Don’t expect miracles right away from Phil Jackson as he takes over the New York Knicks.
Unless, of course, you consider making the playoffs this season befitting of miracle status.
Because as much as Jackson talked about the future and the past, it was the present where he spoke most definitively. There were at least four occasions on which he discussed the upcoming playoffs, and only once did he hedge and acknowledge the Knicks might not make it.
So when Jackson steps into the home locker room tomorrow night prior to the Knicks game against the Indiana Pacers and addresses the team, the expectations will have already been set.
That six-game winning streak you guys are on? Make it seven!
That 4-game deficit behind the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference? Get it down to 2, then 1. And set yourselves up to get on a roll in mid-April that will carry into the playoffs.
One of my biggest takeaways from Tuesday’s news conference at Madison Square Garden was that Mike Woodson’s chance of having a job in New York next season rests on the question of whether the Knicks can make up that deficit over the season’s final 15 games. The Knicks split the season series with the Hawks 2-2, and Atlanta has a superior conference record at this point: 20-19 vs. the Knicks’ 19-23. So in all probability the Knicks will need to finish a game ahead of the Hawks in the standings in order to capture the No. 8 seed.
Of their 15 remaining games, quite a few are winnable — even the ones on their upcoming West Coast swing against the Lakers, Kings, Suns, Warriors and Jazz. But by the time that trip ends, it’ll be April — and the April schedule is a toughie with a pair of games against Brooklyn, a pair against Toronto and one each against Miami and Chicago.
So Jackson has a five-year contract for the long-term. But he also has something resembling a five-week plan for the immediate future.
And perhaps by setting the bar unreasonably high for Woodson, he laid the groundwork for making a coaching change and bringing in a new face who believes in “system basketball” — a phrase Jackson used repeatedly in his news conference, and a point he make to Jim Dolan back in December when the two first met. Jackson told Dolan about the seven principles of good offense, and Dolan joked at the news conference that if he studied hard enough and memorized those seven principles, and if there was a meaningless game in which the Knicks were up by 30, Jackson would let Dolan check in for garbage time.
Another one of the most meaningful topics Jackson disclosed Tuesday was that he would not take the job without the assurance that he would have total autonomy.
It is somewhat of a legend around NBA front office circles about how Jim Dolan hijacked the Carmelo Anthony trade negotiations from Donnie Walsh, eventually overpaying for a superstar whose current supporting cast could certainly use someone like Danilo Gallinari, or Timofey Mozgov, or Wilson Chandler.
Jackson received that assurance from Dolan back in January as discussions between the sides were progressing, and Dolan came out and acknowledged that he would “willingly and gratefully” stay out of the decision-making mix.
“I am by no means an expert in basketball,” Dolan said. (Yes, you may change that quote to a larger font, hit the print button and affix it to the wall above your sneaker collection.) It wasn’t just a quote from Dolan, it was practically an epitaph.
As news conferences go, this one had its share of revelatory moments.
Jackson, who famously did not get along with general manager Jerry Krause during their time together in Chicago winning six championships, was the object of praise from Jackson: “His attitude is the map for me going forward.”
Jackson also alluded to the pre-nuptual agreement he will have with fiancee Jeanie Buss, saying it was of paramount concern because his future wife is a part owner of the Lakers.
He said building a championship team “would be the capstone on the remarkable career I’ve had,” and he revealed that he has been keeping a close eye on the Knicks ever since Tyson Chandler went down with an injury in December — right about the time Dolan first approached Jackson at a party held at the home of Irving Azoff, the former CEO of Ticketmaster and Live Nation who now works in conjunction with MSG. Dolan said it was Azoff who handled the contract negotiations with Jackson, who will earn a reported $12 million per year.
Dolan also said the Knicks would not raise ticket prices next season in what will be a throwaway season to a large degree, with the contracts of Amare Stoudemire, Chandler and Andrea Bargnani coming off the cap. Jackson noted that the free agent class of ’14 pales in comparison to the free agent class of ’15, and hell set his sights on finding another offensive-minded player to complement Anthony.
That, of course, assumes that Anthony will remain with the Knicks, and that is an open question with ‘Melo expected to opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent who will be wooed by the Bulls, Rockets and others. It’ll be a tough sell for Jackson to make to ‘Melo on sacrificing the ’14-’15 season, especially when the Bulls can sell him on the idea of playing alongside Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, and the Rockets can bring in Dwight Howard and James Harden to help with the recruiting.
But neither of those cities is as full of life as New York, and Jackson has to be hoping that the vibrancy of the Big Apple will trump all other arguments.
Jackson told the story of being picked up at JFK Airport by coach Red Holzman after he was drafted by the Knicks in 1967, and how Holzman’s wife, Selma, was in the back seat along with a few lampshades that needed to be taken to a shop in Manhattan. On their way into the city, someone threw a rock from an overpass above the Van Wyck Expressway through the windshield of Holzman’s brand new Chevy Impala, and Holzman remarked that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
That was the point where Jackson took history teaching to new heights, saying that was the actual origin of that trademark phrase from the “New York, New York” song performed by Liza Minnelli and covered by Frank Sinatra and many others.
Could that actually be true?
Well, one should not doubt a man with 13 championships to his credit, two as a player (with the Knicks in 1970 and 1973) and 11 as a coach — six with the Bulls and five with the Lakers.
If he can bring one to New York by the end of his five-year contract, they’ll probably rename the Garden after him — that is how desperate New Yorkers are for a championship.
“There are very few accidental champions,” Jackson said.
So now comes the hard part — convincing Anthony to stay, then finding ways to put the proper pieces around him despite having no first-round draft pick in 2014 or 2016, no second-round picks in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, and no tradeable assets aside from Tim Hardaway Jr. (who looks like a keeper) and Iman Shumpert.
Walsh was supposed to be the architect of a championship team, as were Scott Layden before him, and Ernie Grunfeld and Dave Checketts before them.
All of them failed, so we should expect the same from Jackson, no?
Well, he is undoubtedly the most accomplished of the bunch, so that has to be worth something. Plus, he is the man who made sure Dolan will not be interfering. That fact alone should make things easier in trying to accomplish a goal that has eluded the Knicks for 41 long years.
Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.