Why Phil Jackson? by Matthew Miranda

I’m not sure I want Phil Jackson to come back to the Knicks.

 Crazy, right? How could anyone who follows the New York Dipsy Doodles say such a thing? Phil Jackson won 2 titles playing for the Knicks and 11 more as coach of the Bulls and Lakers. The man trademarked #winning 20 years ago, long before Charlie Sheen did, back when Sheen was still someone we laughed with, rather than at.

Rumor has it Phil is “leaning toward” signing on with NY in an as-yet-undefined front office role. It doesn’t sound like he’d coach the team. Some stories suggest he’d work under Steve Mills; some say he’d work over him. Some say he’d be president of basketball operations, a la Pat Riley in Miami; some say he’d be like the Vice-President in the Senate, and pretty much just cast the deciding vote in case of a tie.

2013-14 has far and away been the most disappointing Knick season I can remember. There were other letdowns in the past, but there was always some seed of hope to look forward to. Knick fans who were there in 1985 can never hear the words “Kansas City” without flashing back to Bernard King’s ACL destruction, but months later the team won the lottery and brought in Patrick Ewing. 1996 was the first year in a while where the Knicks didn’t even pretend to be contending for a title, but they had a ton of cap room and three 1st-round picks that summer—true, they blew all 3 picks. But they did add Allan Houston and trade Anthony Mason for Larry Johnson. Houston and LJ would each provide one of the great moments in franchise history a few years later, and their signings led the Knicks to another four-year run of (relative) greatness.

Even the hell that was Isiah Thomas saw a light at the end of the tunnel: once Isiah was finally fired by James Dolan David Stern, the Knicks were run by a man (Donnie Walsh) with a plan (cap room for summer 2010). Dreams of Lebron danced through our blue-and-orange heads. Even if we suspected he’d never really come play for Lucky Sperm Jim, dreaming beat the reality of hope-we-don’t-lose-60-games seasons, of Stephon Marbury’s “Are you getting in the truck?”, and of Eddy Curry’s…well, of Eddy Curry.

There’s something different about the depression around the Knicks these days. Something bottomless. Because five years after the one and only time under Dolan they seemed to have a sense of direction, we’re once again left with a rudderless fuckery of a narrative.

There’s no draft pick this year, because Dolan, against the advice of Walsh, gave Denver everything but MSG’s tax-exempt status in the Carmelo trade. There’s no cap room because the Knicks decided, only months after picking up Chauncey Billups’ option for 2012, to amnesty Billups to sign Tyson Chandler, a renowned defender and leader who no longer looks like an anchor on D and whose leadership has devolved into trying to gripe his way into being traded, somehow making Marreese Speights someone you’ve heard of, and elbowing Spanish Maravich in the face and then acting like he was the one wronged afterward (conspiracy theory: Chandler’s recent big numbers are him doing whatever he can to get his stats up in the hope OKC or someone else trades for his ass this summer). There’s no management to have faith in, because D’Antoni and Walsh both saw the writing on the wall and left before being fired, because Glen Grunwald made it 2 competent GMs in a row forced out for no good reason, and because the only thing anyone knows about Steve Mills is that he was part of the Isiah/sexual harassment suit glory days, and that he has as much experience running an NBA team’s basketball operations as you do.

I’d be shocked if Phil joins the Knicks. I also don’t know if he’d help any.

The timing of the story is suspicious. The Knicks have been drowning all season. Woodson could should have been fired as early as December. It’s obvious he has no answers for the team’s problems. His defensive scheme, purportedly his strength, is one that consistently fails, that scouts deride and his own team chafes against; his offensive philosophy boils down to rolling out the basketball and hoping Melo comes through. We saw Woodson’s limitations last year, against Indiana. Coaches are no different than players: they all have different ceilings. Lebron can lead an otherwise mediocre team to the Finals (2007); Paul George, I’d say, cannot. Jeff Van Gundy can lead a dark horse to the Finals. Woodson gets schooled in every 2nd round. Has since his Atlanta days. Doesn’t mean he’s a bum. He did a great job  building the Hawks up from a 13-win team to a perennial 2nd round loser. That’s his ceiling. If Dolan cared about winning, he would have interviewed someone else, anyone else, after 2012, or brought in new blood once it was clear this year had derailed. It’s not about winning to this owner. You must accept that fact. Or you will go mad.

My beef with hiring Woodson in the first place was I never understood why the Knicks didn’t even interview anyone else. You’re the Mecca, supposedly. You charge the highest ticket prices in the basketball universe. You had an exciting roster at that time: there was Melo, there was pre-catastrophic injury STAT, there was DPOY Chandler, there was Linsanity. This was the most attractive Knick team in a long, long time. So why just give Woodson, a less-accomplished coach than the man he replaced, the job? Why not at least check what else was out there?

Dolan didn’t re-hire Woodson because he went 19-10. He hired him because Woodson agreed to fire his longtime agent in exchange for the job. Because his longtime agent was also Larry Brown’s agent. And James Dolan hates Larry Brown the way children hate vegetables: an irrational, blinding, furious hatred.

The Phil rumors would be odd, given how Stalinesque the Garden is about its media policy and secrecies, if not for the fact that the Garden is so Stalinesque. It’s no coincidence the news, which has dominated the Knick conversation of late, leaked after talk of an upcoming fan protest at the Garden (the 2nd fan protest, meaning the Knicks have had more fan protests than playoff series wins under Dolan. Go Knicks!)…and news of Joakim Noah recruiting Melo to come to Chicago leading to a bunch of articles saying “Why not? Why would Melo stay in NY?”…and after Stephen A. Smith, on the Knicks home radio station, spent hours blasting Dolan, and Woodson, and Spike Lee (full disclosure: I was thrilled someone finally called out Spike. That’s a whole other post).

Phil Jackson is an amalgam of everything Knick fans were promised with Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni. In Walsh, we’d finally have a competent and automonous brain making moves. In D’Antoni, we had a basketball beacon, a man who would attract players because of his fun fun fun stat-inflating style of play.

Inevitably, however, Dolan can’t not be Dolan. He’s the scorpion in the fox and the scorpion parable: he’s going to sting because that’s what he does. That’s what he is. To paraphrase George Costanza regarding George Steinbrenner, Dolan fucks up like it’s a bodily function. He promised Walsh autonomy and granted it…until Walsh didn’t do what Dolan wanted—trade too much for Melo. Then Dolan hijacked the talks and made the deal. Soon thereafter, Walsh “left for health reasons.” Now working for Indiana, he doesn’t seem to be struggling with his health.

Dolan didn’t hire Walsh because he wanted him. He hired him because Stern strong-armed the deal in the wake of MSG’s embarrassing conviction in the Anucha Brown Sanders sexual harassment suit—a trial where the jury found the Garden’s behavior so disgusting, they gave the plaintiff more money than she was asking for.

Walsh joins Lenny Wilkens and Larry Brown as the most accomplished hires of the Dolan era. Lenny and Larry were both out after a year. Walsh deserves a statue for lasting as long as he did. Don Cheney and Isiah Thomas never won a thing in NY. Never even had their teams show improvement. Each received contract extensions, in Isiah’s case for getting the team into the 8th spot. For one day. After this happened.

D’Antoni? The man hired because players loved him? Gone less than a year after Melo arrived. Turns out Melo didn’t love him so much.

That’s concern #1 about hiring Phil Jackson. When an owner, over 15 years, shows no interest in rewarding success and no qualms rewarding failure and embarrassment, both on and off the court, why should fans believe Dolan’s had a road to Damascus epiphany? Why believe this has anything to do with winning? If Melo wasn’t a free agent this year—if, say, he’d already opted in for next season, and therefore had no leverage—would the Phil discussion be taking place at all? I doubt it. I think this is the same crap philosophy being directed at Melo that’s usually directed at the fans. We’ll get a big name. We’re NY. We can get a big name no problem. Trust us. Trust us.

Dolan’s like Willem in Mallrats: everyone else can see the picture behind the picture except him.

It’s like he looks at Miami and thinks “Miami’s a big market. Riley’s a big name. Therefore, Lebron” or “L.A.’s big. The Lakers under the Buss family get big players. Yeah! Let’s do that!” But he doesn’t see that Pat Riley is a big name because he’s a winner, first and foremost. Phil Jackson, too. Remember what kind of players they were. No one in the 1970s would have guessed that Phil and Riley, as players, would become the glamour coaches/kingmakers of the next couple NBA generations. They’re big names because they won. They won because they had great players and great organizations. organizations committed to giving them what they needed and then staying out of the way. I don’t trust that Dolan understands that. Why would anyone?

If Phil takes a front office gig, do you expect him to recruit an established, big-name/big-resume NBA coach? I have the feeling he’s more likely to hire someone he’s worked with, someone with little to no rep to outsiders, someone he knows who’d be under most people’s radars. I don’t have a problem with that, by the way. It’d be nice to see the Knicks bring in a Van Gundy/Thibodeau type, a guy who’s game’s bigger than his name. But is Dolan going to go for that?

We hear Phil will attract star players to New York. Umm…who? When? How long would Phil be down for this job? If the over/under’s 5 years, I’d take the under. In a heartbeat. Because of his age, and his health. What big players are the Knicks going to be contending for in that time? It’s the D’Antoni/CAA logic all over again, typical Dolan reasoning:  big market + big name = big names. Trust us.

Who’s going to come to NY because Phil Jackson works in an office, and not on the sideline? Are the Knicks going to hire a coach who runs the triangle? If they do, that would limit the candidate pool; if they don’t, can anyone declare with confidence that we know Phil Jackson can build a championship team that plays a style other than the one he ran for decades?

And I keep coming back to this question of who is out there that people think is the Knicks’ missing link. I don’t see Kevin Love and Melo as complementary talents. Or Lamarcus Aldridge. Or even Durant. All those players are redundant: they play the same position and, for the most part, have the same strengths (offense) and weaknesses (defense). Is there a two-way center or guard out there who’d come to NY thanks to Phil Jackson? While Melo’s still a viable co-star?

The whole Phil courtship is Dolan 101. I understand that it’d give fans something to believe in, something to hope for. It’d give you a reason to watch (and if you’ve seen the Knicks ratings this year, you know that’s a concern for Cablevision Jimmy, too). I don’t begrudge anyone their faith. The one thing that unites all Knick fans, whether they admit it or not, is that while we all hope to see a title in our lifetime, no one who follows this team does so for that reason. If you watched the Knicks and thought title-or-bust, you’d have stopped watching years ago.

We watch because we want to see effortHeart.  Beauty. Because we watched with our dads when we were younger, or with our moms, or family, or friends. Because 62.  Because there’s good JR, too.   Because this happens.  Because sometimes in the middle of the desert, there is sustenance. Because Nate giveth. Because Nate taketh away. Because sometimes you’re stuck at your dad’s retirement ceremony and someone grabs the mic to interrupt and let everyone know this just happened. Because some games can never be forgotten. Because there is justice in the world.  And sometimes, justice is served 20 years before the crime was committed.

I love the game. Love the uniform. Love the fans. Love Phil for being there back in the day. I respect what he’s done as a coach. He’s a winner. But the organization? The business? The owner? The cynical, short-sighted rumors?


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