Ultimately Thomas Wolfe will be proven right, you can’t go home again. Not even Phil Jackson. It’s easy to sit back and list the reasons Jackson’s return to the team that drafted him, taking over basketball operations of the New York Knicks, will not work:
James Dolan; Jackson has never had any front office experience before; Jackson will surround himself with his people and they may not be best for the job; James Dolan; the lack of Knicks draft picks to provide needed affordable quality players; the bad contracts on the roster that even Jackson can’t move for anything of real quality; and James Dolan.
With the $12 million a year Jackson is getting (or even a little less) the Knicks might have been able to poach a proven front office guy like R.C. Buford or Sam Presti, something ESPN’s Marc Stein noted. Instead they rolled the dice on Jackson.
Despite all that Jackson to New York could work.
Here’s what has to go right for Jackson to turn around the New York Knicks.
• Keep Knicks’ owner James Dolan out of basketball decisions. I have no doubt that during contract negotiations this was discussed — Jackson wanted full and final say, Dolan said something along the lines of “of course you can have it, that’s why I’m going to pay you $12 million a year.” Nobody thinks it will last. History tells us this partnership will eventually end poorly (what Dolan professional relationship ended well?), the only question is when. This may be Phil’s biggest challenge since trying to hold together the Shaq vs. Kobe locker room. If Phil can use his Jedi mind trick — the one that got so many players to buy into their role and think it was their idea — to keep Dolan happy and agreeing with his decisions then Jackson will have the chance to build a foundation that can work in New York.
• Figure out what you’re going to do with Carmelo Anthony. This also came up in negotiations — if Dolan says you have to offer him max or near max money, that keeping Anthony remains the priority then Jackson will have to try and make it happen. This is where Jackson’s skills are needed — can he get Anthony to stay and take less money (as Anthony has hinted he might)? Can he get Anthony to believe in the plan? Keeping Anthony is not a bad thing, his skill set offensively makes him a potentially fantastic fit in the triangle (if you follow Jackson, if you read his books, you know they will run the triangle or at least some of it in a “triangle light” kind of system, he believes deeply in what the triangle does). Honestly, the best path to rebuilding this roster would be to let Anthony leave as a free agent, try to trade the big contracts and just be terrible next season — the Knicks have their 2015 first round pick and that summer they will have a lot of cap space to chase free agents. Tear it all the way down then rebuild, don’t keep taking half measures and doing it on the fly. But if Dolan wants Anthony that badly Jackson has to get him, the question becomes at what cost?
• Get whatever you can for the terrible contracts on the books. Let’s be honest: in today’s NBA and with the current CBA the Knicks are not going to get real value back in trading the contracts of Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani or Tyson Chandler. If they can move them at all. The days of expiring contracts having great value as trade chips are gone. Still, Jackson has to try to move them and get rebuilding pieces if he can — Chandler in particular still has some trade value left. His defense has slipped this past season but he is still the kind of quality rim protector a lot of other teams could use. That said, if you ride all these contracts out for one more year and let them walk it’s not the worst thing. Still you try to get something — and don’t turn down deals because you think you should get great young talent or first round picks for them. Did you watch the Lakers try to move Pau Gasol at the 2014 deadline? Those offers are just not out there. Take what you can get. A version of that applies to young players like Iman Shumpert as well, if you can get real value in moving him, you move him.
• Build a culture, a structure in New York that can sustain success. Dolan has built a secretive, distrustful corporate culture that clashes with Jackson’s stated philosophies. Jackson has to change some of that culture to succeed. One key part of this is “let the basketball people make the basketball decisions.” All of this kind of ties back to the first bullet point above. Right now, with Dolan jumping in, the Knicks tend to make moves for the short term not thinking or caring about the long term (see the ‘Melo trade, when they could have gotten him as a free agent that summer). That’s why they don’t have a first round pick to trade until 2018 (you can’t trade first round picks in consecutive years by NBA rule). They let outside entities have too much influence — they go get Andrea Bargnani under some pressure from CAA, the agency that represents ‘Melo, when there were far better moves to make last summer. That kind of thinking has to end. For example CAA players can’t get treated differently. If you have to be bad for a year to rebuild, that’s okay. Just don’t panic and let the basketball people make the calls. By the way Dolan, if Jackson wants to talk to the media, that’s not the end of world. He’s done it before, he’s good at it and doesn’t reveal state secrets. Plus it improves your credibility with fans. Just a thought.
• Recruit. The Knicks have the built in advantage of being in New York — players want to be there. They like the energy and diversions of the city, they love the marketing opportunities and endorsements that come their way in this market. The challenge is in 2015 and 2016, as New York starts going hard at the free agent market (2015 potentially has Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol, Tony Parker and many others; 2016 starts with Kevin Durant and has other big names), is the Knicks will be up against the Lakers, Mavericks and other potential good teams and destinations (including Chicago depending on their moves, for example). With the new CBA and today’s breed of GMs, you’re going to see more teams with cap space every summer, teams with good cores looking to add one player, as Houston did last summer. Jackson is going to have to win the recruiting battles, he is going to have to get top players to come to the Knicks. He’s going to have to convince some second tier players to come and take a little less money to do so. He is going to have to win free agency. How much his aura really helps in this task remains to be seen.
Bottom line is he has to upgrade the roster significantly and put together a real team and not just the random collection of players that is the current roster, one which resembles an ingredient basket from “Chopped.” They need players that just fit together. Some of Jackson’s detractors like to say, “He’s only won as a coach with the best talent.” Well, of course. Show me a coach who won titles without elite talent. Red Auerbach pretty much had a roster of Hall of Famers when he was winning, doesn’t mean he couldn’t coach or didn’t know how to assemble a team. Jackson’s gift was getting that talent to play together in his system, to sacrifice a little and play their roles. Can he really do that with free agents as the team president?
Ultimately, the model in New Your is what Pat Riley has done in Miami — he built a culture in that front office based around his basketball values, he got people he trusted to execute it, he recruited players successfully and got them to make financial sacrifices to be there and win, and he got ownership to be on board but not in the way.
Phil Jackson could do all that in New York. Could.
I firmly believe that the Jackson/Dolan partnership is going to end poorly and in a very public mess splattered all over the back pages of New York tabloids. Followed a couple of years later by a Jackson book.
But the real questions are when does that breakup happen and how much success do they have in the interim? If Jackson can keep Dolan at arm’s length while providing a focused direction, a plan, then there can be success — real success — before it all goes bad. If Jackson can last for four, five years and if he can recruit, if he can get a system in place, the Knicks can be a threat. If it all blows up in 18 months Dolan will move on to his next savior. Who will fail spectacularly as well because lessons were not learned.
Jackson to New York is a big gamble by the Knicks and by Jackson. Both sides have real skin in the game. Despite that it likely doesn’t work out, with some of the reasons listed at the top of this post proving prophetic.
But it could work. Could. There is reason for hope in New York now.