Top Action Items for Phil Jackson to Address with New York Knicks
And a hefty one at that.
According to the New York Knicks PR department and Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports, Jackson is returning to the Big Apple, where he won two NBA titles as a player, in a front-office role that, per ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Chris Broussard, will net him $12 million per year.
In exchange, Jackson will be tasked with turning around a team that's currently ninth in the Eastern Conference, with an aging roster, a clogged cap sheet and a lack of draft picks—all of which combine to make the prospect of a quick turnaround difficult.
But not impossible, if the Zen Master tends as carefully to his new Garden at Madison Square as he did to each of his 11 championships as a coach with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. If Jackson were to compile a "to-do" list to guide him through his first year or two in New York, he'd do well to include these nine items—some political, but most purely basketball-related—in his quest to do what Isiah Thomas and Donnie Walsh could not.
Transform the Knicks into a perennial title contender.
Make Nice with James Dolan
Jackson's first order of business in the Big Apple may well be his toughest: getting in good with team owner (and notorious meddler) James Dolan.
The heir to the Cablevision empire is certainly a fan of Phil's. According to Marc Berman of the New York Post, Dolan had tried twice before to lure Jackson back to New York—in 1999, when Jackson declined to unseat Jeff Van Gundy while the latter was still on the job, and in 2005, when Isiah Thomas was at the controls, just before Phil resumed his place on the sideline in L.A.
For Jackson to succeed with the Knicks, he'll need to keep Dolan at arm's length from making any important basketball decisions. That's (much, much) easier said than done, if the abbreviated tenures of Donnie Walsh and Glen Grunwald are any indication. Dolan reportedly went against Walsh's wishes in engineering the Carmelo Anthony trade in 2011 and deposed Grunwald of his duties mere days before the start of training camp, even though Grunwald had put together last year's 54-win team.
Jackson will have to wade through some rather murky political waters to make sure his own stint doesn't end the same way. If anything, it would behoove Jackson to follow Thomas' example—not in terms of basketball decisions, but rather in terms of ingratiation. As Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski noted, Zeke seized near autonomy in the front office from Dolan by buddying up to the billionaire.
Jackson, though, has never been one to play nice with his superiors. He clashed with Jerry Krause in Chicago and Jerry West in L.A., even though both had proven themselves to be front-office gurus.
If anything, a Jackson-Dolan relationship could resemble the fractious one between Phil and Lakers executive Jim Buss. Like Buss, Dolan is the product of nepotism. His father, Charles Dolan, founded Cablevision, which acquired Madison Square Garden and its sports properties, including the Knicks, in the mid-1990s. The elder Dolan put James in charge of MSG in 1999.
Unlike Buss, Dolan doesn't have a championship pedigree on which to lean. Say what you will about Buss, but the Lakers won back-to-back titles with him playing a prominent part in the team's brain trust.
Dolan has no such successes on his resume, nor would he likely concede that he should hand over control of the team's operations to someone who does. Jackson's own enormous ego would probably make it difficult for him to stoop so low as to stroke Dolan's ego to any extent, even if only for the sake of appearances.
But if Jackson wants his first foray into NBA management to be worthwhile, he'll have to go against what appears to be his nature and "kiss up" to his boss as a demeaning means to a greater end.
Forge a Strong Working Relationship with Steve Mills
Dolan's blessing alone, however important, won't ensure that Jackson's a hit as the Knicks' newest basketball czar. He'll need to meld his strategic feel for the game and expertise in managing egos with someone who understands the business end of the operation and the inner workings of the organization itself.
Enter Steve Mills. The man whose seat Jackson will essentially be usurping returned to New York last summer to replace Glen Grunwald at the helm. Mills spent 16 years in the league office before becoming the chief operating officer and sports business president of Madison Square Garden in 2003. He was an important player during the Isiah Thomas years—for better or worse.
At the very least, Jackson should enlist Mills' help in navigating the ins and outs of the politically touchy labyrinth that lies behind the curtains at MSG. If Mills was at all instrumental in Thomas currying favor with Dolan during the last decade, surely he could do the same for Jackson.
As far as basketball is concerned, Jackson would do well to seek out Mills' assistance for the same reason Dolan did: his extensive network of connections with GMs and agents. Mills has been known to be particularly cozy with the power brokers at Creative Artists Agency, who will have a heavy hand to play in determining Carmelo Anthony's future.
Jackson may have contacts of his own, but not at the level that Mills does. If there are any particular movers and shakers with whom the Zen Master must consult, chances are, Mills will be the man to make the proper introductions and grease the skids thereafter.
And if Phil doesn't plan to live in New York full-time, he'll need Mills to be his eyes and ears whenever he's away.
Remind the Knicks of Their Glory Years
There's at least one area in which Jackson already has Dolan and Mills beat, and in which he won't need to enlist their help. He's the only one in any position of power within the Knicks organization who knows firsthand what it's like to win a championship—and to do so as a Knick, at Madison Square Garden, no less.
The team's history has been, by and large, an uneven one. The Knicks came into the 2013-14 season with an all-time winning percentage right around .500, punctuated by peaks in the late 1940s, the early 1950s, the early 1970s and the 1990s, with plenty of ineptitude in between.
Jackson was hardly the most important player on those great teams from the '70s—he averaged 11.0 points and 6.7 rebounds during his two-season peak between 1973 and 1975—but he was a key cog nonetheless under legendary coach Red Holzman. It's from Holzman that Jackson learned much of what he'd put into practice during his own two decades as the most prolific coach in NBA history.
In that way, Jackson's connection to the core of what the Knicks want to be is as deep and as strong as anyone's. He'd do well, then, to spend a portion of his honeymoon with the team flaunting his rings and hearkening back to the good old days, if only to get in good with the fans and players while establishing his credibility as a Knicks "lifer" from the outset.
Given Phil's reputation for endearing himself to fans and the media, this should be right in his wheelhouse.
Find a New Head Coach
Aside from forging relationships both political and personal in nature, Jackson will have to concern himself with actual basketball matters, the first of which will be figuring out who's going to lead the team from the sideline.
Other than the Zen Master himself, of course.
Mike Woodson has either worn out his welcome, tired of dealing with the drama that comes with being the franchise's main media liaison or both. Whatever the case may be, Woodson seems the surest bet of any current coach to be out of work once the 2013-14 season is in the books.
For Jackson to establish a chain of command akin to the one Pat Riley has long had in place in Miami, he'll need to install his own people at every level, but especially at head coach. Whom that might be remains a mystery, though early reports from the New York Post's Marc Berman have pegged TNT analyst Steve Kerr as a potential candidate.
Kerr certainly has the pedigree for the gig. He won three titles with Jackson's Chicago Bulls in the 1990s and claimed two more with Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs thereafter before taking over as the GM of the Phoenix Suns for four seasons.
In a way, Kerr and Jackson would make for an intriguing match. Kerr could lend Jackson some notes about making player personnel decisions while also appealing to his former coach for advice on the finer points of guiding a team from day to day.
Kerr may not be the charismatic figure that the Knicks would prefer to plop in front of cameras and microphones, but the guy is plenty sharp nonetheless and comes equipped with ample media training from his days in the booth.
If Kerr isn't the choice, Jackson could turn to any number of other experienced candidates, from protege Kurt Rambis to more successful colleagues like Nate McMillan and Lionel Hollins.
Convince Carmelo Anthony to Stay
Let's be real: The reason Dolan's shelling out beaucoup bucks to put Phil on his payroll is to appeal to Carmelo Anthony. Where once Anthony seemed like a sure thing to re-up with the Knicks for five years and the GDP of a mid-sized island nation, he may now be more keen to explore his options outside of New York after enduring the most frustrating season of his career.
One that could end without 'Melo in the playoffs for the first time in his pro career.
There's not much more the Knicks can do to reshape the roster around Anthony beyond what they've already tried. Those maneuvers (i.e. amnestying Chauncey Billups, signing Tyson Chandler, trading for Andrea Bargnani) have left them capped out until the summer of 2015, leaving Dolan with little choice but to find other ways to spend his money to make 'Melo happy.
Jackson is just the sort of flashy name who might pique Anthony's interest. He's won big with great scorers before (see: Jordan, Michael; Bryant, Kobe) and certainly understands how to maximize and build around such singular talents.
That'll be his pitch to Anthony, one that the Knicks can only hope will be enough to convince the All-Star forward that staying home over the long haul will come with more than just mounds of cash.
Explore the Trade Market
Realistically, there's probably not much Jackson would be able to do to reshape the roster around Anthony until 2015, when the contracts of Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani are all due to come off the books.
That doesn't mean Phil should simply sit around, accept the Knicks' immediate fate and wait until some cap space clears up. It'll be Jackson's job to get creative, to reach out to other executives around the league and gauge whatever interest there may be in aging and/or injured frontcourt players set for eight-figure salaries in 2014-15.
And oh, what creativity that would require. Without any tradable draft picks until 2018, and with Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. as the only youngsters of any value on his team's roster, Jackson would likely have to take on some long-term salary if he's eager to clear up the cap sheet a bit now and (if he's lucky) bring in some complementary pieces to fill in around Anthony.
Difficult? Yes. Unlikely? Highly. Impossible? If Gilbert Arenas and Joe Johnson could both be moved...
Install a System That Fits This Roster
If the Knicks can't move any of their expensive veterans, they might as well figure out how best to use them while they're around. As it happens, New York's current consortium of players could be a decent fit for Phil's vaunted triangle offense.
Don't have a top-quality point guard to handle the ball and distribute? The triangle requires that point guards be shooters more than actual creators.
Need some way to rein in scorers of questionable shot selection? If the triangle could tame Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, two of the greatest scorers to ever lace 'em up, it's surely good enough to contain the talents of Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith in a productive manner.
Have a big guy who can shoot? Andrea Bargnani may not be anywhere near as clutch as Robert Horry, nor as versatile as Lamar Odom, but his size and skill set certainly fit the description of a floor-spacing big.
And if your center is somewhat limited offensively, as Chandler has been for most of his career? Don't worry. Jackson won championships with the likes of Bill Cartwright and Luc Longley manning the middle.
The triangle may not be a perfect match for New York's funky bunch, but with the right coach to communicate its principles and the proper buy-in from the players, it could help the Knicks make the best of what would appear to be a bad situation.
Empower the Youth
Whatever system Jackson's Knicks install, they'd do well to make sure that it affords Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. ample opportunity to show off their skills and develop into the cornerstones that New York so desperately needs them to be. Without any picks of their own to use in this year's draft, the Knicks will need to look in-house for a youth movement of any sort.
Right now, Shumpert and Hardaway are the only orange-and-blue-clad players who fit the bill. Shump's development has been derailed as much by injury as by poor coaching and a startling lack of support from the powers that be in the Big Apple. He may not be a great shooter or a top-notch ball-handler, but Shumpert should grow into no worse than a prototypical "3-and-D" wing and, at the tender age of 23, he has plenty of time to become one.
As for Hardaway, he's shown tantalizing flashes of superb scoring ability. He's not the creative force that his father was, but he's six inches taller, with the requisite athleticism to be a force at the rim.
Neither projects as anything close to a superstar, though both could solidify New York's supporting cast in a big way if they're properly empowered to do so.
Plan for 2015
Outside of re-signing 'Melo, any move Phil might make over the next year would look like little more than window dressing when compared to the possibilities in store for the summer of 2015. That year's free-agent class could feature a slew of All-Stars, including (but not limited to) Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol, Paul Millsap and—depending on how things play out this July—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Not to mention second-tier studs like DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews and Goran Dragic.
Guess which team is slated to be flush with cap space in 2015? You guessed it: the Knicks!
According to Basketball Insiders, New York has just over $17 million in salary committed for the 2015-16 season. That total doesn't include the $20 million-plus Anthony would probably draw for his services.
Still, assuming the cap continues to expand along with league-wide revenue, the Knicks could have upwards of $20 million in financial flexibility with which to attract another superstar.
Oh, and I suppose having the Zen Master on hand to sell any of those franchise-caliber talents on being the next great Knick doesn't hurt, either.
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