New Coach, Same Old

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Weird, but true. The New York Knicks were outbid.

Once they emerged as the clear frontrunners for coaching services of Steve Kerr—who had never coached, but had won five NBA Championships as a player, and had a brief and mostly unhappy stint as GM with the Phoenix Suns—money didn't figure to be a problem. For all the organization's many other problems, it seldom is. The team is still owned by James Dolan—a man whose willingness to spend is essentially his only positive attribute, although that depends in part on how you feel about bad blues music.

It came as something of a shock, then, when Kerr signed a deal with the Golden State Warriors on Thursday for five years and $25 million. The Warriors had whole host of advantages—a more talented roster, a location closer to Kerr's San Diego home—but their front office was also willing to go the extra mile financially. It's hard to know if any one of those things was the difference. Whatever it was, it was enough.

Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnawoski reported that the front office had tried playing hardball with freshly-minted team president Phil Jackson's top choice: "Knicks have been slow to overpay Steve Kerr in deal length or salary, sources say. Tried treating him closer to first-time coach than a star." Though they did offer four years and $20 million, per ESPN New York's Ian O'Connor, Warriors owner Joe Lacob topped that deal, both in terms of money and years. Maybe his familiarity with Kerr's golf game was the difference.

Whatever the case, that is a crazy amount of money to spend on a man who has never coached at any level. Still, the Knicks being the Knicks, it was only half as rich as the five-year, $50 million deal the Knicks gave former coach Larry Brown in the 2005 offseason. More recently, Dolan made Phil Jackson the highest-paid executive in NBA history, despite the fact that the Zen Master had no front office experience and appeared inclined to take a notably Zen approach to earning that money. Say this much for Dolan: when the man wants to spend, he spends.

This was not one of those times, it seems, but this Kerr business likely has nothing to do with a sudden pang of financial responsibility on Dolan's part. Given the context, it seems more likely that it had everything to do with the way in which Dolan has always conducted his business. This is not good news, and it's not surprising.

***

Kerr wisely played two interested franchises off one another, giving him the leverage needed to negotiate a higher contract. This is basic demand-driven, free-market economics—something that Dolan, the son of the founder one of the country's largest cable companies, should probably understand.

Unfortunately, Dolan has always seemed particularly disgusted with the idea of back-and-forth negotiation. It's not really his style, is all. If he likes a player or coach, he will pay that man (and the team that used to employ him) anything they desire, but Dolan takes it personally when someone uses leverage to get over on him. Jeremy Lin's departure is the best and brightest recent example of this: Lin became too expensive for the Knicks only after he went back to the Rockets and got them to up the offer; Dolan was so offended by this bit of basic free-market behavior that he stormed off rather than match it. What had been a basketball question suddenly became a matter of (frankly weird) principle.

That Lin turned out to be a fairly average player is irrelevant—the decision to let him go was driven by emotion, not finance. One year later, Dolan saw no problem in dropping $23 million for two seasons worth of Bargnani, a player who topped out at 4.2 win shares in the best season of his eight-year NBA career (2009-10), per Basketball-Reference. To put that into perspective, Lin has eclipsed that in both of his seasons in Houston so far: 5.4 win shares in 2012-13, and 4.4 win shares in 2013-14.

Unlike the Lin and Bargnani deals, Kerr's salary will not count against the salary cap, which means the team wouldn't have been be handicapped by adding a few extras zeroes to his check. If Kerr was indeed the right man for the job, there was no reason to suddenly fall into austerity mode. Once Jackson was hired, Dolan had only to get out of the way and sign the checks. In this case, it would appear he did neither. We can assume he had his reasons for this, or believe that the Warriors wildly overpaid—Gregg Popovich makes only a million more per year, for instance, and he is Gregg Popovich—for a coaching candidate with more hype than heft. We can also remember that the man making the decisions for the Knicks is James Dolan.

Still, maybe the Knicks dodged a bullet. The last two times the franchise landed it's first choice in a coaching search, they wound up with Brown (23-59 record in New York) and Mike D'Antoni (121-167 record in New York). The team would be wise to cast a wide net in hope of finding an unpolished jewel of a coach, as they did with the last first-timer hired by the Knicks, Jeff Van Gundy.

For Knicks fans anxious to see how much latitude Dolan will allow to Jackson, the ostensible new boss, it's disconcerting to witness a failed hire with all the familiar symptoms of a classic Jim Dolan interference job. This was the owner's first chance to make good on the promise he made when he hired Jackson. Dolan, and Jackson, did not get their man. How big a failure this is or is not, we don't yet know. But there's something familiar about it, and that doesn't feel good.

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