. The Don was perhaps the worst fit for a roster coming off four years of Pat Riley - an attempt to zag that nearly sent the team careening off a cliff. For more details, check out the Don Nelson chapter in Chris Herring’s Blood in the Garden, which is both hysterical and frightening all at once.
On to the bottom five…
5. Don Chaney, 72-112
Chaney doesn’t rank in the franchise’s bottom 10 for coaching winning percentage. He also finished tied for 9th in the East in his one full season, and is one of only 12 coached in team history to last into a third season.
Despite those, ahem…accolades, he has to be on the list. When Chaney took over for Jeff Van Gundy 19 games into the 2001-02 season, New York was coming off 14 consecutive seasons in the playoffs. No, Chaney’s head coaching acumen (or lack thereof) probably doesn’t rank among the top five reasons for the franchise’s gradual decent into the abyss, but it sure didn’t help matters.
When he took the reins, the Knicks were 10-9 and coming off a 48-win season. Some of the pieces changed from the end of Van Gundy’s time, but Chaney still had a healthy Allan Houston and Kurt Thomas for the entirety of his tenure and Latrell Sprewell for the first two seasons. There was a world where things didn’t have to go so poorly, but they did.
And my LORD, were his postgame pressers a snore.
4. Derek Fisher, 40-96
233 men have coached at least 100 NBA games. 20 have won fewer than 30 percent of those contests. Fischer is one of them.
In fairness, D-Fish probably never should have gotten the job to begin with. He was Phil Jackson’s second choice after Steve Kerr turned him down, and he was just a few months removed from the end of his playing career. The roster he inherited had just five players from the 53-win group from two years earlier: Melo, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Pablo Prigioni and the shell of Amar'e Stoudemire. When Smith and Shump were traded after 24 games, the overhaul was all but complete.
Throw in the fact that Anthony only played 40 games in Fish’s first season and that he was a respectable 22-22 before the wheels fell off in 2016, and that’s why Fisher lands 4th on this list despite helming a 17-win inadvertent tank job.
3. Isiah Thomas, 56-108
Thomas may end up a tad higher in our Worst Exec rankings, but let’s not forget his disreputable coaching tenure either.
After going 131-115 as head coach of the Pacers, Thomas took over the very roster he assembled through a series of win-now trades over the previous two and a half years. The result was nearly two losses for every win.
It wasn’t all bad. For three glorious days in March of 2007, Thomas had the Knicks tied for 8th in the East. It was enough to earn him a multi-year contract extension as both coach and GM, a moment that could have only been topped if a “Mission Accomplished” banner accompanied it.
From that day forward, Thomas went 27-74 before being dismissed. Is that on Isiah the coach? Or Isiah the GM? I’d argue the results were so bad that there’s more than enough blame for both.
2. David Fizdale, 21-83
Upset of the century? Perhaps. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who ranks Fizdale’s reign of error not only as the worst Knicks coaching job, but as one of the worst in NBA history. At 21-82, Fiz chopped down wins in just 20.2 percent of his games. He was 31 games under .500 in just 104 games. That’s second worst in team history behind only Donovan, who had three and a half years to get to 55 games under water.
Fizdale was, in no uncertain terms, abysmal. And yet, even after those first dreadful 82 games, there was an air of confidence surrounding the future. It seems absurd in retrospect, but there was something about his undying positivity that made you want to believe. As loss after dispiriting loss piled up, Fiz kept smiling, urging his undermanned outfit to fight another day. At some point, his confidence had to pay off.
Until it didn’t. After the disappointment of the summer of 2019, maybe no coach could have made lemonade with the roster Steve Mills assembled…but it’s also hard to imagine anyone could have done worse. On the day he was fired, New York had the worst record and net rating in the league, and they lost Fizdale’s last five games by an average of 25 points.
Long live the axe.
1. Larry Brown, 23-59
Hall-of-Famer Larry Brown is the eighth winningest coach in NBA history. If you combine his NBA and ABA wins, he moves into the top five. With that resume, there was no question he’d be named one of the top 15 coaches in league history when the NBA unveiled it’s list two years ago.
A third of that list coached the Knicks at one point or another, with Brown joining Red Holzman, Pat Riley, Don Nelson and Lenny Wilkins. Nelson and Wilkins certainly didn’t have the success of Red or Riley, but there was still reason to believe Brown’s hiring in 2005 would bear fruit. At his eight professional stops before New York, he never won fewer than 54 percent of his games, and he had an NCAA title throw in for good measure.
The Knicks roster he inherited also wasn’t bereft of talent. New York had a preseason over under of 41.5 wins, good for eighth in the East. Stephon Marbury and Jamal Crawford were both in their prime and capable of dropping 40 on any given night, and New York had just traded for promising young big man Eddy Curry. They had a mix of young players (Channing Frye, Trevor Ariza, David Lee and Nate Robinson) and vets (Q-Rich, Antonio Davis and Maurice Taylor) that should have balanced each other out. All the pieces were there for a decent season, if not an outright playoff birth.
What followed was perhaps the low point of the franchise’s six-decade history. We should have known something was up when unknown swingman Matt Barnes, signed less than a month before the season began, wound up starting on opening night…and then was promptly waived a month later.
That started a trend in which Brown picked his starting lineups by dartboard. In total, 16 different players combined to form a staggering 42 different starting fives. Marbury was the only player who started every game he played, and no single lineup started more than nine games1. As Channing Frye told me and others, Brown would sometimes pick starters based on whether or not they were playing in someone’s hometown.
The stories of disharmony and disfunction only grow from there. Brown acted like a teacher who already had tenure but had to sit through one final year to collect his full pension. His disdain for the roster - and Marbury in particular - was palpable. The result was a disastrous trade that brought in Steve Francis for Trevor Ariza and solved absolutely nothing.
If anything, things got worse. After starting out 13-21, the Knicks went 10-38 the rest of the way. This would have been a fantastic bit of tanking had Isiah not dealt away their 2006 first rounder to Chicago in the Curry trade. Oops.
All in all, with respect to Fiz, Fish and the rest of the gang, there’s only one man who can top this list: Larry F—— Brown.
CHECK BACK THURSDAY FOR PART II: THE WORST EXECS IN KNICKS HISTORY
See y’all soon! #BlackLivesMatter
Funny enough, the most used starting five of Marbury, Curry, Lee, Robinson and Davis went 6-3.