The surge of elation that swept through New York City at the announcement of Phil Jackson’s departure on Wednesday morning was well-earned, given the Zen Master’s dismal and bumbling tenure as Knicks president. But it will also prove to be short-lived. Soon enough, the cleaning crews will be called in to sweep up the champagne-soaked confetti at the “Phil is gone!” victory parties and the franchise’s bleak reality and future will become all-consuming again.
Bad management in the NBA can leave a stain that takes years to wash away. The Timberwolves fired David Kahn in 2013 and still haven’t made the playoffs. The Kings made so many bad decisions for so many years in a row that they’ve all blurred together at this point, with no hope in sight. The Nets moved on from boom-or-bust Billy King last summer and are probably another three years from competing for a playoff spot. The Lakers are more than four painful and fruitless years removed from the death of legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss, and they’re only now beginning to be taken seriously by All-Star level free agents.
The Knicks have endured similar pain—winning just one playoff series total since 2001—and they’re unquestionably headed for more of it. Jackson might be headed out the door, but his legacy of poor vision, poor decision-making, poor asset management, poor public relations skills, and poor interpersonal ability will linger on.
No matter which executive follows Jackson—whether it’s dream candidate Masai Ujiri or someone else—his primary job will be to undo Jackson’s damage, to unwind his many failings and miscalculations. Let’s examine how the next few months and years should unfold.
1. Make things right with Kristaps Porzingis
Jackson’s flap with Kristaps Porzingis over his missed exit interview will go down as as the last straw in a series of perplexing maneuvers and as a symbol of the gap between management’s old-school beliefs and the modern NBA’s player-first reality. In Jackson’s view, Porzingis’s slap-in-the-face decision to bail at the end of the season was all that mattered, not the laundry list of critical missteps that surrounded it. Porzingis was forced to play for three coaches in two years, he was unnecessarily marginalized on offense, he was fed dated opinions about the value of his three-point shooting, he watched as Jackson publicly squabbled with Carmelo Anthony, and he saw preferred assistant coach Josh Longstaff let go.
This is no way to treat a garden-variety lottery pick, let alone a unicorn with the potential to be a top-five player once he hits his prime. Jackson’s replacement must go to Porzingis with hat in hand, unconditionally apologizing for everything and pledging to put Porzingis first as New York turns its attention to the future. Porzingis and his family should be consulted on free-agency moves, possible trades and kept directly in the loop when it comes to Anthony. The Knicks have squandered Porzingis’s first two years but they should enjoy seven more if they can move quickly to repair the damage.
2. Publicly apologize to Carmelo Anthony
The Anthony situation is a complicated one that could still be resolved in multiple ways: an immediate buyout, a trade now or later, or a painful wait until his contract ends in July 2019. Given Anthony’s trade clause, Jackson’s replacement is likely to run into the same problems as Jackson when it comes to generating an acceptable trade market for Anthony.
Before the Knicks get to any of that, though, they need to accept responsibility for Jackson’s shabby treatment of Anthony in recent months. If a trade doesn’t materialize before Jackson’s replacement is selected, New York should publicly apologize to Anthony for Jackson’s attempts to push him out the door. Remember, the National Basketball Players Association was so irked by Jackson’s comments that it called on NBA commissioner Adam Silver to step in. Jackson was never going to swallow his pride. His successor should for the betterment of the 2017–18 Knicks (if Anthony is still in the fold) and the franchise’s reputation as a whole.
3. Move on from Anthony quickly
Jackson reached the correct conclusions about Anthony: he stops the ball too much, he would be better off on a winning team, and New York’s future would be brighter without him. Structuring a team around Anthony and Porzingis would be a misalignment from an age, skillset and ego standpoint. The time is now for Porzingis to hold the car keys without Anthony’s shadow looming over him.
The ideal scenario would be trading Anthony to a loading-up contender like the Rockets for at least one useful piece in return. Barring that, a buyout is in order prior to training camp. If owner James Dolan is willing to pay Jackson gobs of money to go away, he should be able to see the value in a fresh start on the court too.
4. Let the Derrick Rose experiment die
Jackson’s trade for Derrick Rose last summer was a desperate stab at relevance. It didn’t work. Rose missed 18 games, he posted an atrocious 111.1 defensive rating, he proved once again to be a non-shooter and his assist rate is going in the wrong direction. New York simply needs a new look at point guard and Jackson’s successor must not talk himself into retaining Rose.
Let someone else deal with his night-to-night inconsistency, his chronic injury issues, his lack of three-point range and the possibility that he might wind up in court and/or bail on his team without warning. For a rebuilding team with a rookie point guard to groom and plenty of free-agent alternatives available, keeping Rose makes zero sense.
5. Ban the word “Triangle”
The players will be elated and the local media will be able to move on to something else. Pretty simple.
6. Vouch for and retain Jeff Hornacek
Jackson hired Jeff Hornacek to a three-year contract last summer after his failed pursuit of Steve Kerr led him to settle for the disastrous Derek Fisher, who lasted just 136 games. While Jackson’s replacement might have his own ideas about a future head coach, Hornacek had enough success early during his Phoenix tenure to warrant a second season to prove himself.
In a best-case scenario, Hornacek steps out of Jackson’s shadow to craft a fun, exciting and modern offense around Porzingis. In a worst-case scenario, New York falls victim to its lack of talent and and poor roster construction and cruises to a top lottery pick. Either way, Hornacek can serve as a place-holder and stagger the amount of organizational turnover and save Dolan a little money. Why pay a new coach to oversee a season that’s guaranteed to get ugly anyway?
7. Liquidate Courtney Lee
This will feel like wheel-spinning, given that Jackson signed Courtney Lee to a four-year, $48 million contract less than a year ago, but the 31-year-old shooting guard is better off elsewhere and the Knicks are better off not paying the balance of his deal. The money owed to Lee might limit his trade value, but anything would be better than nothing given New York’s anonymous cast of characters and precious few trade pieces.
8. Commence buyout talks with Joakim Noah
While properly ranking Jackson’s worst moves would take hours of exacting research, shelling out $72 million dollars over four years to past-his-prime center Joakim Noah last summer almost certainly tops the list. Noah’s first season in New York was sidetracked by major injuries, poor production and a 20-game suspension for violating the league’s anti-drug policy.
With Jackson in place, there was little hope that the Noah problem would go away because that contract was too big of a mistake for someone with Jackson’s ego to admit this quickly. However, Jackson’s replacement could response to Noah’s untradeable status by buying him out or using the stretch provision to limit his salary cap damage. This type of awful decision is exactly why organizations fire front offices: the new guy gets to blame the previous regime and then plunge forward in earnest.
Free agency hasn’t even started yet and the trades are already flying fast and furiously. Surprise, surprise, the Knicks are stuck on the outside looking in again when it comes to the top talents. Who could have foreseen star players being smart enough to avoid Jackson’s outdated philosophies and off-putting behavior? (Everyone, of course.)
New York drafted an intriguing point guard in Frank Ntilikina in this year’s lottery to add to an under-25 core that includes Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez. With all due respect to Porzingis’s All-Star potential, that group isn’t going anywhere next year. The best of New York’s bad options for next year is the same as it was when Jackson first arrived: race to the bottom and pray to the lottery gods that the ping pong balls fall favorably. Porzingis needs some A-list help and it’s not coming via trade or free agency.
10. Extend a tree’s worth of olive branches to Charles Oakley
This might be the toughest sell of all, in light of Dolan’s stubbornness and his history with Charles Oakley, but New York isn’t getting anywhere if it continues to have a rotten image. The defining moment of the Knicks season came when Oakley was hauled out of Madison Square Garden by security in one of the league’s worst moments in years.
As with the Porzingis and Anthony situations above, Jackson’s successor must work to restore the Knicks’ credibility and likeability vis a vis Oakley. Maybe the bridge is too burned for reconciliation at this point, but it’s worth a shot.
If the Knicks carefully follow all 10 of those steps this summer, they just might be worth watching by 2020 and, more importantly, they might not be the league’s poster child for dysfunction next season.