AUSTIN – Everywhere, it seems, oracles speak doom about the New York Knicks and false messiah Phil Jackson. The appropriate cliché is Cassandras. Just as Cassandra in Greek mythology forecasted the end of Troy, we hear about the continuing slide of the Knicks. The lengthiest disaster epic since, what, the bubonic plague?
The Greek Chorus is singing, Even Phil Jackson can’t save the Knicks. Among the doubters: the reliably opinionated Charles Barkley: “Phil Jackson won’t stop the Knicks’ Suck Train.”
Jim Rome chimes in: “They don’t need a Zen Master. They need a bulldozer.”
On ESPN’s Sports Reporters, Bob Ryan, Mitch Albom and company agree this is just another of Jim Dolan’s many bad hires.
The Knicks owner is a sort of Jerry Jones Light, who meddles everywhere, undermining the coach and general manager and maintaining chaos throughout his company. But while Jones is a marketing genius, Dolan doesn’t seem smart at anything. In Texas, it’s known as having more money than brains. We see a lot of that in my state.
David Stern might as well have called Dolan a dumb-ass when he said the Knicks “are not a model of intelligent management.”
Stern considered this franchise to be the biggest failure of his 30 years as commish. He knew how much more valuable his league would be if Madison Avenue could see a title contender down at Penn and Eighth.
Instead it has the Knicks, who haven’t won a championship since 1973, when Jackson played reserve forward for them. As horrid as this team is, Forbes appraises it at $1.4 billion. That’s more than any other NBA team, and it’s more money than Dolan can squander away in a lifetime of trying. If only he had a tenth of the business sense of his dad, who founded HBO.
Stern on several occasions intervened to stop Dolan from making terrible decisions, but he couldn’t stop enough of them. Dolan put his faith for too long in Isiah Thomas, not enough in Donnie Walsh and Larry Brown.
So now starring on Broadway: The Lord of Thirteen Rings. And so far, not much applause. Few believe Dolan could be spending money wisely, because he never does. He’s committing $60 million over five years to let Jackson be president, but will he really let Jackson be president?
In his Madison Square Garden press conference introducing Jackson, Dolan promised: “Phil will be in charge of all basketball decisions.” Further, he admitted, “I’m a little out of my element when it comes to the team.”
Although Cassandra was in her particular case prescient, is it possible the Knick-knockers are finally wrong? The fact that Dolan’s made bad hires doesn’t mean he can’t get one right. Every executive makes errors. How many commanders did Lincoln hire before Grant?
Consider the possibility that Dolan, in deference to the greatest basketball coach of the half century, steps back, the way Jerry Jones oh so briefly did. For one year, 2006, Bill Parcells kept Jones out of the coaches’ meetings and the Dallas Cowboys reached the playoffs, which they have done only once in the seven years since.
While many doubt Dolan can succeed no matter what, there are questions about Jackson. First of all, putting the 60 mil aside, wouldn’t he rather be at his beach house at Playa del Rey? This is the love nest he owns with Jeanie Buss, who’s president of the Los Angeles Lakers, though her brother Jim controls the team. Knicks fans can only hope Phil’s presidency is not the same as hers.
When word came out that Jackson was entertaining offers from New York, Lakers fans – including a tweeting Magic Johnson — pleaded for their team to join the bidding. Jeanie Buss was in Manhattan at the time, wearing a Knicks sweater and saying the Knicks job had her blessing. She pointed out she’s a member of the NBA Board of Governors, “and they have a lot of meetings in New York.”
Alas, there would be no Hollywood ending, because Jim Buss is as clumsy as Dolan and even more obsessive about control. Again, we see an apple fallen far from a tree. Would Jerry Buss have let his ring-heavy coach and his daughter’s fiancé leave for New York without a counter-offer?
While some wonder where Jackson’s heart is, others doubt he has the energy at 68 to hire a head coach (he’s adamant it won’t be himself), supervise the scouting, oversee the salary-cap management and all business operations. But hey, that’s what assistants are for. His job is being a genius. As Michael Jordan put it: “He’s very smart. He’ll figure out pretty quickly what needs to be done.”
True, Jackson has no front office experience. But neither did Red Auerbach, Jerry West, Pat Riley and Larry Bird when they gained front-office control. These are people who had an inherent understanding of how to win an NBA championship. Yes, you need a superstar, but many teams have had one with no rings.
Jackson’s Triangle offense requires only one or two stars – Jordan in Chicago, Shaq and Kobe in LA. Everyone else is interchangeable. Jackson’s system, which he copied from Tex Winter when both were in Chicago, emphasizes ball movement, passes from weak side to strong side, back and forth until someone – anyone — gets an open shot.
Jackson’s brilliance is coaxing superstars to share the ball. This is where the Zen comes in, meditation, counseling, love of teammates connecting everyone. He got Jordan to stop saying “my supporting cast.” He made peace – well, a temporary truce anyway – between Shaq and Kobe.
Steve Kerr is likely to be the Knicks’ next coach because he thrived in the Triangle when he played in Chicago and also bought into Dr. Phil’s psychic therapy. Forbes quoted Kerr: “When we were meditating, the new guy would have one eye open waiting for everyone to laugh at him – but then you realize it’s real.”
Jackson considers psychology a major element of coaching. “You have to be able to psychologically help your players,” he says. “Support-wise, be in touch with them.”
As he stood in the Garden before a “Welcome Home Phil” banner, Jackson said: “The idea of developing a ‘culture’ is an overwrought word in the NBA right now, but that’s what brought me here.”
Wherever he goes, Jackson creates an aura, a mystique that’s both a strength and weakness. Being taciturn made him flop on radio and has turned friends to enemies. Jerry West, who linked Jackson with Shaq and Kobe in LA, quickly tired of his coach’s aloofness. In his autobiography, West wrote: “It didn’t feel very good when someone would walk right by me and not even acknowledge you’re there, but that’s Phil.”
Jackson once kicked West out of the Lakers’ locker room, which gives Knicks fans hope that he will stand up to Dolan.
As far as how much time he spends at the office or the beach or his ranch in Montana, ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser asks:
“Would you rather have two hours a day from Einstein or 24 from someone who’s not Einstein?”
For his part, Jackson promises to live in New York and spend most of his time there.
He has enough pride and genius to make this work regardless of how often he does.
The fact that no team is currently running the Triangle helps. No one is practicing against it. And he will have a wide choice of players who can fit the system.
He may be not only the basketball guru Dolan needs, but also the spiritual healer. Jackson intended to be a Christian minister long before he became a born-again Buddhist. Dolan has admitted drug and alcohol problems. He might benefit from some Zen, meditation, serenity, enlightenment, karma, a higher power like Phil Jackson.
A bold prediction: Dolan for at least a year will let Dr. Phil work his soothing magic. The longer Dolan can put up with Jackson, and certainly vice versa, the better the always meager hopes of the Knicks.
Granted, this next year will be rough. Their one good player, Carmelo Anthony, will be 30 in May and soon thereafter will leave if he wants. He has the skills to work all sides of the Triangle, and Jackson calls him “perhaps the best individual isolation player in the game.” Anthony is promising to start passing the ball, as Jackson wishes, and how well he does that will determine if Dolan pays $30 million to keep him another season.
The Zen Master at times will be a bulldozer. One to be pushed aside is the gun-toting point guard, Ray Felton. We don’t know, thank God, if he can shoot a pistol, but he’s 39 percent with a basketball, which isn’t good enough for Jackson.
The Knicks have no first-round pick this year or the year after next. But they have a No. 1 in 2015 (let’s get optimistic: think lottery). And they will clear cap space then: $52 million with the contracts for Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani and Tyson Chandler expiring, needless to say not a half-second too soon.
Where Jackson turns it around is 2015-16, assuming Dolan can stay invisible except when signing checks. With his support, Jackson could pursue LeBron James, who’s a half year younger than Anthony. Or Kevin Love. Other talented players will consider what Jackson and New York can offer — as long as Dolan stays in a box somewhere, out of sight.