Phil Jackson won’t be awful as president of the New York Knicks. He certainly won’t be as bad as Isiah Thomas was in running the club. And he will almost certainly be better than David Kahn, Bryan Colangelo, Joe Dumars, Otis Smith and Geoff Petrie have been in recent years.
But Phil Jackson isn’t Isiah Thomas, or David Kahn, or Bryan Colangelo. He’s Phil Jackson, with a reputation of all things basketball that he touches turning to gold.
And that’s exactly what Knicks fans – now with three generations of folks waiting for another NBA title – will expect from Jackson.
They won’t care that Jackson and the gravitas of his 13 rings (11 as a coach; 2 as a player) aren’t actually coaching the team. They won’t care that Jackson is being given $60 million over five years to do a difficult job which usually requires some sort of apprenticeship. They won’t care that Jackson is nearly twice as old as many of the people doing the same job. They won’t care that Jackson never has negotiated a contract other than his own (with the help of his agent, Todd Musburger). They won’t care that Jackson is somewhat steadfast in his philosophies regarding on-court strategy and analytics.
They should care that Jackson’s health could impact his ability to thrive in a job that has virtually no down time. They should care that for all his success, Jackson’s coaching tree really should have many more branches. They should care that Jackson’s former team, the Lakers, didn’t have a representative at the annual Sloan Conference as recently as last year.
And most of all, they should care that Jackson’s interest in running a team is something more than an opportunistic money grab from arguably the NBA’s worst owner that eventually devolves into a power struggle played out in the tabloids, ending with accusations, depositions and settlements while disabling one of the league’s anchor franchises for another decade.
But don’t take our word for it.
Speaking on ESPN Radio, Larry Brown – whose lone blemish on a Hall of Fame career as a coach came in a disastrous season in New York – plainly said, “I don’t get it, to be honest with you.”
Here is what Knicks fans should care about once Jackson takes the reins:
AGE: Jackson turns 69 later this year. He is actually a couple of months younger than Heat overlord Pat Riley, who turns 69 on Thursday. But Riley and his glimmering track record as GM are the exception, not the rule.
Masai Ujiri is 43. John Hollinger is 42. Sam Presti is 38. Sam Hinkie is 36. Ryan McDonough is 34. Rob Hennigan is 31. This is the new breed of GM, young hotshots who have the energy and drive to spend all of their time on the phone or poring over advanced metrics or watching tape of obscure players.
Will Jackson be able to keep up with colleagues young enough to be his grandchildren whose motors are always running? Will he be joining them at the D-League Showcase, draft camps and international tournaments, trying to uncover the next unpolished gem? Will he even be able to put aside his massive ego and become “one of the guys”?
It is entirely likely that the Knicks – with Jackson’s approval – will hire someone to do the majority of the Zen Master’s legwork. But who?
STAFF: It has already been determined that Knicks current president Steve Mills will remain with the team in some capacity. Don’t be surprised if his new job description loosely translates to “company spy,” keeping an eye on Jackson for the always meddling Dolan.
Jackson likely will hire his own people to complete his staff. Among cronies with previous experience, former Suns GM Steve Kerr has been mentioned but has said he does not want to return to management. Another option is John Paxson, who would have to be lured away from his position as Bulls VP. And Derek Fisher, who had an eventful tenure as NBPA president, may be looking for an entry-level team management slot after this season.
With all due respect to Jackson’s belief in Native American philosophy, he needs to go off the reservation and hire a thirtysomething go-getter who is entirely tapped into contemporary NBA management techniques from scouting to analytics to salary cap flexibility and is encouraged to present a dissenting view.
Two candidates who come to mind are Rockets EVP Gersson Rosas, 36, and Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren, 38.
COACH: There was already talk of Mike Woodson being shown the door at the end of this season, and Jackson’s arrival virtually assures it. But as we said earlier, you would think that a guy who has coached 20 years with as much success as Jackson would have a few more proteges sprinkled across the league from which to choose.
Kerr has said he is intrigued by the idea of coaching, which makes him the front-runner if Jackson wants the Knicks to run the triangle. Ironically, Kerr has less experience as a coach than fellow Jackson proteges Brian Shaw, Jim Cleamons, Kurt Rambis and even Lindsey Hunter.
It is unlikely that Jackson will dismiss both the triangle and his ego and make a glitzy hire such as George Karl, Stan Van Gundy or Lionel Hollins. A better route may be to poach a hot assistant from elsewhere such as David Fizdale or Kelvin Sampson who would operate in Jackson’s shadow – which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
ROSTER: We’ve got some bad news for Jackson. Even after Tuesday’s media conference, he won’t be president of the Knicks. Carmelo Anthony holds that title. How and when Jackson begins a full rebuild of the Knicks – which is what they need – hinges entirely on Anthony’s decisions this summer.
If Anthony opts out of his contract as planned, Jackson must address his superstar’s situation first. His powers of persuasion are well-documented, but it will be difficult to convince a 30-year-old player still looking for his first trip to the NBA Finals to stick around for another year of heavy lifting while waiting for the cavalry to arrive.
If Anthony leaves, Jackson should have the Knicks mail in the 2014-15 season and allow the combined $50 million of Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani to come off the books. He should move Iman Shumpert for a 2015 first-round pick. He should fill the holes on his roster with players on one-year deals.
That will allow Jackson to enter the 2015 offseason with two first-round picks and as much as $45 million in cap room for a free agent market that could include Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, DeAndre Jordan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap. It’s not a title contender, but it’s a start.
This is a big job. It can’t be done from Montana. It can’t be done on laurels. It can’t be done with outdated thinking. It can’t be done with cronies and yes-men. And it definitely can’t be done by simply touching it and expecting it to turn to gold.
TRIVIA: Who is the only coach to eliminate Phil Jackson from the playoffs more than once? Answer below.