Knicks' palace intrigue will complicate tough task facing Phil Jackson
NEW YORK -- They are the Lucy to the Knicks fans' Charlie Brown, endlessly asking New Yorkers to take a leap of faith. In 2003 the Knicks asked you to believe in Isiah Thomas, the charismatic Hall of Famer who had mismanaged the Raptors and ran the CBA out of business. Five years, a pile of bad trades and signings and hundreds of millions of dollars wasted later and Thomas was (sort of) pushed out the door. In 2008 they asked you to believe in Donnie Walsh, the longtime Pacers exec who was supposed to restore credibility to a rotting franchise. He did, too. Until three years later when Walsh was gone, his relationship with owner James Dolan blow-torched by Dolan's obsession with Thomas and Walsh's belief that, hey, maybe mortgaging the franchise for Carmelo Anthony wasn't a winning strategy.
Now they want New York to believe in Phil Jackson, who will be introduced as the Knicks new head of basketball operations on Tuesday. They will point to Jackson's 1,145 wins, his 11 championship rings and his winning percentage (70.4 percent) as a coach as proof that Jackson is the solution to New York's alphabet soup of problems. They will hail him as a returning hero, a member of the Knicks' 1973 championship team, their last championship team, coming home to right the ship.
They will ask you to believe in what, frankly, looks almost unbelievable.
The Knicks' roster is a mess, a sloppy pile of bloated contracts, injured players and chronic underachievers. They are tens of millions over the cap with only 26 wins to show for it, which, in the too-bad-to-be-believed Eastern Conference actually has them only 3 1/2 games off of the final playoff spot. They need to make the playoffs, too, if for no other reason than to wipe the smirks off the faces of Denver's executives, who will eagerly take New York's first-round pick off their hands at the end of the season. The doomed Anthony trade strikes again.
Enter Jackson, who, like Walsh, will be asked to effectively start from scratch. The Knicks are a massive rebuilding project. Jackson will be asked to construct a plan for a team that, for at least one more year, doesn't have much flexibility. He will be asked to make a decision on the future of Anthony, the soon-to-be free agent who could command a five-year, $129 million contract. He will be asked to restock a roster that doesn't have a pick in '14 or '16 (Thanks, Andrea Bargnani!) and can't move one until the 2018 draft.
Across the league rival coaches and executives reacted similarly to New York's hire: For $12 million -- the annual salary the Knicks reportedly will pay Jackson -- the Knicks could have gotten so much more. The modern day executive has changed. Former players leading front offices are dwindling. Bright, energetic minds like Sam Presti in Oklahoma City or Ryan McDonough in Phoenix, Daryl Morey in Houston and Masai Ujiri in Toronto have taken over. David Stern's dream of a global game has been realized and tireless workaholics with a keen understanding of advanced analytics have taken advantage of it. The Knicks could have plucked Oklahoma City's Troy Weaver or Washington's Tommy Sheppard. They could have thrown cash and titles at San Antonio's RC Buford. But this is the franchise that chose to sit on the sidelines when Ujiri was a free agent last spring, when he moved into the Knicks division to the Raptors for $3 million per season. Under Dolan, the franchise has always preferred style to substance.
It's not a knock on Jackson, one of the NBA's premiere basketball minds. "I think Phil could become a great GM," said one league executive. "But unless he is revamping the front office, he's not what the Knicks need." And that doesn't appear to be the case. The New York Post reported that current president and general manager Steve Mills will work with Jackson in a revised role. Mills is intelligent, engaging, a people person. He would have been a strong candidate to become the Executive Director of the NBA Players Association had Dolan not re-hired him to run the Knicks. But his experience building a team is as limited as Jackson's, and he's doing it without Jackson's decades of coaching and playing experience. The Knicks have a strong core of lower tier front office staffers, but lack real, proven leadership at the top.
Dolan wanted a superstar, a Pat Riley foe, and there is some value in that. Riley dumped his pile of championship rings in front of LeBron James in 2010, part of the sales pitch that yanked James away from Cleveland, Chicago and, yes, New York. Jackson has more rings and an aura toward which players gravitate. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have remained fiercely loyal to Jackson throughout the years, with Bryant going so far this week as to urge the Lakers not to compound the mistake they made by not bringing him back for a third go-round as coach by allowing him to get away again. Jackson will be a presence at any free agent meetings, a stable voice players will trust.
Ultimately though, Dolan may prove to be Jackson's biggest challenge. The reclusive owner rules the Knicks with an iron fist, silencing front office employees, establishing a paranoia that is unrivaled across the league. Under Walsh, the Knicks enjoyed a brief era of transparency, with the affable Walsh taking a courtside seat hours before every home game, willing to answer questions from anyone who wanted to ask them. Dolan never warmed to that approach, though, and once Walsh was gone, the silence resumed.
Jackson won't be muzzled, not if history is any indicator at least. Jackson is media savvy, forever blunt, and it's difficult to see how those opposite-end philosophies will co-exist. Jackson -- rightly -- understands the importance of presenting a coherent plan, of explaining puzzling decisions, of being the face of the franchise. Dolan does not. Jackson occasionally seems to enjoy a little internal conflict. Dolan abhors it.
For now, there is a charter jet for the Knicks' latest savior to catch, a new coach likely to be hired come July and a decision to be made on Anthony. And for the first time in his storied career, Jackson will be the man making those moves, moves that will significantly shape the next five years of the franchise.
Take a leap of faith, the Knicks are pleading. Just one more time. Maybe.