Keidel: Winning Is The Only Way To Fix The Knicks’ Problems

Jeff Van Gundy Is The Right Coach To Change The Narrative

Jason Keidel
March 06, 2020 - 2:10 pm

We can debate the way the Knicks handled Spike Lee. We can debate the way they handled Charles Oakley. We can wonder why they've been fined for banning newspapers they don't like from media conference calls. 

But we can agree that these are uniquely Knicks’ events. And if they were a winning basketball team, these spats may have been handled differently, if they would have happened at all. 

The primary problem with the Knicks isn't branding or rebranding or the nuances of public relations. The problem is they lose. A lot. And it feels like no matter whom they whisk through the turnstiles of Madison Square Garden, the losing never stops. So their first order of business, after fielding a better team on the court, is getting the right guy to coach them. 

And it feels like the best fit for that job is also the last guy who was best fit for that job - Jeff Van Gundy. Hiring the former Knicks’ coach is more than a trip down memory lane. He represents the last time the team was vital, the last time the team was in the NBA Finals, and the last time you felt like the Knicks’ coach truly had the pulse of the team and the town. 

Van Gundy was schooled at the side of Pat Riley, whose bona fides are unquestioned and revered. After Riley famously faxed in his resignation, Van Gundy took on all that rejection and depression and kept the Knicks at their scrappy best for years. Including a trip to the 1999 NBA Finals, when the undermanned Knicks were bounced by the David Robinson, Tim Duncan and the budding empire in San Antonio. 

Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy reacts on the sidelines against the Miami Heat Apr 12, 1998; Miami, FL
RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Van Gundy stunned the Knicks and New Yorkers by bolting after 19 games into the 2001-2002 season. It was all so opaque and painful for those who admired Van Gundy's throaty coaching style, hard-hat ethos and willingness to jump into any scrap - back when fights really happened in the NBA - to protect his players. The Knicks have averaged 32 wins in the 17 full seasons since Van Gundy quit. 

He was the last one to coach those bruising clubs from the ‘90s, with Ewing and Oakley and Mason and Starks, back when the Knicks were a basketball team with a football team’s toughness.  

With the coaching blood still boiling in him, Van Gundy took the Houston Rockets gig. After four unspectacular years in Houston, Van Gundy was done, at age 45, way too young for an NBA lifer, finishing with a robust record of 430-318. He's found some hardwood salvation calling games with Mike Breen and Mark Jackson for ABC. But his name has been murmured and whispered and recommended for myriad jobs since his last coaching job in 2007. 

Despite their losing ways on the court and their fumbling ways everywhere else, the Knicks surely fill a soft pocket in Van Gundy's heart. It's still NBA basketball. It's still the Big Apple. It's still the media vortex of America. And Van Gundy's blood must run orange and blue, even after all these years. Van Gundy is not only an excellent coach, he is respected around the league. And he would go a long way to fixing the fissure between the franchise and all those high-flying free agents who don't even take a meeting with the Knicks when choosing their next destination. 

Winning usually requires classy, competent, and dedicated people. Jeff Van Gundy checks all the boxes. It's been hard to wrench him from his lofty post on television. But maybe that's because the right team hasn't asked him. Van Gundy won't heal all the Knicks' self-evident and self-inflicted wounds. But hiring him makes a statement that says they want winners for the next few winters. And it would remind fans why they chose the Knicks as their favorite, flawed team all those years ago. 

Follow Jason on Twitter: @JasonKeidel