When Jackson retired following the 2010-2011 season, the debate over where he would stage his return began immediately. The Zen Master has declared his coaching career over twice before. In each case, Jackson spent just a year away from the game before he was lured back to the bench.
Predictably, all focus shifted to New York. After all, Jackson spent most of his playing career there, and the Knicks' relationship with Mike D'Antoni was on tenuous ground. D'Antoni ultimately resigned on March 14th; the Los Angeles Times began speculating about a Phil Jackson era in New York just one day later.
In the end, however, Jackson was never even given the chance to coach his former team. New York instead decided to remove the interim tag from coach Mike Woodson, much to the dismay of fans hoping an 11-time NBA champion was taking the helm.
On the other hand, Jackson's winning formula does require certain ingredients the Knicks do not have.
Throughout his illustrious coaching career, Jackson's bread and butter has been the Triangle offense. Although it was an integral element to two NBA dynasties, the Triangle carries a stigma that only certain types of players could execute it successfully. In an examination of the offense by Grantland's Chuck Klosterman, Jackson supported the Triangle's versatility.
"People will sometimes look at a team and say, 'Those players won't work in the Triangle. The Triangle won't work here.' And that's so ridiculous," Jackson says. "People just have this attitude about the Triangle, like it's this pariah offense. That's totally wrong. It just takes a little time."
However, just because the Knicks could execute the Triangle does not mean it is the best offense for them, first and foremost because of Carmelo Anthony.
We have already seen what happens when Anthony is a poor fit for an offense. Under D'Antoni's Seven Seconds or Less, Anthony was disparaged for stopping the ball movement and muddling up the offense. When push turned to shove, Anthony refused to adapt, butting heads with his coach both on and off the court.
Granted, Seven Seconds or Less is not a perfect analogy. Comparatively, the Triangle would feature Anthony in more post-up situations and put the ball in his hands more often. But given the off-ball movement and automatic passes that are built into the Triangle, Melo would not be able to freelance on offense the way he likes to.
After Seven Seconds or Less, Anthony couldn't be expected to adapt to a new system amiably. As he has done before, he would give the new offense a shot, but he would mope as soon as he hit a learning curve; why should he learn a new offense when he could play his way?
To play devil's advocate, let's say Jackson could work Melo into the Triangle with some time. Unfortunately, that is not something New York has. Amar'e Stoudemire has been slowed by injuries, and Tyson Chandler has 11 seasons-worth of miles on his legs. By the time the Knicks got completely comfortable with the system, their Big Three could very well be a shell of its former self.
At the end of the day, it seems that Jackson more than anyone knew the Triangle would not fit well in New York.
In an interview with Real Sports, Jackson claimed that he did not want to coach such a "clumsy" team with a poorly-constructed offense.
"They don't fit together well. [Amar'e] Stoudemire doesn't fit well with Carmelo [Anthony]," said Jackson, when asked to expand on "clumsy." "Stoudemire's a really good player. But he's gotta play in a certain system and a way."
Judging by this statement, Anthony wouldn't be the only one who would have issues adapting. Jackson simply would not want to alter his strategy for the betterment of the team.
Fortunately for the Knicks, they already had a coach who would do just that: Mike Woodson.
When he stepped in as the interim coach, Woodson implemented a half-court offense that better suited his players' (and particularly Melo's) sensibilities. Woodson also improved his team's play by redoubling the emphasis on defense, something that had been lacking under D'Antoni.
Woodson's work shined through in the standings. He took over a team that was 18-24, but he led them to an 18-6 record the rest of the way.
To bring in Jackson now would be to undo all the progress the Knicks had made under Woodson. Where they thrived with a defense-first philosophy and an offense tailored to the players' abilities, Jackson would come to New York looking to do things his way, focusing on an offense that would take years off the Knicks' best players.
New York can be a championship team with a core of Anthony, Stoudemire, and Chandler; the Knicks' success under Woodson is a testament to their potential.
If the Zen Master came to town, however, he would not have built a winner on pedigree alone. In fact, with his unwillingness to change his pedantic approach to coaching, Jackson would have hurt the Knicks' chances at a championship more than he would have helped.