Knicks' Pursuit of Phil Jackson Reeks of James Dolan's Desperation

Joe FlynnContributor IMarch 8, 2014

AP Images

These are desperate times for the New York Knicks.

The stink wafting from the Madison Square Garden court is worse than even the nastiest Penn Station men's room. The Knicks are a hair's breadth away from not only missing the playoffs entirely in a historically bad Eastern Conference but losing their best player during the 2014 free-agency period.



UPDATED on Saturday, March 8 at 6:05 p.m. ET

It appears that the rumors might actually be true.

According to ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, via SportsCenter's official Twitter feed, Jackson is strongly considering becoming the Knicks' next president of basketball operations:

One thing is certain: If Jackson does indeed take the job, he will be greeted by the fans at MSG like a conquering Roman emperor.

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The fans in New York are on the verge of a revolt against owner James Dolan, as one intrepid soul demonstrated before the national anthem of Friday's game against the Utah Jazz, per Bleacher Report's Howard Beck:

Dolan's reaction to his team's distressing predicament has been predictable, if nothing else. Faced with the departure of his main-gate attraction in star forward Carmelo Anthony, Dolan has resumed the search for his white whale, Phil Jackson.

According to ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, Knicks general manager Steve Mills met with the legendary coach to gauge his interest in returning to the bench next season in New York, but Jackson declined the offer. No big surprise there.

But then Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reported the Knicks upped the ante by offering Jackson a job in the front office: "It is unclear what position the Knicks offered but the NBA source said that it would be 'more than just a consulting job.'"

If Jackson accepts, it would mark the first official front-office position of his illustrious career.

Questions abound. Does this move make sense...and if so, then for whom? Does Jackson fit the Knicks? Do the Knicks fit Jackson? The situation is more complicated than you might think.


From Jackson's Perspective

Earlier this season, the 68-year-old Jackson made it clear during an extended interview with his former player (and current NBA TV personality Rick Fox) that his health problems are likely to keep him from ever coaching again:

Physically I have to reconcile the fact that I'm in a position where, after five operations in three years, four years...recovering from operations is difficult enough. When you're a kid, you can do it relatively easily, as we did when we were players, but at my age it takes a little bit more to recover from it. And then health becomes the priority.

Traveling, late nights, being up and down the court, which is really something that's important to me as a coachI coached my last year from a bench at midcourt because I couldn't get up and down the court, and I knew it was time to leave.

Though he did leave the door open a crack, assuming medical science can figure out how to regenerate human tissue, it seems clear that he feels he can no longer physically handle the rigorous life of an NBA coach.

A front-office job, however, would be a whole different ball of wax.

Several former coaches of Jackson's stature have moved upstairs after leaving the bench. Boston Celtics guru Red Auerbach—the man Jackson supplanted on the all-time list for coaching championships—led the team for decades as a GM. Even Jackson's contemporary, Pat Riley, has found success as president of the Miami Heat.

But why would Jackson choose the dysfunctional circus that is the New York Knicks?

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

He might have other options, as B/R's Dan Favale speculated there could be room for him in the Detroit Pistons front office once current GM Joe Dumars is canned in the offseason. The Pistons might not be in an ideal position—they've given out several bad contracts and traded away their 2014 first-rounder—but they are still in a better position than the Knicks, who have no first-round picks in 2014 or 2016.

If Anthony does indeed bolt during free agency, the cupboard will be almost totally bare.

Nostalgia could prove a big factor for Jackson to sign on with New York. He was originally drafted by the club and spent the first 10 years of his career in New York, under the tutelage of the greatest coach in Knicks history, Red Holzman.

Jackson spoke glowingly of Holzman's influence during a 2009 interview with the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence:

He is the reason why I am a coach, obviously. He told me I would be a coach. He said, 'You see the game.' The one year I was sitting out injured, I asked him questions about coaching. He used to tell me, 'It's not rocket science, Phil. It's not rocket science.' He was pretty basic about his basketball: See the ball on defense and hit the open man on offense. But he also had a great feel for people and how to get them motivated.

Clearly, Holzman's ability to motivate players rubbed off on the man who was to become known as the Zen Master.

But make no mistake: Jackson will not come to New York out of the goodness of his heart. He desires power and control. If he even entertains the Knicks' offer, it means he believes Dolan is willing to give it to him.


From Dolan's Perspective

With Dolan's Knicks, it's never quite clear whether you are watching incompetence, ingenuity or both. 

Take a look around the league, and you'll see a whole new generation of GMs (Ryan McDonough, Daryl Morey, Sam Presti) and coaches (Jeff Hornacek, former Knicks assistant Steve Clifford) thriving in their first go-around.

Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal couldn't help but notice that the best teams (including the pre-Dolan Knicks) often tap untested candidates to fill out coaching positions:

For what it's worth, the top-four teams in the league—Indiana, Miami, Oklahoma City and San Antonio—are all coached by men who had never held an NBA head-coaching job before, meaning someone took a chance by hiring them. (The last time the Knicks went that route, they found success with Jeff Van Gundy.)

But hiring unproven talent is not Dolan's style, regardless of how successful the strategy has been for other teams. He would hire a thousand retreads before taking a chance on a young up-and-comer. 

That has been the theme of Dolan's managerial style: Star power and name recognition matter infinitely more than results. 

Associated Press

Dolan crawls back to Jackson every year for the same reason bloggers add the name "Jennifer Lawrence" to posts—a cynical attempt to get more attention. Attention equals money.

In fact, the Knicks might as well contact Jennifer Lawrence's people if Jackson turns them down. Hiring a young Oscar winner as GM would certainly make the back (and front) pages of every New York paper. She is also represented by Creative Arts Agency, the agency that has infiltrated every aspect of MSG. As an added bonus, she has exactly as much basketball personnel experience as the last GM Dolan hired.

There is only one thing Dolan values more than his stars, and that is his cronies. He shocked the basketball world this summer when he replaced respected GM Glen Grunwald with Mills, a holdover from the execrable Isiah Thomas era and a key witness for Thomas in the infamous Anucha Browne Sanders sexual harassment trial. 

Mills was a businessman and not a personnel man, but that didn't matter.

If Jackson turns down the front-office job, we may never know whether Dolan offered him the personnel control that now resides in Mills' hands, a mere puppet of ownership. While he may be a flawed candidate, given his lack of experience, Jackson would be infinitely more qualified than the people currently running the New York Knicks.

More importantly, he may be the only person with the name value high enough to wrest power from Dolan's hands.

The owner has backed himself into a corner through years of his own shoddy management. Through his own immature reasoning process, he convinced himself that Jackson is the answer. The former Knick is holding all of the cards at the moment. 

But Dolan has never been one to give up power easily, especially to someone as independent-minded as the Zen Master. While the Knicks and Jackson could be an ideal fit, the owner is likely to crush this reunion before it even has a chance to work.