Can Phil Jackson cure what ails the New York Knicks?
It takes an impressive mix of incompetence and arrogance to be as bad as the New York Knicks have been this year.
Coming off a 54-win season and a No. 2 seed in the playoffs last year, the Knicks have managed to hit the rockiest of bottoms this season. Poor performances from players, combined with poorer judgment from coaches and management have made the Knicks a running joke.
This has been the season from hell. The hope is they’ve finally found their savior.
This week it has been reported that Phil Jackson will take a front office position with the Knicks, most likely as president of basketball operations.
The news was met with plenty of “oohs” and “ahhs.” Jackson is a big, splashy name. He’s got a real reputation. He coached championship teams — 11 to be exact — and coached two of the game’s biggest stars in Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
Jackson’s name carries weight in the league. The Knicks are hoping to follow the Miami Heat model, when the Heat installed Pat Riley as team president. Riley’s a revered former championship coach whom players like. He’s credited with orchestrating the biggest coup of the last decade; getting Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade to all take slightly lesser contracts and team up to form the “big three.” The Heat have won the last two NBA Championships.
There’s hope Jackson can accomplish the same. His first order of business will be getting Carmelo Anthony to sign with the team long term, something Anthony has smartly not indicated he’ll do yet. Initially, Anthony said bringing on Jackson won’t affect his free agency plans:
“I don’t think it’ll have any effect on me, just as far as what I’m thinking or my decision or anything like that.”
But Anthony did also offer:
“You can always use Phil Jackson inside an organization, his philosophy, his mindset, his résumé, what he brings to a team, what he brings to an organization…
You can’t take for granted what he knows about the game of basketball, whether he’s on the sideline or in the front office.”
If Jackson can coax a long-term commitment from Anthony this offseason, Knicks fans can dream that they’ll be able to lure their own bevy of All-Stars, especially with LeBron James, Kevin Love, Chris Bosh, and Rajon Rondo potentially being available in 2015, and Kevin Durant in 2016.
But coaching a team and building one are much different. The Knicks cap situation is currently a mess. They should have their books clean by 2015, but their roster – outside Anthony – is devoid of talent. Moves made over the past several years that were made to help the team contend immediately, have hurt their long-term future, and left the team lacking in young assets or draft picks.
The city of New York’s appeal can only do so much. It doesn’t matter how big the market is, if the team is terrible, it’ll affect exposure, brand building, and all of the ancillary, non-basketball reasons a player would want to go there. The team will need a complete overhaul, and that’s a major task for a lifelong coach who has never had an upstairs office at Madison Square Garden.
Effective roster building means time-consuming film and data study, excessive travel to see prospects and players, and 16-hour days. Will Jackson really want to go through that? From a pure physical standpoint, knee and hip ailments were part of the reason he retired in 2010. A comfy front office desk chair is probably more comfortable than a coach’s chair on the sidelines, but he’ll probably be attached to it for the majority of his days.
He’s also not a resident New Yorker, and there have already been discussions about how much Jackson will actually be in the city. Fixing the Knicks mess will require Jackson’s full attention. Conducting business from across the coast won’t be enough of a commitment to get the franchise turned around.
Name recognition helps, but can quickly become irrelevant if you don’t produce. Several players viewed Isaiah Thomas fondly, as he was one of their heroes growing up. A slew of terrible decisions (and a nasty lawsuit), make him one of the worst executives in basketball.
The 68-year-old Jackson also hasn’t commented on how long he wants to do this. Is this a job he’s passionate about for the long-term? Or is it a short-term gig, enough to get his competitive juices flowing again, pick up some 10-figure checks, and return to the city he has loved since they drafted him? And will notoriously mettlesome owner James Dolan give Jackson the autonomy to make decisions he requires, or is it just an empty promise, and Dolan will be in Jackson’s ear the second he sees something he doesn’t like?
From the Knicks perspective, I get it. Your entire season has been filled with negative headlines. Now’s a good time to get a positive one, get your fans excited again, and show the public you have some semblance of understanding on how to run a professional sports team. For Jackson, he gets a front office job – which Sam Smith said on Tony Kornheiser’s radio show yesterday that Jackson has greatly coveted – and gets the opportunity to be the life preserver for a team that’s been slowly drowning since the end of 2013.
The Knicks have nothing to lose, except money (and based on the contracts they’ve given out, clearly wasting money isn’t an issue). Jackson has nothing to lose, except pride. Both can change their legacies if the partnership works out.
That said, expectations should be tempered. Jackson will have to quickly get up to speed on being an NBA executive, and fully commit to the position and all it will entail from a travel and work standpoint. There hasn’t been any indication he’s willing to do that. He can prove us wrong, but it’d be prudent for Knicks fans to be skeptical.
Jackson may be the Knicks’ temporary savior. Unfortunately, the team and fans still shouldn’t expect a miracle.
Follow Stefen Lovelace on Twitter @StefenLovelace.