By Matt Straub
Phil Jackson is taking over the Knicks. That much seems clear. What remains uncertain is how it will work, or, more accurately, how it can possibly work.
There are many different opinions on Jackson’s two-decade run as the most famous coach in the NBA. His proponents would point to his 11 world championships, the most of any coach. His detractors would point out his uncanny ability to leave when his teams were on the way down and return when they were back on the rise.
While I personally use this argument quite a bit, Jackson deserves tons of credit for not only meshing difficult personalities like Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in a way perhaps only rivaled by Joe Torre in the modern age of sports, but for getting them to play in an offense designed to get the ball into the hands of the open man, not necessarily the best player.
The most important knock against Jackson for the purposes of this discussion, and one which seems to be inarguable based on his public persona, is Jackson’s ego. Jackson is one of the best coaches in basketball history, but he’s also not exactly shy about letting you know about his talents. This is to be expected by a star in pro sports in this era.
It also points to chaos when he takes over at Madison Square Garden.
Knicks owner James Dolan is as famous for his strange ways of doing business as he is for running a once-proud franchise into the ground (though he has had a lot of help). Dolan is, by all accounts, paranoid about keeping things from the media and worrying about loyalty of his employees. It would seem counterproductive to put his organization in the hands of someone who isn’t shy about speaking his mind to the media, let alone to his employers. Dolan will have to trust Jackson, something certain members of the Buss family didn’t in Los Angeles. He’s going to have to let go of his ultra-tight grip on the franchise, something I’m not sure he can do. If he doesn’t, two power-hungry, strong-willed men are going to butt heads.
Dolan will also have to streamline his organization in order to accommodate Jackson. I don’t blame Jackson for wanting full control of the basketball operations if he’s going to come back and do the job. First, he’s too old and too successful to have to deal with the machinations of a staff which currently has at least four people with at least some basketball decision-making influence. Secondly, Jackson doesn’t seem like he wants much help running the franchise. He wants to implement his vision on the Knicks.
The problem is Dolan always seems to be involved somehow, and there are any number of people under him (though I believe some are more than just "yes men") who will want to keep some influence. If they stay, will they go to Dolan if they disagree with Jackson and try to get rid of him? Steve Mills, the team’s current top basketball authority besides Dolan, is rumored to be replaced as part of the Jackson deal, but at least one report says he will still have a significant role in the organization.
No, that doesn’t sound like a potential problem at all.
This structure can only work if Jackson decides to be more of a final authority than an everyday boss. Considering Jackson enjoys his time in Montana, this could actually be an option, but I don’t believe Jackson’s ego will allow it. Jackson isn’t going to take recommendations from the staff, he’s going to want to tell them what to do.
There has been debate over whether Jackson can be a full-time, fully-involved executive from Montana, L.A. or wherever Jackson feels like staying at the moment. This argument, I don’t buy. I can get in touch with Brad with a work question whether he’s two desks over from me, on Long Island or on vacation somewhere. He can give me instruction from miles away. In the NBA world, where no expense is too great, Jackson will be more than able to video chat, text or call anyone he needs to. He can run the Knicks without ever setting foot in New York if he really wants to.
I’ve often heard Danny Ainge doesn’t always travel much with the Celtics, and they just got done with a six-year run the Knicks would die for, even if they were ironically the ones who ended it. So, among all the unanswered questions about Jackson’s upcoming tenure, I don’t consider the idea of a long-distance boss to be the Knicks’ problem.
The other argument against Jackson’s arrival I find silly is the one which says Jackson won’t want to have someone like Carmelo Anthony on his team, and letting him go will set the franchise back years.
First, the Knicks can’t sink any further, so it’s hard to imagine any move making them worse. And, as we’ve previously covered in this blog, they don’t have many draft picks in the years to come, so Jackson will already be working with a deck stacked against him with or without Anthony.
But the idea he wouldn’t want one of the best scorers in the league is silly. Yes, he helped bring Tex Winter’s triangle offense into the mainstream and holds the ideal of the team concept dear. And it doesn’t mean a great scorer and the team concept can’t be united. The Chicago Bulls won six titles under Jackson. In that time, there were three memorable shots which helped the Bulls avoid a stressful Game 7 in the Finals. Jordan took only one of the three.
In 2010, when he was winning his last title with the Lakers against the Celtics, Kobe Bryant took 24 shots in Game 7. He made only six, and Ron Artest, as he was known then, hit the shot which broke Boston’s back.
Anthony has proven his willingness to be part of something bigger during his time with the Olympic team. If he needs to find an open man for a shot which would give him the title he so badly wants, he’d make the pass. The challenge is finding him the players to get him to that moment.
Everyone forgets the Knicks were five minutes away from a Game 7 against Indiana last year in the playoffs. This team can be fixed if Anthony can be kept on board and the right moves are made, though it will be very difficult without the use of the draft.
Jackson’s cache will allow him to coax players to come to New York. If he can figure out a way to get the cap room to get them, the Knicks can be good again. I don’t have any doubt Jackson has the ability to do the job.
I have doubts the Knicks’ hierarchy has the ability to let him.