On March 19, 2014, the New York Knicks announced Phil Jackson would become the President of Basketball Operations of the franchise. That was a very happy day for most Knicks fans, as Phil Jackson has been nothing but a winner on the NBA level as a player and as a coach. Coming to town with a total of 13 championships (two as a player with the Knicks, six as the coach of the 90s Bulls, and five as the coach of the Lakers), it was easy to see why fans were ecstatic. Phil Jackson came here with the mandate of changing what was a toxic culture and to build a system that would create longterm stability and a winning environment. Considering that the Knicks have been one of the league’s worst ran teams since the turn of the century, what Phil Jackson was sent to do was a much needed job. Like all other things Knicks Basketball, however, Phil Jackson is proving to be like all the other incompetent GMs before him.
At the end of the 2013-2014 season, Phil Jackson installed a lot of faith in Knicks fans by firing the entire coaching staff headed up by Mike Woodson, including longtime Knicks’ Assistant Coach Herb Williams. Getting rid of those coaches, and more importantly Herb Williams who was a known Dolan favorite, showed that Phil Jackson was cleaning house and would no longer tolerate the underachieving. He would eventually replace them with rookie head coach Derek Fisher and a bunch of his old triangle coaching assistants like Kurt Rambis and Jim Cleamons. He lost out on his first coaching choice to the Golden State Warriors, Steve Kerr (who since being a head coach has gone an astounding 140-24 in the regular season and 21-6 in the playoffs so far). Despite missing on Kerr, who also had zero coaching experience, Derek Fisher was seen as a respected veteran, a five time NBA champion, and a level-headed leader with the aptitude to eventually be a great coach in a demanding market like New York City. It was a risky move, but for a change it seemed to be a risk worth taking. Phil Jackson won eleven championships, so we were not afraid to give him the benefit of the doubt.
In his first big personnel move, Phil Jackson traded Ray Felton and Tyson Chandler to the Dallas Mavericks. Felton had a pending gun charge at the time and Tyson Chandler was a divisive figure in the locker room as he was pointing fingers (mostly at Carmelo Anthony) during the Knicks’ semi-final loss to the Indiana Pacers the previous season. The trade was right in line with his narrative of cleaning house and getting rid of the toxic elements that made the Knicks a poorly run organization. Not to mention, the trade looked great on the face of the deal. The Knicks received Jose Calderon, Sam Dalembert, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin, and two 2014 2nd round picks. Jose Calderon is one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, and had played great basketball for every team he’d been on, Dalembert was a great role player for a long time, and the young pieces like Larkin and the two 2014 draft picks made the trade look that much better. On the face, the Knicks gave up guys that overstayed their welcome in New York for two rotation players on a Dallas Mavericks team that was fresh off a playoff berth. We all knew the age of Calderon and Dalembert, but they were both coming off relatively productive seasons for the minutes and roles they played. Adding Shane Larkin (a 2014 1st round pick) and two 2nd round picks was a breath of fresh air for Knicks fans who had time and time again seen their team trade away draft picks and young players. A summer before we hired Phil Jackson, the Knicks traded an unprotected 2016 1st round pick for Andrea Bargnani, and he has consistently been one of the 3 least productive basketball players in the NBA. Getting two players with productive track records and three young assets felt like a win at the time.
Before the season would start, the Knicks spent their training camp up at West Point; the US military school in upstate New York. Again, it was another move to get the Knicks to realize what hard work truly is and how they needed to carry themselves as professional basketball players. Everything seemed to be headed up, and then the bottom fell out in Phil Jackson’s first full season as an executive. The Knicks would go 5-35 through their first 40 games, and then Phil Jackson was forced into a half-hearted rebuilding effort. But before we get there, I’d like to talk about the Carmelo Anthony contract.
In the summer of 2014, Carmelo Anthony would forego the final year of his contract to enter free agency. The Knicks were always viewed as frontrunners as they were able to offer him the most money of anybody; $129 million over five years. However, it was believed that Carmelo would take a pay cut in order for the Knicks to add talent around him. While he entertained offers from the Lakers, Mavericks, Bulls, and Rockets, he would ultimately sign a contract for 5 years worth $122 million dollars. Considering the fact that the cap would be expanding in coming years, the deal was not looked at as an overpayment and is not an unmovable deal for the team. What made the contract so idiotic and inexcusable were three letters attached to the deal: NTC. The Knicks would give Carmelo Anthony a No-Trade Clause. Now that does not mean that he cannot be traded. It means that Carmelo Anthony would have all the power in determining if/when he would be traded and that he would decide who we trade him to. The no-trade clause took away the Knicks ability to press the reset button at their will, and it was an unnecessary part of the contract. You were already offering him at least $20 million more than anyone else could have offered him and there were no signs pointing to the fact that the Knicks would not have been able to sign him without it. That very unnecessary part of the contract would come back to bite the Knicks today. Now let’s go back to the time the Knicks decided to rebuild for 42 games.
After the Knicks got out to a franchise worst start, Phil Jackson would trade Iman Shumpert and JR Smith to the Cleveland Cavaliers for what amounted to a whole bunch of nothing and Lance Thomas. The Knicks decided they would be better off tanking the season by trading their two valuable role players, shutting Carmelo Anthony down after the All Star Break, and buying Amar’e Stoudemire out of his contract. It was a sound plan, and if it weren’t for a winning streak in April that season, the Knicks probably would have ended up with Karl Anthony Towns instead of Kristaps Porzingis (either way we ended up with a future stud so I will not complain about the results). On draft day, after the Knicks selected Kristaps Porzingis, we would then trade Tim Hardaway Jr for the 1st round pick that turned into Jerian Grant. On draft night, it appeared the Knicks were ready to rebuild and that it would have made the most sense to trade Carmelo Anthony. The 2014-2015 Knicks, and events in the prior off season, season put the team in an awkward position. The team so obviously needed to retool and rebuild, but with no draft pick in either round for the 2016 NBA draft and Carmelo Anthony’s max contract on the payroll, the Knicks had no real incentive to lose basketball games. Even if they wanted to trade their franchise player, they forfeited that right when they gave him that No Trade Clause.
Let’s fast forward to today. It’s Spring 2016 and the Knicks are in a similar position to the one they were in when Phil Jackson got here. The Knicks are currently a team with a win total in the 30s with no head coach and a two or three major pieces away from title contention. However, I would be a liar if I did not point out that the Knicks are in a much better position than they were in 2014. The Knicks are headed into the off season with a projected $36 million in cap space, a potential franchise player in Kristaps Porzingis, and a great role player in Robin Lopez to add to their current star player Carmelo Anthony. Between those three, the Knicks have a great starting front court, and that is more than I could say about what the team had two years ago. Despite the ups, downs, and everything in between it took to get here, the Knicks are in position to improve and Phil Jackson is a big reason for all of that. However, there is one big issue that appears to be in the way of all of that process in this rebuild, and that is Phil Jackson’s apparent marriage to the triangle offense.
Now please, do not misunderstand me. I believe the triangle is an offense that can work in today’s NBA as many successful offenses use its core principles, and Tom Thibodeau actually ran the triangle offense in Chicago when his Bulls were a powerhouse team. The Knicks were running the triangle offense for the first half of the season, and they looked really good running it before players like Lance Thomas and Langston Galloway eventually regressed and stopped hitting shots. Any offense that is predicated on ball movement can and will be successful in the NBA. The big issue with the triangle offense is the quality of coaches who appear to be willing to run that offense. Phil Jackson is seriously considering making Kurt Rambis the official head coach despite the fact that he owns the fifth worse win loss record in NBA history just because he will run the triangle offense. That’s ridiculously difficult to defend when you consider the Knicks were objectively a worse team under Rambis than they were under Fisher. Phil would not even speak with Tom Thibodeau or Scott Brooks, and David Blatt (who is actually one of the greatest coaches in world basketball history) is considered an outside candidate to land the job. The only NBA coaches who are known triangle aficionados are Kurt Rambis and Brian Shaw. Neither coach inspires any faith, and we’ve seen how bad a coach Kurt Rambis has been first hand. He outright refused to play the young players, which meant too many meaningless minutes for Melo, even after the Knicks were out of playoff contention. He benched Arron Afflalo and the communication on that issue was bad (Afflalo said there was no communication at al). Phil Jackson offered to coach half of the games next year if he kept Rambis on as coach, and Melo has been vocal in the media about having a real coaching search, and not the cronyism we see going on at the moment.
What Phil Jackson is showing us right now is that the Knicks have not changed as an organization. Before, it was James Dolan who was pulling the strings and hiring his friends. That turned out terrible, and then CAA took over. That brought in Carmelo Anthony, who has been an excellent Knick, but it also netted the disastrous Andrea Bargnani trade and the Chris Smith contract. Now Phil Jackson is in charge, and he’s about to give his buddy Kurt Rambis a job. He gave his buddy Fisher a job, too, and then he took that job away because he wouldn’t run the triangle as much as Phil would have liked. Phil Jackson, like James Dolan did when he was heavily involved in the decision making, is only interested in looking smarter than everyone else. There is no reason to live and die by the triangle, but it appears that is what Phil Jackson is about to do. The Knicks of old were a team that made dumb decisions for no apparent reason beside the overvaluing of a certain principle. That principle was essentially “let’s try to grab all of the 20 point scorers we can and trade all of our draft picks in the process.” The Phil Jackson era Knicks seem to overvalue a system of basketball over competent coaching and valuable NBA skills.
As a Knicks fan, I’m scared but optimistic that my team will get it right. Maybe Phil Jackson does hire David Blatt, or any other legitimate NBA head coaching candidate, and gets rid of Rambis. Maybe Phil Jackson signs some good players this off season to put around Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis, and Robin Lopez. Maybe Phil Jackson continues to build a good basketball team because the pieces are definitely there. There’s always that looming and probable doom that the Knicks get it wrong, though. The chances appear that Phil Jackson is going to extend Rambis, over pay for a player Evan Turner, and ruin an opportunity to build upon the 15 game improvement the Knicks made last season. It’s a sad story, but it’s one I’ve seen before. It’s the way of the Knicks organization under James Dolan’s ownership, and it’s the same old stuff. The only difference is Phil Jackson is the guy pulling the strings.