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Friday, March 14, 2014

New York State of Mind, Part V: The Phil Jackson Edition

Phil Jackson is about to get paid handsomely to put his money where his mouth is; Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reports that the New York Knicks are prepared to offer Jackson "approximately $15 million annually" to fix a dysfunctional franchise that has, in Jackson's words, a "clumsy roster" filled with mismatched parts and and with players who lack a championship mentality.

Amare Stoudemire, who will make $21,679,893 this season, and Carmelo Anthony, who will make $21,490,000 this season, are by far the two highest paid Knicks; they are the fourth and fifth highest paid players in the NBA, trailing only Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Gilbert Arenas, who was vastly overrated even before a combination of physical injuries and mental foolishness derailed his career (Arenas' contract is so ridiculous--he will be paid until 2016 even though he has not played a game since the 2011-12 season--that Arenas himself admits that it is probably the worst deal in NBA history). Jackson is far from enamored with Anthony or Stoudemire; in a 2012 HBO interview, he told Andrea Kremer, "Well, they don't fit together well. Stoudemire doesn't fit together well with Carmelo. Stoudemire's (a) really good player. But he's gotta play in a certain system and a way. Carmelo has to be a better passer. And the ball can’t stop every time it hits his hands. They need to have someone come in that can kinda blend that group together."

Jackson's coaching track record is impeccable. After leading the Albany Patroons to the 1984 CBA championship, he joined the Chicago Bulls as an assistant coach, eventually replacing Doug Collins as head coach in 1989. Michael Jordan, who many people consider to be the greatest basketball player of all-time, led the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals once in his first five seasons; Jordan--with a lot of help from Scottie Pippen--led the Bulls to six championships in the seven full seasons that he played for Jackson. Shaquille O'Neal, the most dominant big man of his era, made one NBA Finals appearance and got swept out of the playoffs five times in his first six seasons; O'Neal--with a lot of help from Kobe Bryant--led the Lakers to three straight championships in his first three seasons playing for Jackson. Critics often carp that Jackson has had the horses throughout his NBA career but it is indisputable that when he had the horses he won the races--and it does not seem likely that anyone else would have matched Jackson's standard of nine championships in his first 10 seasons of coaching Jordan and O'Neal.

Unfortunately for the Knicks, they are not hiring Jackson for his coaching prowess; they are hiring Jackson to run their personnel operation, an operation that has been a disaster for many years. It would be one thing if the Knicks brought in Jackson as a coach so that he could try to squeeze the most out of Anthony, Stoudemire, talented head case J.R. Smith and the rest of New York's motley crew but there are good reasons to be a little bit skeptical about what Jackson can do for this team at this time strictly in an executive capacity; it is difficult to picture Jackson traveling around the country scouting college games looking for young talent but young talent is exactly what the Knicks need: they will never win a title with Anthony as their best player or with Smith as his sidekick or with the oft-injured Stoudemire eating up salary cap space like termites destroying a house from the inside out. Jackson is a master at maximizing the talent on hand but he has yet to build a team from scratch--and perhaps that is why this New York opportunity has piqued his interest: if Jackson tears down this roster and builds a championship team from scratch he will add an improbable chapter to his already impressive legacy. It is also possible that Jackson will try to run the team from afar, cashing big checks while the Knicks continue to flounder; the key question is if Jackson is highly motivated to prove what he can do as an executive or if he is highly motivated to score one last big payday while also sticking it to the Lakers for jerking him around during their previous coaching search.

Jackson had a long-running, well-documented public feud with Jerry Krause when Krause was Jackson's boss in Chicago and Jackson also battled with Jerry West when West ran the Lakers, so it will be fascinating to see what Jackson is able to do if he takes New York's offer and puts on an executive's suit. Jackson's name as a coach became synonymous not just with winning games but with winning championships in groups of three (three separate three-peats, plus back to back titles in the midst of three straight trips to the NBA Finals near the end of his second run with the Lakers); the Knicks have made the playoffs each of the past three years--and they still have a chance to sneak in as the eighth seed this year--so Jackson's tenure in New York will be judged not on 50 win seasons or playoff appearances but rather on if the Knicks become a viable championship contender. Krause, West and the rest of the NBA universe will be watching this saga with great interest. My expectation is that if Jackson takes the job he will get rid of Anthony, Stoudemire and Smith as soon as possible so that he can construct a championship-caliber roster around a young, unselfish, versatile and tough-minded superstar--but if the Knicks fail to meet expectations then the fans and the media will pressure Jackson to pick up the coaching reins. Logic suggests that this will not end well for Jackson--unless James Dolan gives Jackson full autonomy and Jackson responds by being 100% engaged in the search for young talent--but it will be intriguing to watch what happens next.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:39 PM

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1 Comments:

At Saturday, March 15, 2014 5:03:00 AM, Anonymous yogi said...

I'm excited to see how this turns out for Phil, it's NBA soap opera drama at its best, but what I'm really happy about is the possibility that the triangle will be resurrected.

 

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