For years, fans of the New York Knicks were forced to fetishize a seemingly impossible hypothetical: If only James Dolan weren’t around…
New York’s bungling bluesman hasn’t gone anywhere, of course. But with the hiring of Phil Jackson, the franchise will be closer than it’s ever been to entrusting the helm to someone else’s hands.
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, citing a source close to the situation, reported Monday that the deal is expected to grant Jackson unprecedented powers over the disappointing denizens of Madison Square Garden.
Presumably, that means Jackson will have significant say in finding a replacement for head coach Mike Woodson, who most expect to be let go at the end of the season.
Depending on how badly he misses patrolling the sidelines, Jackson could decide to assume the duty himself. But if his age (68) and chronic back problems preclude that possibility from the get-go, whom Jackson chooses will be key in determining New York’s near-future fate.
That rumor-mill-within-a-rumor mill has already begun in earnest.
For his part, Kerr did his best to defuse the rumors:
I understood the speculation, because I said publicly that I'd like to coach. Then obviously there's my relationship with Phil. So people put that together and all of a sudden I come to New York and my phone was blowing up. So I understand it, but it's not something I want to discuss.
While the idea of Coach Kerr—who enjoyed significant success spearheading the Suns during the mid-to-late 2000s—is certainly an intriguing one, his lack of head-coaching experience could be a non-starter for an organization desperate for proven products to help them save financial face.
Unless, of course, Jackson intends on blowing it up altogether: Letting Carmelo Anthony walk, unloading the onerous contracts of Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani and charting a more sustainable path forward—financially as well as philosophically.
Let’s assume, however, that Dolan’s lone directive was to stay the course—keep Melo at all costs, continue targeting big-name free-agent signings, etc.—while fixing New York’s financials on the fly. That would require Jackson go after someone with at least some semblance of sideline experience.
A common trope within the NBA intelligentsia has been the idea of Jackson handpicking someone with intimate knowledge of his vaunted triangle offense.
But as The Denver Post’s Christopher Dempsey pointed out back in January, unlike the one attributed to San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, the PJax coaching tree isn’t exactly a skyscraping sequoia:
Arguably the most successful coach in NBA history, Jackson has only one notable branch out there — first-year Nuggets coach Brian Shaw, a former Jackson assistant. Shaw had to get some separation from Jackson's shadow, and from the shadow of the triangle offense, to get his shot at a head coaching job. So what gives? Why aren't more Jackson disciples out there?
Sure, there’s Kurt Rambis, but even he only lasted two tumultuous seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Indeed, when your lasting hallmark was benching Kevin Love for Anthony Tolliver, you better believe the next leash will be a short one—choke-collar-tight if we’re talking about New York.
As with every other question of aim and direction facing the Knicks, Carmelo Anthony looms large as potential backbreaker and kingmaker alike.
Judging by reports from the New York Daily News’ Peter Botte, the Knicks haven’t seemed too terribly concerned with making Melo privy to every in and out of their latest gambit.
Said Anthony, “I still don’t have a lot of the details, all the details. Have I heard? Yeah, I heard he will be coming on board, not official yet.”
Perhaps the Knicks merely want to make sure they get Jackson—who, truth told, could prove a far more valuable long-term asset than even Anthony—before bringing their jaded superstar further into the fold.
Would Jackson look to reel in a coach best suited to manage Melo? Conscript a triangle disciple and expect Anthony to fall in line? Does Jackson even see the trigger-happy forward as a good fit within that system?
If Melo walks, the Knicks would at least have the option of rebuilding according to Jackson’s blueprint, triangle or no.
Then again, maybe Jackson isn’t as married to his old system as much as we’d like to believe. If his designs are truly to reshape the franchise—to put it on a better footing for the future—then perhaps pragmatism will become the organization’s operative ethos.
More optimistically, Jackson could view New York’s coaching vacancy as an opportunity to mend some fences. Say, between Dolan and Jeff Van Gundy, from whose much-publicized 2001 departure the Knicks never really recovered.
Another possible dark horse: Patrick Ewing, the former Knick great and current Charlotte Bobcats assistant coach.
Not only would such a move endear Jackson to a fanbase still fuming over Ewing's unceremonious dismissal in a 2000 trade with the Seattle Supersonics, it would give the former the perfect blank slate—a coach he could simply help nurture or outright orchestrate, depending on what was needed.
Whoever he ends up tapping, that coach’s performance will undoubtedly be seen as the first big bellwether for where Jackson intends on steering his wayward organization.
If the losses mount and the manna mined by Jackson’s return disappears, he could always take a page out of Isiah Thomas’ old playbook and insert himself back on the bench.
At that point, there won’t be a camera in New York not trained on the Garden sidelines, where Phil’s final chapter will finally unfurl in an ending either holy or hellish—because, with this franchise, there simply is no in between.