By Jason Keidel
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The book on Mike Woodson is that his act wears thin on players, which is pro forma on pro coaches, on any level, in any sport.
Woodson coached well enough to win 54 games last season and revive a reviled team. Suddenly, he can’t coach. The whims of winning and losing dictate every coach’s fate. Park Ave one year, Park Bench the next.
And the hypocrisy of pro basketball goes on. It’s a players’ league until the players lose. Then it’s the fault of the fella who didn’t take one shot all year.
But Phil Jackson still had to can Mike Woodson. For the statement, the symbolism, the start of a movement, nudging the needle upward.
If Jackson is indeed the new face of this franchise, then he had to clean house, take a big bottle of disinfectant and blast an infested franchise. And if thinks Steve Kerr is the cure, then that’s Phil’s prerogative.
The Knicks, however, have a systemic sickness that can’t be cured by canning a coach, his assistants, and the water boy. (Woodson was the team’s seventh coach since 2003.) So it begs the question: Can Jackson fix the Knicks?
No. Sure, Jackson is the best signing the Knicks have made since they bagged Pat Riley more than 20 years ago. But like the life of Riley, which ended ringless and hopeless, with an already forlorn franchise set back another two decades, Jackson will find that even he has a ceiling, and the mural splashed across the tile looks like James Dolan.
We don’t know when or where or how, but we know Dolan will bungle this fresh start, the nth of his tortured tenure as owner of the Knickerbockers. And the reason seems pretty clear.
Dolan suffers from Jerry Jones disease, sans the titles.
When Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys, he hired a friend who happened to have a brilliant football mind. Jimmy Johnson built the Cowboys from the first floor-up, brick by brick, until the team was locked, loaded, and lucrative. He drafted like a savant, and he traded his lone Lone Star stud, Hershel Walker, for a village of players and cluster of draft picks that turned into starters and stars and Super Bowl champions.
To anyone who doesn’t think Johnson built those teams, please explain why Jones hasn’t come close to winning another title since he and Johnson so inelegantly parted. He’s won one — ONE! — playoff game since Troy Aikman retired.
Then Jones felt like a Caesar. Then Jones acted like a Caesar. Then Jones was treated like a Caesar. Then Jones fell like a Caesar.
Dolan has all the arrogant, elitist proclivities, but none of the success. At least JJones won three rings before he became a three-ring circus. Dolan has nothing to show for his reign other than galling drafts, trades, and a sexual harassment lawsuit that held MSG accountable to the tune of $11 million.
And that’s an essential distinction. It wasn’t Isiah Thomas, Stephon Marbury, or Steve Mills. Madison Square Garden was held accountable. And Dolan is the big dog of the World’s Most Infamous Arena.
The Jackson signing gives Dolan some breathing room and a brief PR bump. You’ll remember the masses were building at the front door, clamoring for Dolan’s vocational head. Protests were being arranged, mobs were being assembled.
Bring Jackson on board and the gangs banging on the gate slowly dissolve. Thirteen rings will do that. And Jackson doubles as a time portal to the lone, long ago glory days, when the hair and sideburns were a lot longer, our beloved city and basketball teams a lot tougher.
For a flagship franchise, the Knicks are seriously lacking relevance. Forty-one years will do that. The Seattle SuperSonics have more rings over the last four decades, and they don’t exist.
The ’70s Knicks were the foundation for Jackson’s coaching coda, and Red Holzman was Jackson’s basketball mentor. Those teams were the inverted version of today’s club. They worked tirelessly, played defense, shared the ball, and had a hardwood chemistry that is rather foreign to the JR Smith blueprint of 12 players and 12 taxis.
So it will take more than sliding a pink slip to Woodson and a grip-and-grin at the dais with Kerr. The Knicks are a physical, metaphysical, and financial mess. Moses couldn’t save the Knicks next season, not with those bloated contracts hanging like an anvil around their neck.
Aside from signing or not signing Carmelo Anthony, Jackson’s impact, at least at first, is symbolic and spiritual. He’s here to let you know everything is all right. He’s got this. He not only has those bejeweled fingers and bulging trophy case; he’s also got history here, and he brings the sense — even if it’s nonsense — that he can tap into those good Woodstock vibes.
And, more than anything else, Jackson’s charge is to imbue the building with juice, to sell MSG and NYC as the destination du jour for free agents. Kerr will be as brilliant as his roster.
Jackson is quite a consiglieri for a new, young coach who will invariably step on the wrong toes. But the first four-game losing streak will surely spawn a few chants for Jackson to slide down from the suite to the sideline. Like Mike in Charlotte, Jackson must convince the public that he can do any job other than the one that made him famous.
The Zen Master has much on which to meditate. Can the high priest of the hardwood build a roster without coaching it? Can he talk to Carmelo without succumbing to the pressure of the Anthony Apologist? Can he keep those swollen, expiring contracts that other teams so covet? Can he let Kerr (or anyone) coach the team without interfering?
And, more than anything, can Dolan let his basketball men do their basketball jobs? When you’re born rich it’s hard to develop impulse control. Cable TV money will do that. So as much as Jackson or Kerr or Carmelo will form the team’s future and make for must-watch TV, we are left with one, vital variable …
Can Dolan watch without grabbing the remote control?
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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