GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Phil Jackson said the Knicks are in the business of winning, and their current skid led him to make the difficult decision of firing his friend and protégé Derek Fisher.
The Knicks president met briefly with Fisher Monday morning to give him the news. Fisher was let go after 136 games and a 40-96 record in 1½ seasons as Knicks coach. He leaves with the second-lowest winning percentage (.294) in franchise history, ahead of only Larry Brown (.280).
“It’s time for us to make a change, turn this team around and move forward and get some wins and keep going down the road we started here at the beginning of the year,” Jackson said.
Associate head coach Kurt Rambis was named interim coach for at least the rest of the season. Rambis compiled a 56-145 record (.279) as coach of the Timberwolves and Lakers. “We’re not in a coaching hunt, looking for anybody else,” Jackson said. “I have complete confidence in his ability to coach this team.”
Jackson said it was his decision to fire Fisher, who won five NBA titles as a player with the Lakers under Jackson. Jackson said he and general manager Steve Mills talked about it and then informed Madison Square Garden executive chairman James Dolan Sunday night.
The Knicks (23-41) lost nine of their past 10 games, including their fifth straight Sunday against the Nuggets. A common theme has been falling behind by a big margin early and then having to fight back. The Knicks trailed by double figures in the first quarter in the past three games.
Fisher, who was in the second year of a five-year, $25-million deal, said he took “some responsibility” after Sunday’s five-point loss, but Jackson said the players do, also.
“It’s nine losses out of the last 10 games. I think it’s the business of winning,” Jackson said. “Obviously, there are games in which we didn’t get off to very good starts recently. But I think Derek was prepared. I think he took this business seriously. I think he was a dedicated worker. Some of that onus is on the players and I let them know that today.
“We still thought our players could have played better. We think there’s a way for them to play better that we should see. We want this team to be competitive on a day-in and day-out situation.”
Jackson credited Fisher with the strides the Knicks made after they were a franchise-worst 17-65 last year in his first season as a head coach and for the work ethic he instilled. Jackson said he didn’t think Fisher lost the locker room, but that the coaches weren’t in sync.
Jackson said he brought in experienced assistants Rambis and Jim Cleamons to help Fisher and noted “he didn’t take advantage of that.” He also allowed him to add some younger assistants, but Jackson said not everyone was on the same page.
“There really wasn’t consensus in our staff,” Jackson said.
The two best coaches available have Knicks ties, but ties to Jackson may be more important.
Former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy and his former assistant and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau are on the market, but neither is a disciple of the triangle offense or of Jackson. The same can be said for former Knick Mark Jackson. Phil Jackson seemed to rule them out.
“Someone has to match the style of the way we do things and there’s a certain style that I have that I think works and I’ve found worked before,” Jackson said. “I don’t know if all those people measure up to that, because I don’t know them well enough. But that’s an important aspect and we’ll find that type of person.”
Golden State assistant coach Luke Walton and former Nuggets coach Brian Shaw appear to be strong candidates for the Knicks’ vacancy long-term. Both played under Jackson with the Lakers. Walton was 39-4 coaching Golden State this season while Steve Kerr — Jackson’s first choice last year before he hired Fisher — was rehabbing from back surgery.
“It’s always good to have a relationship,” Jackson said. “It’s not paramount.”
Jackson ruled himself out when he was asked if he ever gave any thought to taking over.
“Not one second,” he said.
Jackson said he physically can’t coach, and that Dolan never asked him to consider it. “No, that was understood when I took the job,” Jackson said.
In a statement, Fisher expressed his “deepest gratitude” to Dolan, Jackson and the organization for “the incredible opportunity” to coach the Knicks. He added he’s “disappointed” and hopes “to grow from” the experience.
Fisher was involved in a well-documented physical altercation with Matt Barnes of the Grizzlies during training camp that led to a two-game suspension for Barnes. Jackson said what happened “was embarrassing for us and for Derek. But that had nothing to do with what’s happened here today.”
The Dolan family owns controlling interests in the Knicks, Madison Square Garden and Cablevision. Cablevision owns Newsday.