Knicks coach Mike Woodson was fired on Monday. This is, officially, all Phil Jackson's mess.
Say this about Woodson: He was a good company man. When Woodson refused to comment on J.R. Smith's increasingly buffoonish behavior, it was the Knicks telling him not to. When management refused to back him throughout a dysfunctional season, Woodson dismissed the notion that he needed a vote of confidence. When the team ended the brief era of transparency started by Donnie Walsh, Woodson bought into it.
No one protected James Dolan's secret society better than Woodson. No one showed more loyalty to an owner who left him defenseless on the front lines to be slaughtered.
But make no mistake, Woodson had to go. The Knicks finished 16-5 and still couldn't pass an Atlanta team that was practically begging them to knock it out of the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. The offense was one-dimensional and the defense -- long considered Woodson's area of expertise -- fell off a cliff. They had an $88 million payroll and won 37 games. Any coach would have a tough time surviving that. A coach with a new president hired above him had absolutely zero shot.
Congratulations, Phil, the capped-out, ill-fitting, no-idea-what-to-do-with-Carmelo-Anthony team is all yours. Jackson was impressive in his introductory press conference last month. He projected strength, which hasn't been seen in New York since Walsh was dumped in 2011. He claimed to have a plan, though he was a little vague on the details. And he got Dolan to publicly say he was bowing out of the basketball decision-making process, which is something Woodson, Walsh and former general manager Glen Grunwald probably wished he had done on their watch.
But for every full-throated believer in Jackson there are just as many skeptics. Jackson was a brilliant coach with a unique ability to motivate. But he has no experience running a team. For a man with 13 championship rings, his coaching tree is shockingly thin with branches. Brian Shaw is Jackson's strongest success story and Shaw just finished 36-46 in his first season with the Nuggets.
The Knicks hired Jackson to be their Pat Riley. They want him to dump his championship rings on free agents' coffee tables and lure them to New York. But Riley has three rings as an executive. He has built a title-winning team. Then he broke it apart and built another. Today's players want two things: Money and a chance to win. The most money usually comes from the team that drafted them. A chance to win often comes from teams that have proved they can already do it.
Which brings us to Anthony. No one knows what he is thinking. But the consensus is this: If Anthony wants to win, he goes to Chicago. He takes a little less money and one fewer year on his contract to play for a team that doesn't accept losing. He becomes option 1A alongside Derrick Rose, he buys into Tom Thibodeau's defense-first philosophy and he puts himself in a position to pick up a championship -- maybe two -- before he calls it a career. If he wants to get paid, he takes the five-year, $130 million deal the Knicks can offer and hopes Jackson can work some magic.
Can he? It's possible. A new coach -- Steve Kerr remains the front-runner, according to an NBA source, though don't rule out at least a phone call to Denver to see if Shaw can be sprung from his contract -- may be able to extract more out of this roster. There is talent, albeit from a group with more "if's" than a presidential debate. If Amar'e Stoudemire can duplicate his post All-Star break production (14.5 points, 5.6 rebounds) next season, if Smith can get back to his 2012-13 Sixth Man Award form and if a collection of players with expiring contracts -- including Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargani -- can come together, the Knicks should at least make the playoffs. From there, with an elite scorer like Anthony, anything can happen.
The real work begins in the summer of 2015. The Knicks -- even with Anthony -- project to have $20 million in cap space when Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo and LaMarcus Aldridge could be on the market. If this sounds familiar, it should. In the summer of 2010, the Knicks were armed with the cap room to hand out two max contracts. They recruited LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Stoudemire. James, Wade and Chris Bosh went to Miami, the Knicks ended up with Stoudemire, and the rest is history.
It's Jackson's job to change that. It's all on the Zen Master now. Woodson is gone and Dolan has promised to butt out. Jackson (surprise!) has been operating in the shadows since taking over. He has popped in here and there but mostly sat back and observed. No more. Over the next few months Jackson will make decisions that will shape the next few years of the franchise. For years, Jackson has craved this responsibility. He has publicly lobbied for it. For the most successful coach in NBA history, it's time to make his mark.