Phil Jackson’s Refusal To Evolve Forced The Knicks’ Hand
Even when Phil Jackson first agreed to run the Knicks, there were plenty of skeptics. It was a move that made for a great headline but became more questionable the longer you read the details beneath it. To wit: Jackson was 68 years old when he was hired and he’d be 74 at the end of his five-year, $60 million deal. Questions about health and commitment to the job dominated the end of his Lakers run. He was married to a Triangle offense that had failed in every situation that didn’t feature Hall of Fame players. He’d never run a team before, he was still dating Jeanie Buss at that point, and he was expected to split time between Los Angeles and New York City. The whole idea seemed like a massive risk that only made sense if you conceded that the Knicks would be just as lost without him.
It ended early Wednesday morning when the Knicks terminated his contract. It comes after a draft week that nearly spun out of control, and just 72 hours before free agency begins. But just for a minute, we can think about this.
Jackson eventually moved to New York full time, so at least one worry proved unfounded. On every other front he exceeded the expectations of every skeptic. By the end he was allegedly falling asleep in draft workouts, antagonizing the future of the franchise, and had reporters showing up to James Dolan concerts demanding answers.
That’s ultimately what got him fired. Jackson was brought to New York because James Dolan was tired of being blamed for the state of the Knicks. So the Knicks owner put someone else in charge, and repeatedly explained that anyone with basketball questions should go ask Phil. Jackson was fired when his answers to those questions became so toxic that the whole city turned its attention toward the owner that was keeping him employed.
In the end, the problem wasn’t the intellectual laziness that defined most of his basketball decisions, or last summer’s disastrous free agency, or this winter’s public spat with LeBron James, or this spring’s recriminations from the NBPA, or the winking dismissal of three-pointers just a month before the Warriors won a title and launching from deep at a historic rate. It was James Dolan recognizing that Jackson was no longer serving his purpose. There was no insulation from criticism for Dolan, and it was only going to get worse from here.
Now Dolan gets to step in, and it might be the most popular decision he’s made in the past decade. We’ll see where things go from here. The Joakim Noah deal still stings, and they have to figure out what to do with Melo. The Knicks are as much of a mess today as they were yesterday. But remove Phil from the equation and there’s a rough outline of a rebuilding team with a bright future.
The Knicks have their draft picks in the coming years, and once Melo moves on they will have cap space to build around Porzingis. In time, this can work. And [furiously knocks on wood] I think the most promising sign for Knicks fans might be Dolan himself. Whatever you want to say about the past few years of the Knicks, Dolan kept his promise and stayed away from basketball decisions. Maybe that will continue?
He ceded power to Phil and trusted him with the entire enterprise. There were no playoff mandates or doomed plays for superstars (Derrick Rose was all Phil), and Dolan stayed in his lane playing blues music (and picking public fights with Charles Oakley, but still, progress not perfection). At least as far as control is concerned, the past few years were the most promising development in 20 years, and it was healthier for both Dolan and the Knicks. The problem was picking Jackson as the man to lead everything.
As far as Jackson’s legacy is concerned, there will be talk that this final chapter changes how we look at one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, but I don’t think it will. Phil was an amazing coach. He had a wry sense of humor and clever mind and he was excellent at managing some of the more difficult personalities of the past 30 years. He dominated Pat Riley in the 90s and Gregg Popovich in the 2000s, and if you think that was entirely a coincidence or merely a by-product of his surroundings, that’s probably a mistake. A decade from now, the failed New York experiment shouldn’t define Phil any more than Steve Kerr’s time with the Suns or Michael Jordan’s time with Wizards defines them.
What I did learn from Phil in New York was how not to get old. There are certain successful people who get older and answer to aging by making an effort to stay curious, try new things, and listen to new ideas. Think about Popovich in San Antonio, a man who once reviled threes every bit as much as Phil Jackson. But he adapted as the league evolved, and the Spurs have been great for two decades as a result. So that’s one way to get old. And then there are other successful people who get older and remain wedded to the version of the world that existed when they succeeded, and don’t care about embracing what’s changed. That’s Phil. The way he treated Carmelo in the media. The way the team handled the Derrick Rose allegations. The Derek Fisher scandal. The LeBron controversy and the word “posse.” The Porzingis exit interview, and the team’s apparent refusal to follow up in the aftermath. Phil just wasn’t interested in playing along in a media environment that’s more sensitive, and a league that belongs to players.
It was a strange coda to a Hall of Fame coaching career that was built on understanding superstars and managing an evolving group of personalities. In New York, Phil was no longer attuned to the way teams and players conduct business in the NBA, or if he was, he didn’t care to adapt. All of it was getting worse as we went.
The end is healthy for everyone. For Phil, he can go into retirement and make his strange observations and three-point jokes from afar, and it’ll be funny, not sad. For the Knicks, they are still the Knicks, and trusting the process under James Dolan has never been easy, so I won’t jinx this with too much optimism. But give them this much credit: their rebuilding process makes a lot more sense than it did yesterday.