Phil Jackson, he of the 11 NBA championship rings and mastery of zen, finds himself shouldered with the unenviable burden of lifting the New York Knicks out of mediocrity and into legitimate contenderhood.
Many think Jackson's doomed to failure, just another in the long line of celebrity hires that provide more glitz and glamor than they do wins. Yet while the former Coach of the Year certainly faces his fair share of challenges, it would be a mistake to automatically assume he'll be a failure. In fact, Jackson has more than a few assets on his side that could very well allow him to save this franchise.
Before we discuss Jackson's advantages, it behooves us to understand his disadvantages.
The roadblocks before Jackson are both of his and New York's making. First, and perhaps most troubling, is that the zen master has absolutely zero front-office experience. While his basketball intelligence and success are without question, he's never been a dedicated talent evaluator or decision maker. This isn't an easy transition to make, nor are these things easy to learn. Jackson faces a steep learning curve, one that involves utilizing analytics, understanding nuances of the CBA and becoming proficient in negotiations. How and whether he'll be able to do this remains to be seen.
The Knicks themselves have also done their new head executive little in the way of favors. Jackson enters a situation bereft of cap flexibility or first-round draft picks. This means no marquee free-agent signings this summer (assuming, of course, Carmelo Anthony re-sings for the maximum, which is all but guaranteed), no (potential) lottery pick in this year's star-studded draft (it's headed for either Orlando or Denver), and because there just aren't that many gullible general managers in the league anymore, it also means Jackson's likely saddled with his worst contracts (that means you, J.R. Smith) for the long haul.
Now that that depressing bit is out of the way, it's time to look on the bright side.
In the past, Knicks' owner James Dolan had final say over each and every one of New York's moves—explaining why the team now find themselves in this unfortunate position. Disagree with Dolan, and you were likely to find yourself "reassigned" or outright fired. With Jackson in charge, this is no longer the case. Dolan has said he'll let Jackson handle all basketball decisions without the threat of intervention.
It's likely this was a demand of the zen master, but Dolan should also receive some credit for relenting and acknowledging his role in the team's mistakes. If Jackson is able to get up to speed on the aforementioned essential parts of a front-office executive (scouting, understanding the CBA, negotiations), we may just see some sound basketball decisions being made in New York for the first time in a long time.
Zero CAA Influence
Creative Artists Agency, Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith's representatives, had huge influence over the Knicks' decisions in the past few years. At times, it seemed as if pleasing the clients was more of a mission for New York than actually winning games. Players who had no business being on the Knicks' roster, or any roster for that matter, nonetheless received guaranteed deals (see: Smith, Chris) because it appeased another CAA client.
Phil Jackson has absolutely no ties to CAA, a fact he reinforced during his introductory press conference:
Phil, on the team's CAA ties: "Those won't hold weight with me."— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) April 3, 2014
Holding no sway over Jackson, CAA won't be able to make the demands it used to, and the Knicks will no longer have to cater to their every whim.
Carmelo Anthony may not be the best player on a championship team, but he's an elite scorer who can be even deadlier in small-ball lineups. Regardless of flaws, players of Anthony's caliber are extremely rare, and should he re-sign in New York this summer, it gives Jackson one solid foundational building block.
The key then becomes acquiring the proper talent to complement 'Melo—not necessarily building around him, but instead using him as another piece (a big piece, of course) of the championship puzzle. This is the struggle the Knicks have faced ever since they landed Anthony in the trade with the Denver Nuggets, and one they never overcame. Overcoming elite defenses requires supreme shotmakers, a category for which Carmelo Anthony qualifies, leaving Jackson with one less piece to acquire.
This won't be an easy or fast fix for Jackson. It'll take time, patience and more than a small amount of luck. Jackson proved he can win at the highest level while managing egos. It's uncertain whether he'll be able to do that from the office rather than the court, but with these assets at hand, he could be the guy that gives the Knicks a title-contending team.