The New York Knicks took a baby step toward the 21st century on Wednesday, parting ways with embattled president of basketball operations Phil Jackson, according to multiple reports. Jackson, the legendary coach who helped guide the Bulls and Lakers to 11 championships, was out of his element as an executive. The Knicks won only 80 games in Jackson’s three years at the helm, and his tenure was littered with baffling decision after baffling decision.
Immediately, Jackson’s departure should help the Knicks repair their relationship with Kristaps Porzingis, who was clearly upset with the direction of the franchise when he skipped his exit interview with Jackson at the end of the regular season. Porzingis’s power play couldn’t have worked better—Jackson tried to belittle the young star publicly for missing his exit meeting, but the backlash was so strong to Porznigis trade rumors (take this billboard outside of MSG) it seems it pushed Knicks owner James Dolan to finally get rid of Jackson.
Dolan’s firing of Jackson doesn’t solve all of the Knicks’ problems (after all, he's one of them). Carmelo Anthony, owed $54 million over the next two years, doesn’t make sense on the current roster. Jackson’s very public criticisms of Anthony have made that relationship toxic as well, and New York needs to figure out how it can build around its younger players. The timing of Jackson’s departure is also not ideal. General manager Steve Mills can handle free agency, but letting Jackson run the draft means there will be a lot of pressure on No. 8 pick Frank Ntilikina to pan out, because there were other talented guards on the board New York passed on due to their (lack of) fit in the infamous triangle offense.
From a pure basketball standpoint, Jackson wasn’t an abject failure as team president, but he was pretty bad at his job. The Knicks do have some promising pieces in Porzingis, Ntilikina, and Willy Hernangomez. The issue was that Jackson never seemed to have a clear vision for his team. He wouldn’t commit to a rebuild even though his teams were always close to the bottom of the standings. He wouldn’t build a roster around Porzingis’s strengths. And he was too willing to pay high-priced veterans that, at best, could have maybe pushed the Knicks into a first-round playoff exit.
And that’s only on the court. Jackson’s public mind games, one of his lauded quirks as a coach, simply didn’t work as an executive. And it’s Jackson’s fault for not realizing he couldn’t use the same methods as president that he used when he was a coach. Not when players in the NBA are more powerful than ever, and especially not when he’s not in the trenches with those players on a daily basis.
Though Dolan, himself a man of great ego and ineptitude, is briefly a hero for letting go of Jackson, his next move will be very important. Will he continue to swing for big name executives, as he’s done with Jackson and Isiah Thomas? Or can he find someone who is trusted, respected and experienced? The first step towards making the Knicks a contender will be creating an organization people actually want to be a part of, and that starts at the top, where Dolan has been his own comedy of errors.
Jackson’s future is a little cloudy. For someone who is synonymous with zen, Jackson seems to get pretty restless when he’s out of a job for too long. But it would make no sense for anyone to hire him as an executive. It’s possible he could land softly in Los Angeles with Magic Johnson, though his split with ex-fiancé Jeanie Buss likely complicates that situation.
For now, Jackson will collect the remaining $24 million on his contract—the Knicks picked up the option for the last two seasons earlier this year—and try to figure out how to regain the respect he once held as a coach. Maybe Jackson will write another tell-all book, this time trashing Dolan. Or maybe this time he’ll save all his heat for Twitter.
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Jackson will turn 72 this September, which means it’s very possible we’ve seen the last of him in the NBA. Like the veteran star who hangs on for too many seasons at the end, Jackson’s legacy lost quite a bit of its shine because of his three seasons as an executive. The last three years exposed Jackson as someone who wasn’t quite cut out for the modern NBA, especially when he didn’t already have a Hall-of-Fame superstar on the roster.
You’ve surely heard it before: Father Time is undefeated. It doesn’t only apply to players. The NBA has moved on from Phil Jackson. Unfortunately for them, the Knicks had to find out the hard way.