Phil Jackson to NY Knicks Changes Nothing Unless He Changes Everything

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2014

Phil Jackson has agreed in principle to be the president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post. That changes nothing unless it changes absolutely everything.

Knicks fans should have a kind of trepidation around the signing of Jackson. The gossip which has accompanied it—that he makes the team more attractive to free agents—should only serve to validate those fears.

This nonsense was highlighted by a ludicrous rumor proffered by Frank Isola of the New York Daily News.

But Dolan and Jackson can dream big. Heat executives, according to a source, are not convinced that James will stay, though in their heart of hearts they believe he will re-sign. But Jackson’s arrival changes things.

There’s no way LeBron would have gone to New York under the current climate,” (said a James confidant.) He had a falling-out with CAA (agency) and that was a problem as well. But with Phil there I think he will look at it.

It didn’t even take until the official press conference announcing Jackson before the best player in the world was coming to New York, because that’s the way the Knicks, the media around them and the fanbase operates. Everything is always about being “big.”

Yes, Isola's report is safely couched with the words, “in their heart of hearts they believe he will re-sign,” but why let a little thing like what that means stop him from presenting the inane rumor? Getting the big name out there is what matters. All that's missing is the winky face. 

And, really, when has a free agent ever signed with a team because of its president or general manager? James and Chris Bosh didn’t go to Miami to play for Pat Riley, they went to play with each other and Dwyane Wade.

The whole notion that Jackson makes the Knicks a free-agent destination is pure New York hyperbole.

How much Jackson’s name really brings to the table is uncertain. It’s pretty doubtful, though, that it’s enough to pry James away from his two-time championship team.

But this does show the mentality that surrounds the Knicks. They live in an unrealistic dream world where all their greatest fantasies are certainties, and their greatest fears are obscurities.

That’s how you end up with Amar’e Stoudemire’s maximum, uninsured contract, a losing team, a disheartened superstar in Carmelo Anthony and dreams of James.

If Jackson is about landing free agents, Isola couldn’t be more wrong in saying that “everything is changed.” Absolutely nothing has changed.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It’s time to stop the insanity.


The Knicks' Broken Paradigm

Paradigm is one of my favorite words. And no, it doesn’t mean 20 cents. It means a particular way of viewing the world. It includes your values and concepts, and it affects your decision-making. The way a person operates is based on his or her paradigm.

What can be preposterous in one paradigm is perfectly rational in another. When you have people talking past one another, usually it’s because they’re operating in different paradigms, though neither is necessarily wrong. They’re just different.

But then, there’s also what's called a "false" or "broken" paradigm. This isn't just being different. It’s fundamentally flawed because it’s provably wrong. For example, the Flat Earth Society is based on a broken paradigm.

The Knicks have been functioning in this way under James Dolan, and if getting big-name free agents to turn the team around is still the goal, it’s just another decision in that same, old, corrupted way of thinking.

They want to defy reality and build Rome overnight.

To do so, they’ve been flailing about, trying to make “the big move,” which is going to put them over the top. They’re giving away as many first-round picks as they can.

They either donate them to dump salary and create space for a big-name signing (e.g. Stoudemire) or include them in packages to land players in big-name trades (e.g. Anthony).

The great irony of it all, as pointed out by Bleacher Report’s Jim Cavan, is if they had they just kept their picks, they could theoretically have a team with Joakim Noah, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul George and Rajon Rondo right now.

I think a team like that could contend, don’t you?

Dolan has been trying to win trades instead of win games. He’s been trying to buy teams instead of building them. That’s why the Knicks are not only a bad team, they’re also a bad team with nothing left to build around.


Why the Paradigm is Broken

The Knicks have been mortgaging the future to buy the present, and history shows that doesn’t work.

Look through the legacy of champions. The one thing they all have in common is that they have a homegrown player as one of their most important figures.

Look since the turn of the century. The Miami Heat have Dwyane Wade. The Dallas Mavericks had Dirk Nowitzki. The Los Angeles Lakers had Kobe Bryant. The Boston Celtics had Paul Pierce. The San Antonio Spurs had Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. The Detroit Pistons drafted Tayshaun Prince and cultivated Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton.

And you can keep going back to previous decades. The Chicago Bulls had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The Houston Rockets had Hakeem Olajuwon. In the '80s, the Pistons had Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. The Lakers had Magic Johnson. The Celtics had Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. The Philadelphia 76ers had Julius Erving (ABA years notwithstanding).

Get the picture? You can add a free agent, but a big part of your team has to come through the draft.

The whole idea that you can build a champion just through free agency is a fantasy. And the recent collective bargaining agreement makes that even more far-fetched, not less.

There are now constrictions placed on teams after they go over the so-called “apron.” Regardless of how much teams are willing to spend now, they can still only do so much with all the money in the world.

Older players looking to win know that, so they’re looking to team up with the younger fellas.  

Look at the recent trends. Chris Paul stuck around to play with Blake Griffin. Deron Williams saw a future with Brook Lopez. Dwight Howard turned down extra money, Kobe Bryant and a bigger market to go join James Harden[1] in Houston.

The senior superstars are joining up with the younger ones because that’s the way they can chase a title. Players on their first or second contracts don’t get the same kind of money as players on their third or fourth.

Ergo, if the older player signs while the younger player is still on his rookie deal, teams can secure two superstars for years.

It’s much more difficult to sign two elite players when both are inking their third deal.[2] Just to make it possible to do so, teams have to gut virtually their entire roster. Then, if they create the space and sign the star, there’s nothing remaining to flesh out a worthwhile supporting cast.

The perfect example of this is the present Knicks roster. Yes, Anthony is playing the best ball of his life, and he’s getting little help from the crew around him. So, you can say it’s not his fault he’s losing.

But he’s getting little help because of the money vested in him, Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler. There’s nothing left for role players. And that is the whole problem with the Knicks paradigm. It doesn't fit in this CBA-centered world. 


The Need for a Paradigm Shift

Dolan is so in love with big names, big trades and big signings, he can’t appreciate the little things, and those are what it takes to build a champion.

A paradigm shift occurs when you change your worldview and way of thinking, and that’s what the Knicks are in need of.

What young player do the Knicks have to attract a superstar? Where is he going to come from?

That’s where Jackson can change everything, even if it’s not the way Dolan intended.

Jackson has never worked in a front office, but there are hints we can glean.

We know he at least recognized the issue of the Knicks roster from the beginning, calling it "clumsy" in an interview with HBO's Real Sports," explaining (as reported by Michael O'Keeffe of the New York Daily News),

Well, they don’t fit together well. (Amare) Stoudemire doesn’t fit well with Carmelo. Stoudemire’s a really good player. But he’s gotta play in a certain system and a way.

Carmelo has to be a better passer. And the ball can’t stop every time it hits his hands. They need to have someone come in that can kinda blend that group together. 

Also, from his coaching, we know Jackson always had an appreciation for role players. Players such as Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, Dennis Rodman, B.J. Armstrong, Steve Kerr and Ron Harper were all pivotal in winning championships. 

Yes, the superstars like Jordan, Pippen, Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol were the most important part, but he knew they weren't the only important part. He knows the need for such pieces. 

And while he's not the type of person who is going to spend hundreds of hours scouting players to identify whom those role players might be, he doesn't need to.

Jackson’s not a detail-oriented man, but he’s a man who can appreciate the need for such things, and he’s wise enough put people around him who are.

Marc Stein of ESPN has floated that Kerr will be Jackson’s choice for head coach.

And, if that’s true, it’s a huge step in the right direction. Kerr is one of the most cerebral men involved with the game. He’s the type of person who can appreciate the need for building a team from the ground up, and as a coach, he would be the type who would develop players well.

More importantly, it suggests what Jackson’s long-term thinking might be, which hopefully isn’t to try and do something silly, like go after James.

They need to look at dealing stars, not acquiring them.

After a decade of irresponsible management, the team has one asset that’s worth trading right now—Anthony. The only way the Knicks are going to build a winner over the next few years is to parlay that lone asset into a future while they still have a chance to do so.

Yes, the Knicks do have some cap space opening up in two years, but let’s not use the old, broken paradigm.

If the Knicks keep Anthony, they’d have about $38 million in guaranteed deals if they’re paying him max money and don’t sign anyone else. That would cover five players, leaving somewhere around $27 million to cover the rest of the team.

Supposedly, the idea would be to land a max-contract player—hypothetically someone like Kevin Love—who would be leaving his team to come to play for a contender. That would suck up virtually the entire remaining cap space.

That would mean the rest of the team would be composed of the kind of roster the Knicks are flailing with right now. Granted, Love over Stoudemire would be a huge bonus. But it’s not enough, especially since Anthony would be two years older.

Point blank: Are Love, an aging Anthony and scraps enough to win a title? I don’t think so. And, honestly, Love probably doesn’t, either, which makes the whole question moot.

You have to believe that another team is going to have cap space and more than an aging former scoring champ and crumbs to offer. If Love goes somewhere else, where are the Knicks then?

Jackson is better off trading Anthony for assets and picks this summer. Teams like the Bulls and Celtics are looking for a second superstar to add to their existing star point guards and can offer a tremendous return for him.

In both cases, that return involves a stable of first-round picks that can help the Knicks replace the others they’ve already irresponsibly traded away. Both teams could offer young players who are legitimate starters, like Jared Sullinger or Jimmy Butler.

The Knicks could turn Anthony into the framework of a newer, younger team, wait another year and then use that framework to attract free agents. Sure, it might take a little longer, but it would work better.



What's wrong with the Knicks?

There are many ways to put it. Less hare, more tortoise. Less buying, more building. Less urgency, more patience. Less gambling, more planning. And so on.

But, none of that makes sense if someone is still using the wrong paradigm.

It’s time for a fundamental change in New York's thinking. If Jackson shifts the paradigm, he’ll improve the course of their history. Otherwise, look for them to continue making the same mistakes they’ve made in the past.


[1] James Harden wasn’t drafted by the Houston Rockets, but a) he was traded there while he was still on his rookie contract, and b) he blossomed in there.

[2] Yes, the Heat did it, but bear in mind that all three players took big pay cuts to do so. It's true there’s no state income tax in Florida, but that doesn’t matter to the salary cap.


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