Phil Jackson casts a shadow over Knicks, for better or worse

AP Photo/Seth Wenig
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Derrick Rose‘s eyes light up when he discusses Phil Jackson.

Rose is hungry for any advice from the Knicks president, who coached the Bulls and Lakers to 11 championships. So far, Rose has gotten a taste when Jackson addresses the team about mindfulness before practice.

“It’s Phil Jackson. Like, c’mon, man,” Rose said. “I soak up everything. Everything that he says, I pay attention to. He has all my attention whenever he does talk.”

What Rose really wants: Individual interaction with Jackson about basketball strategy, as some of his teammates have had.

“I know I’m going to have that one-on-one with him,” Rose said. “But it just hasn’t happened yet.”

It seems all of New York is waiting on Jackson.

Will he fix the Knicks, and when?

On a team with big names – Carmelo Anthony, Rose, Kristaps Porzingis, Joakim Noah – Jackson still carries incredible cachet. The Knicks got a phenomenal coach when they hired him. Two problems: He says he’s not healthy enough to coach, and they hired him as team president.

With no executive experience, Jackson has stumbled more often than not. The Knicks went 37-45 in a season in which he had partial control, 17-65 in a season he predicted would end in the playoffs and 32-50 in a season he hoped (hoped!) would end with 35 wins.

It hasn’t looked better so far this year. The Knicks are 1-3, stagnant offensively and inept defensively. Only the 76ers have been outscored by more.

Jackson dumping productive players like Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert for little return doomed his tenure to a slow start. Re-signing Anthony kept the Knicks relevant but hasn’t created much winning. The jury is still out on Jackson’s latest major moves, trading for Rose and signing Noah.

And then there’s the coaching. Jackson’s first hire, Derek Fisher, flopped. Jackson showed unmatched faith in interim coach Kurt Rambis. Then, Jackson started his latest coaching search by saying he wanted someone he knows and who would run the triangle. A clunky process ended with Hornacek – someone who never worked with Jackson nor coached the triangle.

But Jackson absolutely nailed the biggest decision of his tenure – drafting Porzingis No. 4 last year. That selection, controversial at the time, buys Jackson goodwill.

Of course, that isn’t enough – not with a veteran roster built to win on Anthony’s timeline. After saying he resisted the urge to interrupt Fisher’s practices, Jackson is speaking up when he sees fit under Jeff Hornacek

For his part, Hornacek sounds nothing like Fisher, who tried to distance himself from Jackson.

“When he sees things and wants to talk to the guys, we let him,” Hornacek said. “When he calls us and wants us to look at things, we’ll do that. And we throw things by him and ask him questions.

“Guys like listening to what he says.”

To a certain extent.

Rose is obviously reverential. Sasha Vujacic, who played for Jackson’s Lakers and now the Knicks, is unequivocal.

“Someone with the knowledge of basketball and life like Phil, he’s many steps ahead of all us and ahead of many, many people,” Vujacic said. “So, sometimes, we don’t see that, because it’s not the immediate picture. So, he’s always been that, even when he was coaching. He always saw the bigger picture, what’s ahead. That’s why he’s one of the most successful in our game, in our business.”

Other players find a middle ground. Anthony has pushed back. One day, Courtney Lee is raving about his personal lesson from “The Godfather of the Triangle.” A couple days later, he’s suggesting the Knicks run less triangle in practice so they can practice more against modern defenses.

A bold proclamation from Lee in an organization where the triangle might be an edict? Perhaps. But at least he has experience with front-office staff working so directly with players. He said Danny Ainge did with the Celtics and Kiki VanDeWeghe did with the Nets.

Most members of management stay away from this realm. Of course, most members of management don’t have Jackson’s coaching credentials.

This could put Hornacek in an awkward spot. So far, he’s saying all the right things – but what’s the alternative?

Few coaches can relate to Hornacek’s situation. One is the Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy, who coached under Heat president Pat Riley, a storied coach from his time with the Lakers, Knicks and Heat.

“He would talk to players, obviously, as anybody in that roll will regardless of who it is,” Van Gundy said. “But he never went out on the court and did anything with players.”

Did Van Gundy appreciate Riley giving him space?

“I was just appreciative that I had the job,” Van Gundy said.

Hornacek might feel the same way after the Suns fired him, and as Van Gundy noted, any employee works under the construct created by his or her boss. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for Jackson to implement a system where he handles some responsibilities that traditionally belong to coaches. That might be his best way of helping – especially once the Knicks are committed to his triangle.

But could that eventually lead to a power struggle? Riley infamously supplanted Van Gundy as Miami’s coach.

Hornacek said he’s not worried about a disconnect with Jackson, and it seems his players understand the chain of command.

“Jeff Hornacek is the coach that has the word at the end,” Porzingis said. “I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but Phil is obviously helping.”

Vujacic said, unlike last year, Jackson and his coach are “on the same page and one voice and one breath, one mind – and that’s the beauty of it.”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Credit Hornacek for his openness to collaboration, but not every coach would accept so much advice/direction/interference from the front office. Did anyone from management ever become so hands-on with the Jackson-coach Lakers while Vujacic was there?

“I don’t think Phil ever needed someone to be involved,” Vujacic said, “because he’s one of the greatest minds in our sport.”

At some point, Jackson will need to prove he still is – that his methods aren’t outdated, that his wisdom translates from the bench to the front office, that he created a workable partnership between himself and Hornacek.

Drafting Porzingis gives Jackson a benefit of the doubt in the face of numerous other questionable calls. So, we’ll wait a bit longer for Jackson to prove his chops.

But at a certain point, the man with his hands on so many facets of the Knicks must translate his influence into success.