There is little mystery about whether the Knicks’ head-coaching job will be available at season’s end. If there had been any, it was removed when Steve Stoute, brought in to help with the rebranding of the franchise, pointed to the coaching staff as the first change to be made.
But when the Nets took their turn at challenging the Knicks’ city title for dysfunction by dismissing highly regarded coach Kenny Atkinson on Saturday, it presented a twist in the Knicks’ summer plans.
Right now the Knicks and Nets both have interim coaches in place. A number of other teams have been rumored to be changing coaches at season’s end, including the Bulls, and there has been talk that even the 76ers might make a move if they don’t make a big playoff run.
What is hard to argue is that the Knicks are the least attractive of those potential jobs after shuffling through 14 head coaches in James Dolan’s 20 years as Madison Square Garden chairman. Even with a 96-84 win over the depleted Pistons on Sunday night at the Garden, the Knicks are heading out on the road with a 20-44 record, and it was an accomplishment just to silence the chants of “sell the team!” that have echoed through the Garden in recent games.
Whoever takes the Nets’ job is expected to have a healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The 76ers have been a powerhouse in recent years, led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Even the Bulls have an All-Star in Zach LaVine. The Knicks? They’re heading toward their sixth straight season of at least 50 losses without a star on the roster.
So even though the Knicks are happy with the performance of Mike Miller as interim coach — he has gone 16-26 after David Fizdale went 4-18 — it might benefit them to look to strike quickly if they have a coach in mind who is not currently under contract.
Plenty of candidates fit that description, beginning with Atkinson. Tom Thibodeau, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson are free to take a job — even if they might be hesitant to interview until Miller’s fate is assured.
“I think as coaches across the league and probably coaches everywhere, they feel the same thing when a coach loses their job,” Miller said. “They’re sorry to see that. I think Kenny’s an outstanding coach. He’s got a great reputation in the league. I’m sure people recognize that and he’ll be given opportunities.”
It’s rare to hire a coach in-season for a permanent role, but it isn’t unheard of. This season John Beilein stepped away after the All-Star break and the Cavaliers replaced him with J.B. Bickerstaff in a permanent role.
It may be a long shot — if you believe that Stoute knew what he was talking about when he went on television promoting the idea of a new staff developing the young talent — but it is possible that Miller will keep the job next season. The Knicks have salary-cap flexibility and two first-round picks, as well as a high second-rounder, but in a free-agent market not expected to have any stars moving to new locales, it’s hard to imagine them rising next season.
This is the first chance as a head coach in the NBA for Miller, who began the year as an assistant to Fizdale after a long career in college coaching and the G League. He has made the move admirably, keeping the team afloat and handling the arduous task of not only surviving a losing season but becoming the voice of the franchise through a typically tumultuous season.
“I think it all centers around the same things,” Miller said of moving to the head-coaching spot. “I think it’s are you helping the players get better, are you seeing the team grow and all those kinds of things. You look around this league, I think you see most all of the guys are doing that.
"Every situation is different. Throughout 82 games, it changes, you have a lot of changes to deal with going through it. But I think that’s the center point for everybody. You just continue trying to help the guys individually and how that comes together collectively.”
Notes & quotes: Julius Randle led the Knicks with 22 points and 12 rebounds. The Pistons (20-45) were led by Christian Wood with 22 points . . . Dennis Smith Jr. missed his fifth straight game while still in concussion protocol . . . Mitchell Robinson, who had 14 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots, was given a technical foul in the third quarter when he shoved Wood after Wood and Randle bumped each other.