There are really only two ways this potential marriage can go. Phil Jackson realizes after a year or two that Knicks owner James Dolan will never be anything other than an erratic, impulsive boss who won't give him full autonomy, and he abandons ship with a truckful of Madison Square Garden cash while the Knicks, the classic attention-deficit-disorder franchise, go on to chase the next shiny object. Or, Jackson's 11-ring pedigree persuades Dolan to curtail his meddlesome ways, he brings a Zen-like stability to the organization, hires some smart, hard-working lieutenants and restores the Knicks' luster, if not contends for a title.
The Knicks being the Knicks, it's not surprising that the smart money is on the first scenario, now that Jackson is reportedly on the verge of becoming the team president or El Jefe or Supreme Commander, or presumably whatever title he tells the desperate Dolan that he wants. The franchise has a long history of paying people for success they've had somewhere else, for someone else. New York tries to pluck the fruit from other people's yards rather than trying to plant its own seeds, and it doesn't matter if that fruit is overripe. The Knicks don't care that Jackson is 68, three years removed from NBA work and apparently interested in running the organization by remote control from the ranch or by the beach. To them, he still looks like a flawless red apple.
That's why these splashy moves so rarely work the way the Knicks expect them to, and why this one is unlikely to be an exception. They seem to ignore the obvious holes in their ever-changing plan-of-the-moment or try to wish them away. They crossed their fingers that Amar'e Stoudemire's tissue-paper knees wouldn't continue to deteriorate when they signed him to a $100 million free-agent contract. They traded for Carmelo Anthony, ignoring that his isolation-heavy game clearly didn't fit with then-coach Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo, ball-movement offense. Now they are poised to turn to Jackson, a quick fix meant to clean up all of the other failed quick fixes.
But consider everything that has to go right for Jackson to make this work. He has to get Dolan to butt out of basketball decisions, which is to say, change his essential nature. He has to deal with a terrible salary-cap situation in the short term and the absence of a first-round pick in this year's draft, which leaves him little room to change New York's underachieving, defensively challenged roster next season.
There's more. Jackson has to persuade Anthony not to leave as a free agent this summer, even though Melo isn't a perfect fit (sound familiar?) for Jackson's triangle-offense philosophy. If the Knicks are going to continue to play the free-agent game -- and you know they will -- Jackson also has to prevail upon other teams' stars (Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo are among the likely future targets) to disregard the franchise's reputation as a clueless, paranoid operation and sign on. He has to remain engaged enough to exert a real influence on the organization, which won't be easy to do if he tries to accomplish it from his homes in Montana and Playa del Rey, Calif. It's hard to mentor a team that you only watch on NBA League Pass.
That last item may be the most important. Is Jackson ready to throw himself fully into this, or will he find that he doesn't have the energy or the inclination to get his hands dirty? If he's all in, it won't matter that he's a front-office neophyte. Pat Riley and Larry Bird both learned how to run a franchise pretty well with no previous front-office experience. Jackson is a smart man, and he knows how to surround himself with other smart men. If this doesn't work, it won't be because he lacks experience at this particular job description.
His will is another matter. Despite his past connections to the Knicks, with whom he won two titles as a backup forward (he was injured during the first championship season), it's likely that he's set to accept the New York job only because his last employer, the Lakers, wouldn't offer him a similar position. Even after it was reported on Wednesday night that Jackson had said yes to New York, there were rumblings that a deal might come together in L.A. that would entice Jackson to jilt the Knicks.
So, the Knicks would be counting on a new boss to whom they were probably the second choice, and who may lose interest in the job or patience with the owner. Jackson, meanwhile, would be taking on a job that is nothing like his previous ones. He has always picked situations in which the building blocks of success were already in place -- Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal in L.A. He's never been much interested in starting from scratch, which is essentially what he is about to do. It's no wonder there's skepticism about whether, at this stage of his career, he can summon the desire to see the job through.
That's not to say Jackson can't succeed, just that the odds are, for the first time in a long time, not in his favor. To bet on him to add another ring to his collection with New York, you would have to think like the Knicks. And how far has that ever gotten anyone?