By John Schmeelk
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Is Phil Jackson actually going to come out of retirement to rescue the Knicks from owner James Dolan?
No one — other than the guy named Phil Jackson — knows the answer. If Jackson actually agrees to the gargantuan task of righting the Knicks organization, would he really make a difference?
Yes, if he can neutralize Dolan.
Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not impossible to believe Dolan would actually relinquish control of his Knicks to someone with a heavy basketball background. The model is right in front of everyone’s eyes: the New York Rangers. Remember that James Dolan runs the Rangers, too, and for better or worse he has let Glen Sather run that franchise as he sees fit for more than a decade. Obviously the Knicks mean more to James Dolan than their hockey counterparts, but it is still evidence that he is willing to relinquish control in the right situation.
In truth, Dolan stepped back a lot during the reign of Isiah Thomas as well. Zeek was more or less allowed to operate the franchise how he saw fit until things completely unraveled at the end. He was Dolan’s choice, and the owner allowed him to further bury the franchise in the hole that Scott Layden started digging.
Donnie Walsh was not allowed such freedom for long, mostly because he was never Dolan’s choice, rather an extremely firm suggestion from David Stern after the Garden embarrassed the NBA during the Anucha Browne Sanders debacle. Likewise, Glen Grunwald was a carryover from that regime and was never seen by Dolan as someone who could handle the job long term. Hence Steve Mills, whose next trade will be the first he ever executes or is even a part of (and yes, that is as scary as it sounds), got his chance to run the Knicks. Now that opportunity might be taken away before Mills has a chance to do anything more significant than signing Shannon Brown and Earl Clark.
That, by the way, is a good thing.
It’s because Dolan has found the Knicks’ version of Sather. Knicks fans scoff at Dolan’s proclivity to hire names rather than competent people. Jackson is both. The sad truth is that Dolan’s ego would have never allowed him to cede full control to anyone without the cache of numerous championships. Sather had them. Isiah had them. Jackson has them. It doesn’t matter to Dolan if those rings came as a player or a coach. Walsh, for all the respect people around the league have for him, never had that type of cache with Dolan. Phil Jackson does.
Will Jackson be a good executive? I have no idea. No one does, since he has never done the job. We do know the tenets he lived by as a head coach. His teams played defense, moved the basketball, spaced the floor and knew how to surround their stars with the right players. We also know the Zen Master was never shy about challenging his star players to be better teammates and players. He could challenge Carmelo Anthony like no one else. If Jackson carries those principles over to how he builds a team, the Knicks will be fine.
None of those things, however, is the most important reason Jackson is the right fit. He might be the only person on the planet that Dolan would actually be willing to cede control to. As great as Daryl Morey is as a GM, Dolan wouldn’t let go of the steering wheel for him. For Jackson, though? There’s a real shot.
There are never guarantees with Dolan, but this is the best chance for the Knicks organization. The Knicks need Jackson because of his name. It’s the best protection the team has from Dolan. It might not be the way it should be, but it’s the way it is. Knicks fans must live with the reality that Dolan is their owner and that’s how he operates. The best and perhaps only way it can work is to have someone with the history of Jackson running the team, so Dolan stays out of all basketball decisions. Jackson was known as a gritty defensive player during his career with the Knicks; now he will have to defend against this toughest opponent. His boss.
Jackson has never feared anyone, publicly challenging people like Kobe Bryant and the owner of the Lakers. He won’t fear Dolan. Once he gets the job, he will do what he wants the way he wants to do it, and Dolan will have to accept it or fire him. Dolan has many impressive talents, but I’m not even sure he can fire someone like Jackson and not feel some humiliation from it. He doesn’t want a repeat of the situation with Larry Brown, who he is probably still writing checks to.
Dolan could be painting himself into a corner by hiring someone like Jackson. Could there be a better situation for the Knicks franchise?
Of course, that’s the best-case scenario. The Knicks roster, cap situation and long-term assets are still in bad shape. Jackson might fail miserably and quit or Dolan would have a free hand to remove him and hire someone else with the renewed thought that he has to be involved for the Knicks to win. That’s the worst-case scenario, but one that is always there no matter who the Knicks hire.
But there’s no one else out there that provides Jackson’s upside: removing Dolan from basketball decisions. No one else really has a shot of doing it. It could mean hiring a better coach, making a logical decision regarding Melo and putting the Knicks on a good footing for the future.
With a chance of that happening, how could anyone root against Phil Jackson coming back to the Knicks to help save the franchise?
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and the world of sports.
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