No one had a better offseason last year than Scott Perry. Fired by Orlando after being part of a staff that constructed one of the NBA’s most overpriced (and misfit) rosters, Perry landed a pressure-free job as Vlade Divac’s navigator in Sacramento before being tabbed to rebuild the Knicks a few months later. It was like being canned by Blockbuster and asked to take over Netflix.
Pressure’s on now, though. The Knicks fired Jeff Hornacek on Thursday, kicking off the search for the team’s sixth head coach — I see you, Kurt Rambis, 9-19 in 2016 — this decade. Perry will (presumably) spearhead it, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Think about it: This isn’t Larry Brown taking over a roster of bad contracts, or Mike Woodson trying to push a Carmelo Anthony-led team to its potential. This is a Knicks team with a true franchise cornerstone (Kristaps Porzingis), a budding young point guard (Frank Ntilikina) and a top-10 pick in June. For the first time since Patrick Ewing hiked up his shorts, the Knicks have a chance to build a sustainable winner.
The right coach is everything. Hire right, and within two years the Knicks are a playoff team and from there the sky is the limit. Make no mistake: For all the buzz about market parity, of massive endorsement deals for Kevin Durant when he was in Oklahoma City or LeBron James in Cleveland, New York matters. Ask any player to name his favorite road arena in which to play and Madison Square Garden is always at or near the top of the list. Ask any sneaker company where it can maximize an athlete, and it’s New York and L.A. Players want to come to New York — that the Knicks operate like basketball’s Kardashians has kept them away.
Hire wrong and, well, look out. The Knicks have made the playoffs six times since 2000. In that span they have advanced past the first round twice, and only once — Jeff Van Gundy’s 1999-2000 team that pushed the Pacers to six games in the conference finals — have the Knicks been a serious contender. For a franchise with unlimited resources, that’s an astonishing stretch of irrelevancy. The wrong coach will continue that.
This decision isn’t big — it’s enormous. And it has to be Perry’s. Perry is the Knicks GM, but he has a boss above him (Steve Mills) who used to run the team and an owner (James Dolan) who has a history of meddling in basketball decisions. If Mills pushes David Blatt — a teammate of Mills at Princeton — Perry better be sure he wants him, too. If Dolan is seduced by Mark Jackson — an ex-Knick and a polarizing figure who has been out of the league since 2014 — he better be Perry’s guy, too. Synergy between GM and coach isn’t a luxury — it’s essential.
Ask Hornacek. Maybe Hornacek isn’t a great coach. Maybe he didn’t work out in New York. But he was hired with a promise that he could run his own offense, then was forced to run a mutant version of it, with elements of the triangle mixed in. He was brought in by Phil Jackson, worked under Mills and was fired by Perry. All in two seasons. No coach could succeed in an environment like that.
On Thursday, Perry sat shoulder to shoulder with Mills and explained the team’s decision. He said the timing was right for a “new voice” and a “new presence” in the locker room. He described the Knicks as being “in the early stages of the rebuilding process” and said he noted during the season that “there were a lot of things we thought we could be better at.” He said the coaching search would be “an open process” and said he had been getting calls all morning from coaches’ agents looking to ensure their clients get a look.
“We know there are [coaches interested],” Perry said. “As someone newer to New York, and as a former [college] coach, I think this is a very desirable place and job. I think a lot of candidates will see and understand the vision, the type of people we are, the city of New York, the historical significance, this will be an attractive job for a lot of coaches.”
Indeed. But the Knicks’ hire needs to be Perry’s hire. Mills is a Knicks lifer, a survivor of the Isiah Thomas disaster and the Phil Jackson mess. But his basketball operations experience is limited to what Dolan has empowered him with. Perry was part of the front office that built the Pistons powerhouse in the early 2000s and worked briefly for Sam Presti in Seattle. Last year, Mills described his working relationship with Perry as a partnership, but that he will give Perry room to make basketball decisions.
For Perry, this one, the biggest one, has to be his.
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