Phil Jackson’s exit from New York seems inevitable. The bandwagon that brought him in two years ago is in the garage. It’s been replaced by the clown car that will drive him out. The Daily News last week devoted the front page to him as “The Nutty Professor.”
The president of the Knicks held a seminar on his Triangle offense, and it wasn’t perceived as a success. Jackson’s best player, Carmelo Anthony, was not among 10 Knicks who attended. One coach who did attend, Golden State Warriors assistant Luke Walton, was suspected of being subjected to a job interview, by Jackson, in violation of the NBA’s ambiguous rules against “tampering.”
Steve Kerr, who had been Jackson’s protégé and is now Walton’s boss as Warriors head coach, went into such detail explaining how Jackson during his Triangle summit did not interview Walton that Shakespeare’s “he doth protest too much” leaps to mind.
“Nobody from New York has interviewed Luke. That has not happened. Luke and Phil have had contact, just like Phil and I have had contact. But not anything to do with the job. That would be tampering. . . .”
Kerr felt the need to exonerate Jackson from a tampering charge that had not been made, at least publicly. Kerr’s awkward affirmation of his faith in Jackson’s integrity does not bring closure to the question. Media speculation will continue that the Lord of the Eleven Rings turned the Triangle into triangulation.
Warriors general manager Bob Myers joined with Kerr in defending, sort of, Jackson from the apparently unalleged tampering: “I don’t know exactly what that conversation was, but it should not have been construed as an interview as it might have been.”
Jackson could bring closure to this issue by hiring his “interim” coach, Kurt Rambis, as “permanent” — in the loosest meaning of the word, of course.
Rambis is devoted to the Triangle, but because the Knicks were 9-19 under his interim direction, Jackson is reluctant to complete the hire.
Will he do better if he waits? Is the Zen Master in his own mystical way reaching out to Walton?
Well, he should be.
As a stand-in for Kerr (rehabbing from back surgery), Walton pushed all the right buttons on an offense that was an up-tempo revision of Jackson’s legendary Triangle. The 36-year-old son of Hall of Fame center Bill Walton was 39-4 as interim coach this season while Kerr won the Coach of the Year award.
The Jackson-Walton connection goes far back. Walton played for two of Jackson’s five championship teams in LA, and he was going to be an assistant coach for the Knicks before Kerr lured him to Golden State. So if Jackson is at all opportunistic, he used his coaching seminar to strengthen his bond with Walton. Signals can be read. Or misread.
But with the firing of Byron Scott as coach of the Lakers, it’s likely Walton will stay in California, with a move south to the city where he played his college ball, at UCLA.
Which does not preclude Jackson and Walton working together in the future. Perhaps the very near future.
Jen Berger of CBS Sports reports that in a move designed by Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss, Jackson will return to LA, to “run the basketball operations with Luke Walton as the coach.”
Such a transfer would allow Jackson, 70, to return to the beachside habitation he enjoyed with Jeanie before he headed east to try to rescue the moribund, though ever-beloved, Knicks.
Full disclosure: I was among the bandwagon voices cheering for Dr. Phil’s rescue of the Knicks. I believed then, and still do, that great coaches tend to be great CEO’s. Consider Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich, excelling at court-side and front office. Football counterparts include names like Lombardi, Walsh, Parcells, Belichick.
But what’s often overlooked: The franchise that wins a championship typically has an owner you rarely see or hear. The Invisible Hand works best.
The perfect owner? How about the San Antonio Spurs’ Peter Holt? He’s fully occupied by running Caterpillar, a $45 billion corporation on the New York Stock Exchange. The Spurs are a small branch of a much larger tree. Holt quietly makes sure Popovich gets everything he needs so the sports division of the corporation holds its own.
Jackson was doomed from the beginning because the Knicks are owned by Jim Dolan, who has no sports background (other than sailing) and meddles in basketball operations large and small. So far he’s been mostly true to his promise to leave Jackson alone — except when it matters most.
Soon after Jackson moved into Madison Square Garden, he wanted to hire a young coach who believed in his Triangle offense and would know how to coach it. He quickly settled on Steve Kerr, who had played for him. But Dolan let the Warriors outbid him for Kerr.
Jackson learned a harsh truth, which Tom Thibodeau will learn in Minnesota: If you control everything but the purse strings, you control nothing.
We’ll see how well Thibodeau general-manages Glen Taylor.
But as much blame as Dolan deserves for the Knicks’ two decades of almost continuous failure, it must be said that Jackson has done little, in concert with the general manager he inherited, Steve Mills, to upgrade the franchise.
Kristaps Porzingis, the 7-3 Latvian, has turned out to be an inspired draft pick at No. 4 overall, but the Knicks haven’t scored in free agency since Jackson has been calling shots – and Dolan holding the purse.
The chronically hobbled Anthony may be right that elite free agents are turned off by the Triangle, or Triple Post, which emphasizes quick passes and cuts to the basket at a time when the trend is toward standing back and shooting from afar.
Kerr has altered the offense drastically, extending it to 3-point range. Jackson was wise to pick Walton’s brain for what his new master has taught him.
Perhaps Jackson, inspired by ideas from his Manhattan confab, can reinvent the Triangle and his own role as, well, whatever it is. One way or another, he needs to become a take-charge executive. Somewhere, east coast or west. He has too good a brain to waste.
Alan Truex covered the Atlanta Hawks for the Atlanta Journal and Houston Rockets for the Houston Chronicle.