By John Schmeelk
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It couldn’t have been a better day for the New York Knicks.
Not only did they officially announce the hiring of Phil Jackson as team president on Tuesday, but they made the organization appear cohesive and well-run for the first time in recent memory.
For once, James Dolan actually decided to speak. And three of his words were the most important things said during the hour-long press conference.
“Willingly and gratefully,” Dolan responded after being asked whether he was letting go of power and handing it to Jackson.
Actually, it may have been the most important thing Dolan has said during his time with the Knicks. It was also said with what appeared to be sincerity, and even relief that he no longer carried that burden.
The only way Knicks fans could have faith this franchise was heading in the right direction was if Jackson was given absolute power within basketball operations. Dolan needs to treat Jackson like Rangers general manager Glen Sather — and it appears he’s ready to do just that. Such proclamations were made when the Knicks hired Donnie Walsh, but a similar regression with Jackson appears less likely because of his track record of success, name recognition and the fact Jackson was Dolan’s choice. Walsh was forced onto Dolan by ex-Commissioner David Stern, and the Knicks owner never seemed to forget that.
It already seems like Jackson has Dolan wrapped around his finger much the same way Isiah Thomas did during his tenure.
The fact this process had been going on since December is a positive sign because it means both sides carefully thought out this agreement and fully understand what they are getting into. It makes it more likely that both the team and Jackson will hold up their end of the bargain since so much work was put into getting to this point. Both Dolan and Jackson have had ample time to pull out of this agreement, but neither did.
It would even appear that Jackson is more than willing to work with Steve Mills, who will apparently take care of the business side of a general manager’s duties, while Jackson handles the basketball stuff. Their skills do actually complement each other, and their private conversations before the hire indicates the separation of powers suits both parties.
Jackson also seemed to be okay with how he will alter the media policy in a meaningful way, building relationships but still keeping certain things behind the curtain as the owner prefers. It seems like a compromise that both sides might actually be able to stick to.
Later, Dolan said something even more significant. When asked if he was willing to let Carmelo Anthony walk this offseason if that’s what Jackson wants, he said yes, since that was their agreement. Apparently, he recently did something similar when Sather fired John Tortorella, who Dolan backed in a big way. There’s nothing that defines full autonomy more than Dolan allowing Jackson to let Anthony walk. Melo was Dolan’s big prize. Even the thought of losing him must kill the Knicks owner inside. The fact he would be willing to acquiesce to that speaks very loudly to how serious Dolan is about his pledge.
Everything Jackson said was music to the ears as well. His opening statement started with the focus on team and system basketball. Some saw that as a shot across the bow at Anthony, who many believe to be a selfish player. Perhaps it was partly so, but I saw it more of an indication that coach Mike Woodson is nothing more than a dead man walking. Woodson has little-to-no system offensively, and rarely — if ever — runs plays. It’s either a high screen-and-roll or an isolation play more often than not. It’s the exact type of offensive basketball that Jackson despises.
Outwardly, Jackson was very complimentary of Woodson and supportive, which is no surprise considering the season is still in progress and the Knicks are trying to make a run to the postseason. But there is no chance Woodson is back next year, which is a good thing for the Knicks franchise.
Jackson was also, as expected, effusive in his praise for Anthony, but also pointed out that he thinks Melo can bring his game to another level. Jackson was also careful to point out that can only occur if Anthony is surrounded by the right people, something that hasn’t happened in his time with the Knicks. Jackson wants everyone on the team to touch the ball, move without it, and hit the open man. It is simple fundamental basketball that fans have been starved for. Of course, the principles applied in Jackson’s triangle offense will require the right people, and the Zen Master now has the responsibility to bring them in. It won’t be easy.
If you read into his words yesterday, Jackson understands that the Knicks are capped out for this offseason. And without a draft pick, making improvements will be tough. He referenced trying to find diamonds in the rough on the benches of other NBA teams, knowing it will be all the Knicks can afford. He did indicate that he is quite knowledgeable about the 2015 free agency class and the Knicks’ cap space to go along with it. We still don’t know if he is willing to tear down a little bit to get into the 2014 draft. We also don’t know how he feels about giving Anthony a max contract or if he would rather play hardball and try to get him to take less. We also don’t know who he will hire to replace Woodson, other than the fact that person will run a system (likely the triangle) that follows Jackson’s philosophy. There is also a question as to how he will alter the Knicks’ scouting departments on both the college and pro level.
We’ll have to figure out those things along the way as Jackson begins to make moves to prepare the Knicks for future success. Tuesday was as good of a start as the Knicks and Jackson could have had. Everyone said the right things, including the owner, which is perhaps a bigger surprise than anything. Jackson even talked about things like points per possessions, something that should get the analytics crowd excited about the fact he might be more progressive than they give him credit for.
The Phil Jackson era has begun. It’s a new beginning. It’s real hope for Knicks fans.
In a season that has had very few good days, yesterday was a great one for the New York Knicks.
You can follow John on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and the world of sports.
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