By JOSEPH FLYNN
The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets are growing more and more difficult to tell apart. With each passing week, each team does its best to turn the capital of basketball into the NBA's pit of despair - the concrete jungle where dreams are ground into dust.
As fans mournfully contemplate the pitiful performances, bloated contracts and heaps of bad press, a question comes to mind: Is there really any difference between these two Big Apple bunglers?
Let me offer a word of advice, my friends: Listen to the coaches. It only takes a single press conference to realize that Derek Fisher of the Knicks and Lionel Hollins of the Nets are the two most temperamentally disparate coaches in the league.
Fisher and Hollins have each assumed a very distinct (and different) role in their first seasons in New York. The Knicks' coach, fresh from his playing days, is the sunny ingenue who simply will not let the big, bad city (not to mention his team's barren roster) get him down. Meanwhile, the veteran coach across the river has assumed the mantle of the NBA's saltiest old codger, exhorting the whole damn league to get off his lawn.
Neither coach has found much in the way of success this season, and New York is a notoriously demanding market. Questions remain as to whether Hollins' and Fisher's personalities are suited to their respective teams.
To say Derek Fisher got the most out of his playing career would be a massive understatement. The former point guard was never an All-Star, but he was a key contributor on five NBA championship teams. Perhaps it is this history of success that inspires such optimism, or maybe Fisher is simply wired that way.
No matter the cause, it would be difficult to find a person willing to remain so upbeat in the midst of a pathetic 5–25 campaign. Fisher has provided his team (and reporters) with a nearly relentless stream of positive post-game remarks. The locker room whiteboard is often filled with uplifting Bible quotes, like this one posted after the Knicks lost a heartbreaker to fall to 4–18:
Not only is Fisher remaining positive with his players, he is even heaping compliments onto - gasp - the New York media:
A coach praising the New York press as "fair and respectful?" By my own unofficial research, such a thing hasn't happened since Willem Verhulst captained the New Amsterdam wrestling team in 1625.
Unlike Fisher, who stepped immediately from the court to the bench, Lionel Hollins had a distinguished coaching career before landing in Brooklyn. He led the Memphis Grizzlies to the Western Conference Finals in 2013, after which he was unceremoniously dumped for current coach Dave Joerger. Hollins had a history of clashing with the Memphis front office, which probably should have been seen as an omen to the Nets' ownership.
Hollins has taken surliness to brave new heights this season, and the results have been spectacular. Not in the standings - the Nets are a thoroughly mediocre 11–15 - but in the media room. Since moving to Brooklyn, this franchise has kept up the New York tradition of being far more entertaining off the court than on, and Hollins has provided yet another shining example.
His ongoing feud with center Brook Lopez has become a running theme, and that might be the most boring thing about Hollins thus far. This is a coach who isn't satisfied simply with ripping on his players; he's ready to take on European royalty and the Holy See.
Was Hollins excited by Duke William and Duchess Kate's famous visit to the Barclays? Nope:
"I don't like answering those questions. What does it mean to me, or to any normal person? I wouldn't be crazy even if the Pope came over ... unless I was Catholic ...I mean, they're just people that everybody sees on TV. Does that make them better people? They have more money than you; does that make them better people? It doesn't make them better than you. I know a lot of people with money that I wouldn't want to hang with. ... They serve their purpose for their country, and they do what they do. If they came in and said they wanted to meet me, I'd be honored. But if they don't, no sweat."
But Hollins' pièce de résistance was undoubtedly his response to the story of Nets guard Jarrett Jack graduating from college nine years after leaving for the NBA:
This guy is but a few weeks away from going full Silky Johnson at a press conference:
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go home and put some water in Brook Lopez's mama's dish.
Now that we've established each man's particular quirks, how can we expect things to play out for them over the reminder of their New York tenures? Will the Knicks' history of being the Knicks crush Fisher's gentle spirit? Will Hollins' run in Brooklyn end in the same way as his predecessor, Jason Kidd's - in a fiery confrontation with management?
As for Fisher, there have been signs of late that the first-year coach is willing to break with his perpetually sunny demeanor. He yanked all five starters early in the first quarter of a Dec. 16 loss to the Dallas Mavericks. After the game, he assured reporters that he does indeed have a bit of a nasty streak:
"I have plenty of it, it's just there are appropriate times to do it. You can't go to the well too many times with anything, whether it's being nice or not being nice. You kind of just have to stick with who you are, but then from a leadership standpoint continue to learn and evolve and recognize when the right times are to do certain things."Emotions during the game are already high enough. Often times, that's when you see confrontations between players and coaches. There are ways to be confrontational to let guys know how you feel without being angry and out of control. But as time goes on, the more I'm here, the more you'll see."
Is that a threat, Fish? The guy is clearly still finding his footing as a head coach. And he can afford to be somewhat patient, as the Knicks seem to finally be ready to embrace a total rebuild under president Phil Jackson. Tempestuous owner James Dolan has yet to resurface, and Fisher has the full support of Jackson, despite a series of questionable coaching moves over the past few months.
Perhaps the best indication that Fisher has not lost the team came from Carmelo Anthony in the wake of last Sunday's loss to the Toronto Raptors. The team appeared to abandon Fisher's Triangle offense down the stretch in favor of spread pick-and-roll action. After the game, however, Anthony reaffirmed that mastering the offense in the long run should take precedence over any December victory:
The jury is still out on Fisher the tactician. If he's sitting hot shooters and tossing game-ending lineups together willy-nilly in the spirit of tanking, then he might just be a genius; if not, then the Knicks could be in trouble down the road. One thing is certain, though, he has yet to lose the team. And his relentlessly upbeat demeanor - not to mention his five championship rings, and the endorsement of the Zen Master - could be the reason why.
Hollins, on the other hand, is in an entirely different predicament. The Nets have overtaken the Knicks as New York's biggest coaching graveyard, with four men presiding over the team in the last three seasons. Jason Kidd may have been a bit of a megalomaniac, but he did establish an effective identity last year, one heavily reliant on rugged small-ball lineups. That identity went out the window when Shaun Livingston and Paul Pierce left in free agency this summer. Brooklyn is now big, slow and thoroughly mediocre.
There is a chance that Hollins is simply playing the long game, getting ahead of this mess by blaming the players for Brooklyn's woes. The front office seems to agree. Joe Johnson and Lopez are both rumored to be on the trading block, Deron Williams might be on his way to Sacramento, and the Nets finally appear willing to blow up the roster. If Hollins can market himself as a man who can steer Brooklyn's rebuild, he might just be able to survive.
But a more plausible explanation is that Lionel Hollins is just the same crusty old bastard he was in Memphis. The guy can obviously coach, but if you want him on the bench, you're going to have to put up with him pooh-poohing your graduation ceremony or insulting your royal customers. Personally, I hope he sticks around Brooklyn for the near future. He's pretty much the only entertaining thing the franchise can offer at present.
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