On This Date: Knicks fire Don Nelson and promote Jeff Van Gundy to head coach

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March 8th 1996:  The New York Knicks fire Don Nelson and appoint Jeff Van Gundy as the new head coach

In one of the shortest head coaching tenures in modern NBA history, the Knicks fired Don Nelson after only 59 games despite a 34-25 record with the team. Unlike the Golden State Warriors, where Nelson feuded with Chris Webber, the entire team had issues with Nelson. Nelson favored a modern up-tempo style of basketball while the players wanted more of the same under the Pat Riley era. He centered the offense around Anthony Mason and unleashed his skills as a point-forward to the disdain of Patrick Ewing. Ewing obviously favored centering the offense from the low post. In the weeks leading up to his firing, Nelson benched John Starks and had Hubert Davis replace him in the 4th quarters of games.

The final straw was when Nelson stated – off the record with people in Madison Square Garden – that the Knicks had to move on from Patrick Ewing and try to trade him to Orlando for Shaquille O’Neal. The word caught back to Ewing and the relationship was toast. The core Knicks – led by Ewing – sparked a mini-insurrection until Ernie Grunfeld fired Nelson.

In reality, the Knicks roster were insistent on maintaining the status quo and the style of offense and defense that thrived under Pat Riley. Nelson wanted to implement a modern, but eccentric approach to basketball that an old veteran team was not willing to accept. Some of his initial philosophies, including using Anthony Mason as a point forward, have been incorporated in today’s modern NBA.

Jeff Van Gundy replaced Nelson as the interim head coach. Van Gundy, then 34, stuck around as an assistant coach dating back to the Stu Jackson era. His offensive and defensive philosophies were largely influenced from the Riley era. He centered the offense back around Ewing and re-emphasized defense. The Jeff Van Gundy Knicks personified tough defense while often sacrificing high scoring outputs on offense.

Furthermore, Van Gundy inherited assistant coach Don Chaney from Nelson’s coaching staff to be his full-time assistant coach until his resignation in 2001. During his tenure with the Knicks, he played a role in developing 3 assistant coaches that eventually became NBA head coaches in Tom Thibodeau, Steve Clifford, and Mike Malone.

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