By John Schmeelk
» More Columns
In a move that was a long time coming, James Dolan decided to pull the plug on his embattled team president on Wednesday morning.
Phil Jackson was supposed to bring respectability, winning, and a direction to Madison Square Garden, but instead he brought the opposite — chaos, losing, and embarrassment.
With Jackson gone, the chances of Kristaps Porzingis signing a max extension with the team when he becomes eligible has become exponentially better. Putting everything else aside, this fact alone makes Jackson’s departure a good thing for the franchise. Porzingis was the biggest thing Jackson got right during his tenure with the Knicks, but the NBA legend’s ego and stubbornness was going to potentially erase it.
The irony is that Jackson finally understood and seemed to accept that it was time for the Knicks to go on a genuine rebuild, but his mistakes during the three prior season made it impossible for him to go down that path the way he wanted to.
When the Knicks hired Jackson they took a chance in handing the reigns of the franchise to a coach that had never held a front office role. It was praised by fans since his hire prompted owner James Dolan to remove himself from basketball decisions. For the most part, that part of the deal worked. Dolan has appeared to be hands-off.
However, that victory was dwarfed by the fact that Jackson wasn’t capable of running an NBA franchise.
Jackson’s largest error was one of his first, giving Carmelo Anthony a no-trade clause when he re-signed him in July of 2014. If Jackson had inked Anthony without any trade protection, he could have moved him the following offseason fairly easily, due to the fact that many teams were swimming in cap space. The no-trade clause made it impossible for Jackson to erase the mistake of committing to the wrong franchise player. It was a completely self-inflicted wound, as Anthony would have likely returned to the Knicks with or without the clause.
With Anthony on the roster, Jackson tried to win in the present rather than continue to build for the future. That resulted in the ill-conceived trade for Derrick Rose and the free agent signing of Joakim Noah. Those moves removed assets from the roster for a one-year rental player and ate up valuable cap space that would not help the team win in any meaningful way.
Understanding he was in a trap of his own making, Jackson decided he would try to get Anthony off the team the only way he could — by insulting him publicly until Anthony would agree to a trade. Jackson did not bet on Anthony’s stubbornness, and genuine desire to remain in New York.
Instead, Jackson’s sniping at Anthony angered the Knicks’ franchise cornerstone, Kristaps Porzingis. For what was likely anger over how Jackson was treating his friend Anthony, Porzingis skipped his exit meeting. Jackson reacted by openly taking offers on Porzingis and openly suggesting trading him might be the best thing for the future of the franchise.
All of those issues stemmed from the no-trade clause he gave Anthony, something an experienced team president would never have done. The roll of the dice to hire a coach to run a team had come up snake eyes. Jackson never recovered from that decision and the issue ballooned to the point where Dolan had reached his limit. The Knicks’ owner ended up being far more willing to let go of Jackson prematurely than write Anthony a check for $54 million, which is what he has left on his contract.
Ironically, Jackson’s lasting legacy in New York could be his draft picks. If Porzingis does develop into a perennial All-Star, and Willy Hernangomez and Frank Ntilikina become borderline All-Stars or even just good starters, Jackson’s regime may be looked on as a good stepping stone for something greater. Those decisions, however, were too often overshadowed by other avoidable short-term blunders, mistakes, and poor management.
Acquiring Noah and Rose had predictably terrible results. He got nothing in return for three key cogs on a 50-win Knicks team: Tyson Chandler, JR Smith, and Iman Shumpert. His first decision, hiring Derek Fisher, ended with Jackson firing the neophyte coach after just a season and a half. Jackson had three different head coaches in three seasons and never seemed to allow them to coach the way they wanted to.
It became pretty clear that Jackson was far more interested in coaching than running a front office. His concern was more with offensive structure and in game tactics than doing the job of team president. His micromanagement of the coaching staff made winning even harder. His insistence on using the triangle offense to prove his philosophy could be successful today at the expense of everything else was folly. Players don’t want to run the triangle and it doesn’t create enough efficient shots to be successful in today’s NBA.
As interested as Jackson was in what was happening on the court, there were too many reports of complete disinterest in what should have been his focus. Whether it was team executives complaining they couldn’t reach him on the phone, or players saying he fell asleep during workouts, the impression was that Jackson was not interested in doing the job. That could have been more perception than reality, but it was out there nonetheless.
Too often, whether in forcing the triangle on the team or feuding with Anthony or Porzingis, it was Jackson’s ego that seemed more important than the fortunes of the team. He wanted to win his way and was stubborn about it, set in his ways, and inflexible. It cost him his job. In the end, Dolan had to decide between Jackson and a combination of Anthony and Porzingis. He chose the players. He made the right choice.
The Knicks’ Future
So where do the Knicks go from here? Adrian Wojnarowski is reporting the Knicks want to hire Masai Ujiri to run the team. Ian Begley reported Dolan holds Ujiri, who got great value from the Knicks in the Anthony and Andrea Bargnani trades, in high esteem.
Ujiri is currently the head of basketball options for the Raptors, so the Knicks would have to provide some type of compensation to peel him away. They cannot afford to hand over a first-round pick, but anything else should be considered.
In the meantime, the Knicks will use former Raptors executive Tim Leiweke (who hired Ujiri in Toronto) to advise GM Steve Mills during free agency. There’s no way to know how Mills views the current state of the Knicks. Does he see them in rebuilding mode or something more? When he has spoken to the media, he has generally discussed principles that make sense in the modern NBA. If I had to guess, the Knicks will be quiet in free agency until they have a new team president, and that’s a good thing.
As for Rose, I would think it is less likely he re-signs, but there is no way to know for sure right now.
Ricky Rubio? I don’t know if Mills was in the camp to trade for him at the deadline or not.
It would appear Anthony is more likely return with his foil in Jackson gone, and his son living in New York.
What kind of offense will coach Jeff Hornacek run now? Will Porzingis be featured in more pick and rolls? Is Kurt Rambis already at the airport in Orlando?
It’s an exciting new era for the Knicks, mostly because the Jackson one is over. There are so many unknowns and it will be fun trying to figure them out.
For everything Knicks, Giants, and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk