New York Knicks general manager Al Bianchi won't go into the specifics of why he fired Stu Jackson Dec. 3 and replaced him with former Phoenix Suns coach John MacLeod.
"Stu wasn't simply evaluated over our first 15 games this season," said Bianchi, who had previously parted company with Kentucky-bound Rick Pitino. "It's something we evaluated for more than a year. Sure, I would have liked the same coach the past three years, but you can't ignore red warning lights."
Bianchi's overriding concern was that the Knicks, who will play the Washington Bullets at the Capital Centre tonight, were not fulfilling their potential.
"When you cut through all the bull, this is a good basketball
team," Bianchi said. "Some people say we're not a good team and no one can coach it. We'll see."
So far, Bianchi has liked what he has seen of MacLeod's handling of the Knicks, who were viewed in the past as a one-dimensional team revolving around superstar Patrick Ewing. After an 0-3 start by MacLeod, New York has won four of its past five games -- the only loss a 100-97 squeaker to the Los Angeles Lakers.
MacLeod has wasted little time putting his stamp on the Knicks.
Point guard Mark Jackson, who has experienced a wild roller-coaster ride in New York, again is running the offense, elevated to a starting role when a throat injury sidelined Maurice Cheeks.
Jackson, the subject of repeated trade rumors, is playing with his familiar flair and cockiness. He had 16 points and 10 assists against the Lakers and a career-high 16 assists in Wednesday's 104-94 victory in Miami.
"This is a great situation for Mark, and he's making the most of it," MacLeod said. "He's been kicking the ball to the open man and effectively running our offense. He's our quarterback. He's got good size, and he's also done the job for us defensively."
MacLeod has promoted former Maryland star Jerrod Mustaf and Continental Basketball Association graduate John Starks to key
reserve roles. Mustaf started two straight games at small forward in place of Kiki Vandeweghe, who was nursing a bruised thigh. Vandeweghe reclaimed his starting job against Miami.
In the past three games, Mustaf has regained his scoring touch, converting 10 of 15 field-goal attempts. Said MacLeod: "Jerrod is in awe of nobody and has great poise and intelligence for a kid who should be in his junior year in college. If he applies himself, he can have a great NBA career.
"Right now, I regard him as a forward. We've got to get him running the floor full out. But we could also use him as a backup center."
Besides the change in the pecking order of the Knicks reserves, the most dramatic improvement has been in the team's defense. Over the past six games, New York has held rivals to an average of 93.8 -- almost 12 points less than the previous average of 105.6.
"We're trying to build something, and the way to do it is with defense," MacLeod said. "Everyone has to help out, and the big guys have to be physical boxing out on the boards and getting back on defense. The key is having a fire in your belly and wanting it."
Strong forward Charles Oakley, who leads the Knicks in rebounding (11.9) said, "We spend 70 percent of our time in practice on defense, and it's coming together."
The one thing MacLeod has not changed is that Ewing is still the man.
Ewing, making another strong bid for MVP honors, is averaging 27.2 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks.
New in New York
Here is how the rotation has changed under new Knicks head coach John MacLeod:
Mark Jackson, point guard, prospering in reclaimed starting role.
Jerrod Mustaf, rookie forward, got to start two games, now key frontcourt reserve.
John Starks, guard, CBA graduate has impressed coach with offensive skills.
Maurice Cheeks, veteran playmaker, is sidelined 3 more games with bruised windpipe.
Trent Tucker, shooting guard, back from foot injury has lost spot to Starks.
Kenny Walker, small forward, just returning after being sidelined by knee injury.