By Scott Mandel
The Knicks put up 77 points in the first half against the Hawks, last night at Madison Square Garden. Then, they proceeded to add another 66 points in the second half, completing a 143-120 blowout of the Atlanta Hawks, another struggling NBA team.
The win brought the Knicks’ record under their interim coach, Mike Miller, to 3-3, which includes four west coast road contests. The previous coach, David Fizdale, had compiled a record of 4-18 before he was fired.
I’m not about to compare this new coach, Miller, to the legendary Red Holzman, the former Knicks head coach when the franchise won its only NBA championships in 1969-70 and 1972-73 but he seems to share a lot of the same personality traits and coaching sensibilities the self-effacing, camera-shy Holzman used to impart to his players.
Holzman, an organizational scout who preferred to work behind the scenes in his scouting capacity, was brought in on an interim basis to replace Dick McGuire as Knicks coach in 1967. The Knicks were a putrid team going nowhere in those days but they did have a handful of talented parts on their roster. Today’s version of this franchise has continued a 20-year year run of mostly pitiful basketball, pitiful scouting, pitiful drafting, and pitiful coaching.
In both instances, there was no clamor from legitimate, high profile coaches to become the head coach of a franchise on its way to nowhere, either in 1967 or today. Even Steve Kerr, with no head coaching experience in 2013, turned down the Knicks. Whatever happened to him?
Both Holzman and Miller were organizational men who did what they were asked, which was to finish out the current season and try to get the team back on a path of respectability while a new coaching search began. Holzman did more than that, and has a bust in the NBA Hall of Fame to prove it. So far, Miller is 3-3. Both are superb accomplishments, given certain realities of the organizational history and the rosters they inherited.
At 4-18, it was time to say goodbye to David Fizdale. Enter organization man, Miller, a 55-year old basketball lifer who, like Holzman, worked the back roads of the basketball universe, far from the bright lights of Broadway, before being asked to take over a broken franchise. Miller became something of a last resort.
Like Holzman did, in 1967.
Back then, the team president, Ned Irish, decided to replace McGuire, who, like Fizdale, looked beaten and couldn’t wait to find the exit door. The team was in last place, and Irish decided to reach out to the nearest candidate, which he presumed to be Holzman. Holzman preferred the anonymity of scouting.
But Irish persisted.
”And I realized that if I didn’t take the coaching job,” Holzman, modest as always, said, ”I might not have any job.”
Miller, too, is one of those self-effacing types who doesn’t seek out television cameras or a high profile. He doesn’t make himself the story. Like Holzman, he’s a teacher, first, a disciplinarian, a basketball lifer, an old-school guy who focuses on the fundamentals of the game. Nothing fancy about the suits he wears or about the way he approaches the game.
Bill Bradley, who played for Holtzman from 1967 through 1977, once told me Holzman often solicited the players’ opinions on what they thought would work in a given game. The mutual respect sometimes made the process a collaborative one for those great Knicks teams. Of course, Holzman had the benefit of collaborating with basketball geniuses with very high hoops IQs. Bradley, DeBusshere, Frazier, Reed, Barnett, Phil Jackson, Jerry Lucas, Monroe. There wasn’t a Dennis Smith or a Julius Randle among them.
But, if last night’s game is any indication, we watched the youngsters on the Knicks, guys like Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox, cutting hard to the hoop off of pick and rolls for easy buckets or finding cutting teammates with slick, but basic passes for easy baskets. Fundamental basketball.
And, a quick history lesson. Those terrible 1967 Knicks made the playoffs in the season in which Holzman took over the club. He agreed to stay on as coach. In December of the next season, the team traded for DeBusschere, giving the Knicks a tremendous force around the basket, as a defensive forward and long-range shooter. It was the piece that made the difference and made Holzman a legendary figure in NBA history who never took credit for his success. It was always about the players.
This guy, Miller, a quiet, middle-aged, balding basketball lifer with the interim title seems like an odd fit for this young, hip-hop 2019 team. But, something here is clicking. Any coach who can convince freakishly athletic talents with low understandings of team basketball like Dennis Smith and Julius Randle to play more controlled and within team-oriented concepts on both sides of the floor has somehow figured out how to communicate with this younger generation, despite the 30+ years in age difference with this roster.
Just like Holzman.