NBA – Empire State of Mind

Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson to New York implications for Los Angeles

TORONTO – Sports – The announcement this past Tuesday that Phil Jackson, the legendary NBA coach, would be the new President of basketball operations for the New York Knicks was somewhat anticlimactic. 

After all, the Knicks had been courting Jackson openly for months.

It had been the worst-kept secret in the league that there had been meetings between the retired coach and Knicks owner James Dolan as well as Knicks GM Steve Mills to work out this deal.

It’s not hard to see why any team would  be desperate to recruit Phil Jackson as he was, after all, the man who won 11 NBA championships as a coach – the most in NBA history.  He also had a way of bringing out the best in players on the Bulls and Lakers teams that he brought to glory.

Jackson earned the nickname “zen master” for his often unorthodox holistic coaching strategies and philosophies which were heavily influenced by Eastern spirituality and Western indigenous practices. 

If any franchise could use some of Jackson’s zen, it is the disastrous New York Knicks.

Additionally, Jackson seems a fitting saviour for the team as he won two championships with the Knicks as a player in 1970 and 73. It seemed a case of the prodigal son returning to restore the Knicks to a glory that they haven’t received since Phil Jackson suited up alongside such greats as Willis Reed, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Jerry Lucas. 

It seemed like a match made in heaven and really a wonderful story for the Knicks and potentially the NBA.

But not everyone was happy about it.

“I love Jim & Jeanie Buss, but we need Phil Jackson to be the face of our great organization, the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant is the face of the Lakers team, but who is the face of the Lakers organization? In signing Phil Jackson, Owner Jim Dolan and Steve Mills are saying to the Knicks fans, they’re ready to win now!”

Those words were tweeted out by arguably the greatest Laker ever, Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

The man who he tagged as the face of the team also had harsh words for the Lakers organization.

“What kind of culture do we want to have? What kind of system do we want to have? How do we want to play? It starts there and from there, you can start building out your team accordingly.”

Two of the Lakers greatest legends, one currently still with the team are unhappy with the direction of the Lakers and it’s not hard to see why.

Magic is absolutely right when he says that Phil Jackson is needed to be the face of the organization. Sadly that ship has sailed, but it should have been the Lakers who handed the reins to Jackson rather than the Knicks.

In fact it probably would have had it not been for Jimmy Buss. The son of the late Dr. Jerry Buss, Jimmy now runs the basketball side of the team while his sister Jeanie handles the business end.

Nevermind that Jeanie knows more about basketball, Jimmy gets to make personnel decisions.

It was Jimmy who passed over Phil Jackson in favour of Mike D’Antoni (who ironically enough had been fired by the Knicks) when searching for a head coach to replace the fired Mike Brown.  Jackson was willing to return for a third stint with LA, but was left hanging by the male Buss sibling.

The reason?

Phil is Jeanie’s longtime romantic partner and Jimmy felt threatened by his superior basketball knowledge and felt that the Zen Master could usurp him as the leader of the Lakers basketball operations.

Here’s the thing: Phil Jackson absolutely should have been the head of the Lakers basketball operations.

The Lakers are an absolute mess. They’ve lost Kobe for the season. They’ve lost Steve Nash for the season. Pau Gasol is the team’s current best player and offensive leader, but is unhappy due to consistent mistreatment by Mike D’Antoni.

Really the Lakers are a mishmash team of parts cast-away from other organizations.

While the play of Nick “Swaggy P” Young, Kendall Marshall, Xavier Henry and trade deadline acquisition Kent Bazemore has been a pleasant surprise this season, it still hasn’t been enough. The Lakers sit at 22-45 and are one of the five worst teams in the NBA.

They suffered the worst defeat in team history this season, losing by 48 points to the Clippers who share Staples Centre with them.

To call this season hitting bottom would be an understatement. For a team with a proud and winning tradition, this downward spiral is simply unthinkable.

Could all of this have been averted if Phil Jackson was brought back into the fold over Mike D’Antoni? 

Yes.

With Jackson in the fold, I don’t think Dwight Howard would have walked away for nothing.

The Zen Master would have come up with an offensive scheme that would have allowed Kobe and Dwight to work together and maximize each man’s abilities. If he managed to successfully have Kobe and Shaq thrive as teammates for as long as he did, Jackson could have and would have found a way to make D12 and The Black Mamba a cohesive offensive unit.

Jackson also would not have alienated Pau Gasol the way D’Antoni has.

The Lakers are facing the opportunity of losing Pau for nothing this off season when his contract expires. Other than a good relationship with Kobe Bryant, there’s nothing really keeping Pau in LA given how he has been treated. 

Many also speculate that if Phil Jackson were running the Lakers if Kobe Bryant would be in his current situations physically. I would say no. D’Antoni rode Kobe to the breaking point last season.

Kobe was battling a litany of injuries including a bad left knee before rupturing his Achilles last April. He was asked to take on a Herculean task for a 34 year old in his 17th season. There’s no way a responsible coach or executive would have allowed Kobe to take on that kind of role and compromise his health and potentially his career in that manner.

Kobe’s absolutely right to rip and D’Antoni and question the Lakers direction after losing Jackson to New York. 

But Phil Jackson wasn’t brought back into the fold to coach and then move into management.

Instead he’s headed back to New York where he spent the majority of his playing career before finishing across the Hudson as a New Jersey Net. 

But the Knicks like the Lakers have a whole other set of problems for the former 11-time championship coach to solve. 

To call the Knicks a dumpster fire of a team would be polite.

They are a disaster on the court, in the front office and pretty much every other facet of the team. 

This is a team that is paying three big men over 10 million dollars a year in Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudamire and Andrea Bargnani but can’t even figure out how to play all three together.

It doesn’t help that Amar’e’s knees are seemingly held together by duct tape at this point and that Bargnani has been a bigger bust in New York than he was with the Raptors – if that’s even possible.

Further confounding this situation is that Amar’e Stoudamire is the highest paid player in the NBA (along with Joe Johnson of the Brooklyn Nets) but currently comes off the bench when he’s healthy enough to play.

The backcourt is equally as much of a mess.

Raymond Felton has been consistently one of the worst starting point guards in the NBA and has now recently added felony weapons possession charges to his already impressive resume. JR Smith was a gunner who once showed a lot of promise but is now a gunner who likes to get stoned, misses a lot of shots (shooting less than 40% from the field and only 62% at the line) and forced his brother, Chris, onto the team.

Young players Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. have so much promise, but it’s hard to imagine them thriving in such a dysfunctional, mismanaged team like the Knicks. 

The Knicks also need these young players as they’ve traded away most of their draft picks in lopsided deals. In fact they only have draft picks in the 2015 and 2017 drafts having traded the rest away in deals such as the Bargnani trade with the Toronto Raptors.

Coach Mike Woodson is a lame duck.

The Knicks have reportedly had employees following him around the arena and listening to his conversations waiting for him to slip up. Ironically, enough while MSG staff can’t wait to hear what the coach says, players reportedly tune him out and view him as inept. Hardly the environment you want young players like Hardaway Jr. and Shumpert learning the game in.

Furthermore, superstar Carmelo Anthony is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

It’s hard not to understand why as Melo is one of the best players in the league and wants to win a title. There’s little reason to believe that he could do it in New York.

Until now.

Jackson’s signing is a game changer. This the winning-est coach in NBA history coming to a team that hasn’t really meant a whole lot since he played there.

Melo’s already stated that he’s now interested in staying because of the addition of Jackson. And rumors are that Phil is not only going to be taking most of the GM duties from Steve Mills, but is also looking to hire former Bulls great Steve Kerr to be the Knicks new head coach next season.

There’s a lot of reason to be excited in New York.

But one reason to be apprehensive: Knicks owner James Dolan.

Dolan is an owner who has been very hands-on with his team.

A recent example of this is vetoing a deal with the Toronto Raptors that would have brought Kyle Lowry to the Knicks this past December. Dolan’s reasoning was that he didn’t want Raptors GM Masai Ujiri to “fleece him again” in reference to the Bargnani trade that happened last summer. Of course the result is that Lowry has been red hot ever since and been one of the reasons that the Raptors sit at 3rd in the East.

Not having Lowry is one of the reasons why the Knicks are 28-40 and are, as mentioned earlier, the basketball equivalent of a dumpster fire.

So the question remains just how involved will James Dolan be in the Knicks with Phil Jackson now in the fold. Given the extent and length of the recruiting process, the hope is very little involvement from Dolan, if any at all.

Hopefully he takes band JD & The Straight Shot on a nice long tour and lets Phil Jackson do his work.

I would hate to see one inept owner run the Zen Master out of LA only for another to ruin his return to the Big Apple.

Regardless, I think that every possibility that Phil Jackson can bring the winning tradition that he established while a coach in Chicago and Los Angeles to the City That Never Sleeps.

Even with the Knicks in as bad a shape as they are, Jackson knows enough about the game to jettison the players that can’t fit in a functional system and build around Melo, Tyson Chandler, Shumpert and Hardaway Jr.

I also have no doubt that Phil could be the man to turn Bargnani and JR Smith around if they remain in New York.

If Jackson is left to run this team, the Knicks turnaround could be quick and surprising. 
One thing’s for sure, it will be painful to watch from the West coast.

When you get a chance to add Phil Jackson to the fold, you never turn it down.

Josh Kolic

The Sports UniInformationator