It's always sad to see a decent man lose his job. Lenny Wilkens is a gentleman and a Hall of Famer. But the NBA is a business, and Wilkens was not getting the job done.
Friday night's home loss to the Rockets was New York's ninth in 10 games, including embarrassing blowouts in Cleveland and Toronto, and home defeats by the Bulls, Nets and Hornets. Yes, the Knicks have suffered through a slew of injuries. But a lot of teams have injuries and they don't fall apart like the Knicks did. Too many nights the Knicks just looked listless, without enough competitive fire.
As I wrote a year ago when he was hired, Wilkens was a good fit for the Knicks only in terms of marketing. He was a New York City point guard legend returning to his hometown to guide a team led by another New York City point guard, Stephon Marbury. If the idea was to create some buzz in Gotham, then Wilkens was a wonderful choice.
But as a coach, the 67-year-old Wilkens is just too laid-back. He expects his players to act like professionals, like they did in his era. But today's NBA stars are a different breed, younger and less mature, often coddled. The Knicks, with their unbalanced roster, were a mess. They needed more than a guy with a big name. They needed somebody who could crack heads, and like Chuck Daly once famously said, manage 12 different companies.
In the end, Wilkens' X's and O's proved to be questionable as well. He raised a lot of eyebrows with his decisions to sit Allan Houston for long stretches in the fourth quarter and for designing last-second plays for rookie Trevor Ariza or journeyman center Nazr Mohammed instead of Marbury. In short, the Knicks stumbled too often at the end of close games.
Don't feel too sorry for Wilkens. He knew the risks when he took the job in New York. He also reportedly is still going to get paid the $10 million over two years left on his contract.
As for the Knicks' future, Herb Williams will be a fine caretaker coach this season. The Knicks might even start playing better under him, since they'll be getting healthier and there won't be any more distractions. But the Knicks aren't good enough to go very far in the playoffs this season anyway.
Barring a miracle, Isiah Thomas clearly will look for a bigger name down the road, perhaps Phil Jackson or Larry Brown (if the latter decides to leave Detroit after the season). Or he might decide to return to the bench himself. Either way, he's better off waiting until the end of the season, when there will likely be more good candidates available.