Phil Jackson Is Latest Faux Savior for New York Knicks Circus

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Phil Jackson Is Latest Faux Savior for New York Knicks Circus
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Cover up, New York Knicks. Your true intentions are showing.

For a team so averse to transparency, preferring to self-destruct to the tick-tock of its own time bomb, New York's Phil Jackson exploits leave little to the imagination.

The Zen Master's contract is official, according to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Chris Broussard, and worth an unheard of $60 million over five years. Jackson's official title? President of something. We think. 

Jackson's actual title? Pseudo-savior.

Even before the dust settles and storylines stop writing themselves, the Knicks will preach change. Team executives will assure everyone Jackson is a basketball sage worth every cent they gave him. They'll say his lack of experience implies nothing of his ability to build a winner. Reclusive owner James Dolan may even vacate his dark, dingy, Glenfiddich 1937-stocked lair long enough to offer his inutile praise, waxing respect and autonomy.

When this happens—and some version of it will happen—the Knicks will hoodwink a few unsuspecting individuals. The rest will know better than to think Dolan's Knicks are willingly revising their broken business model.

 

Not Wrong, But Not Right

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Jackson's hire was a savvy move.

Above all else, he gives them presence, a name players and executives outside the organization respect or adore, even if begrudgingly. And more than anything else—front-office experience included—the Knicks need exactly this: appearance of change.

Actual change is unlikely to take place. To be sure, there could be some. Jackson, a prince of personality and power, won't stand for Dolan's micromanaging stratagems or endless meddling. If he's aboard New York's oft-sinking ship, he has been promised absolute control.

Whether or not he's granted such liberties remains to be seen. Donnie Walsh was hired under a similar guise and promised comparable freedom, yet his relationship with Dolan crashed and burned. 

"Nobody will ever have full autonomy," a league official told Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. "Donnie had it in his deal, and when he questioned it, it was, 'See you later.'"

This latest merger could combust in identical fashion. Whenever you pit implacable will (Jackson) against iron-fisted self-admiration (Dolan), disaster can ensue. If Dolan views Jackson as nothing more than a name and a face, the Zen Master could be a pawn in New York's search for a stopgap, someone to bedim the shiny, immense failure this season has become.

But 60 million greenbacks is a lot of scratch, even for the Knicks, who are unlikely to "Larry Brown" Jackson after investing towers of cash in his inexperienced services. 

David Dow/Getty Images
It's unlikely Dolan is using Jackson as a pawn.

What the Knicks are doing is more simple: They're making Jackson an extension of themselves, of their status quo.

Maybe he wins the power struggle with the despotic Dolan. Maybe there isn't a power struggle at all, since Dolan and Jackson have plenty in common.

Neither is vested in New York to bide time or rebuild. Dolan has long tried to avoid conventional reclamation projects, and Jackson doesn't have time to spearhead one. 

Five years isn't an eternity in the NBA. Not when reinventing and completely overhauling a broken roster. Yet in five years, Jackson will be 73. If still employed, he'll want to be enjoying the fruits of his latest endeavor, not laboring through the latter stages of an extensive rebuild.

 

Same Path, (Hopefully) Different Destination

Draft picks and young prospects presumably won't be thrown away with yesterday's trash now that Jackson is overseeing things. But they will still toe the line of "expendable," because Jackson isn't in New York to remain patient or diversify the way these Knicks do business.

Under Jackson, the Knicks will continue to chase big names. Grand free-agency plans will be forged. Pursuing resources outside the organization will remain the primary source of hope. 

Not to say it should be. It shouldn't. Before even holding a formal press conference, though, the Jackson-managed Knicks have already been linked to LeBron James' purported interest, according to the New York Daily News' Frank Isola.

Typical Knicks. The alleged interest originates from James' camp, but the relevance of such a report is typical Knicks. 

New York is always looking for the quick fix. LeBron in 2010. Carmelo Anthony in 2011. Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo in 2015, per Wojnarowski. That much is not going to change.

As NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper writes, the Knicks aren't paying Jackson to inoculate the organization against itself; he was brought in to stop the bleeding:

Jackson on the Knicks sideline would be something to celebrate, a coup for the franchise to get someone who for years has shaped himself as a closer for title hopefuls, and New York is definitely not. Jackson running basketball ops is more like a curiosity.

Wanting glitz more than experience, the Knicks got it. They won the press conference. Fans starved for any morsel of good news after years of horrible decisions can rejoice that a legend is joining the organization. Phil Jackson will make them feel good.

In addition to making them "feel good," Jackson also keeps the Knicks relevant and their fans hopeful.

Writing for The Daily Beast, Robert Silverman expands upon this theory:

Their star “strategy” (and yes Phil Jackson is fits [sic] perfectly as a part of this plan) guarantees serious profits year after year. Winning (and running a team the right way) potentially damages that.

Remember the lessons of the seminal HBO series The Wire. The police do want to catch criminals, but their primary goal (and this is the endgame for any large institution that confers money and/or power) is to promote and enrich and empower the individuals that work in the police department. If arresting the Barksdales impinges upon that goal, they won’t do it.

Money. Power. Relevance. The Knicks are after it all, maybe even before winning. 

If the front office was truly interested in reversing New York's corporate stringency and running the Knicks like a functioning basketball team—not a fertile cash cow—Walsh would have been allowed to work his magic unimpeded. Isiah Thomas wouldn't have had a spellbinding hold on Dolan for so long.

The Knicks wouldn't constantly be in this situation, surrendering large sums of cash to the latest, greatest, quickest solution. 

 

Hope for Prosperity, Not Change 

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

In no way can we completely disparage Jackson or New York's decision to hire him.

The risk of his becoming a glorified patsy or makeshift honcho notwithstanding, paying Jackson to try his hand and basketball acumen at Madison Square Garden is smart. But don't mistake Jackson's appointment for something it's not.

This is not a complete shift in roster-constructing ideals. Jackson is an extension of everything the Knicks already represent and long for: big-name power.

Direct requests for Jackson to recruit and seduce may be infrequent. He's not the wining-and-dining type. He's more the condescending expert who exerts his reach with tersely spoken truths. Pampering and regaling will be left to Steve Mills—assuming he sticks around for the long haul—who is far more versed in the art of human contact than the decorated Jackson.

What Jackson will be is a less-than-slightly silent yet undeniably active figurehead. Don't expect him to explain every decision or ride along for every free-agent sales pitch, but he will be involved, lending his 13 championship rings and immortalized reputation to the cause.

And yeah, he'll vet and make basketball decisions, too. But those decisions will be strikingly similar to the ones New York is already making on its own, without him. 

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Even now, this side of Jackson, it's still all about instant gratification, about quick fixes.

Will Phil Jackson actually change the Knicks' culture?

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"It’s basketball; teams try to reshape, they go through changes," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said of the Jackson hire, via The New York Times' Andrew Keh. "This is no different. You bring in a great basketball mind into your organization, and eventually it will be reshaped."

Jackson is, in fact, tasked with reshaping the Knicks, just not in motive or methodology. Their actions will remain untouched and their goals the same. They'll opt not for actual change but for selling renewed hope in the same old thinking yielding different results.

 

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