Halfway through this past NBA season, it took no expert to see that the New York Knicks were in need of a savior. With the hire of Phil Jackson as team president on March 18, New York brought in the most credible of legends to tackle one of the tallest tasks in all of basketball: Transform the Knicks from laughingstock to title contender in record time.
It should be made very clear: If Jackson ultimately accomplishes the improbable by swinging the franchise 180 degrees towards the top of the standings, he'll deserve to be crowned the best basketball mind ever.
He donned his No. 18 jersey through the Knicks' only championship era during the 1970s, and his subsequent success on the bench sits atop the record books. His coaching accolades would almost lead you to believe that Jackson would be more safely suited along the Knicks' sidelines. Even his partner Jeanie Buss brought the idea to the table. According to Mitch Abramson of the New York Daily News:
Jackson’s fiancé and Lakers part-owner Jeanie Buss favors Jackson sitting on the Knick bench instead of in the front office, since it’s the “lower risk” scenario in terms of making the team a winner.
“Do what you know best type of thing,” said Jackson, who won 11 titles as coach of the Bulls and Lakers and was hired to be the Knicks’ president of basketball operations last month. But Jackson reiterated that he has no interest in coaching again because of his physical limitations — he’s had a pair of hip-replacement surgeries in recent years — even if his fiancé has other ideas.
“No, I’ve made up my mind on that,” Jackson said. “Right now I know physically what I can do. That’s something I don’t think physically that I can do.”
And so it appears to be settled. Jackson will dive in with both feet to an unknown NBA realm while leaving the coaching calls to somebody else. If he conquers his newest basketball duty by building his own champion from the ground up, there will be little doubt as to who will go down as the best basketball lifer.
An Ugly Inheritance
If New York's 37-win season didn't tip Jackson off, one glance at the team's payroll for next season sure will. The Knicks need a major overhaul, and that's going to be tough to implement in time for next season.
Even if Anthony bolts Manhattan, the Knicks will still be over the salary cap with Tyson Chandler, Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani all on the books for eight-figure incomes next season. Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith are still on deals that will be relatively unattractive for other teams this offseason, while Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. are the only two youthful assets on the roster.
Aside from salary figures, Jackson has been on the record in the past voicing his distaste regarding the current core's makeup—especially if Anthony decides to re-up with the team. Michael O'Keeffe of the Daily News detailed a June 2012 interview Jackson participated in with "HBO Real Sports'" Andrea Kremer:
Jackson suggested he had given a good deal of thought to coaching the Knicks — “New York is special,” he says — but he dismissed the possibility of returning to Madison Square Garden because the current team is “clumsy.”
“What’s clumsy mean?” Kremer asked.
“Well, they don’t fit together well. (Amar'e) 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,” Jackson continued. “They need to have someone come in that can kinda blend that group together.”
Jackson will surely wish to shake up the personnel, but only so much will be feasible in the short term. The team will certainly strive to being Anthony back for the remainder of his prime, but only on a deal that would allow it sufficient spending space thereafter. But 'Melo's return won't happen at all if Jackson can't sell him on a plan to win immediately.
If Jackson is unable to retain his star this summer, his tenure as president will likely begin with a full-on tank job in 2014-15. Without Anthony, New York would likely look to pawn off Tyson Chandler—who isn't on board with a rebuild at 32 years of age next season—for future assets.
New York actually owns its first-round draft pick next summer, so aiming for a high selection would probably be the best course if Anthony walks.
Since New York's last title in 1973, none of its 11 men in charge of basketball operations were hired without previous front office, player personnel experience (not counting Steve Mills, who appears to have been hired merely as Jackson's placeholder).
After breaking that trend, Jackson appears likely to hire the Knicks' first rookie head coach since Jeff Van Gundy. It'll be an encouraging sign for Knicks fans, who have seen seven retreads (Don Chaney, Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, Isiah Thomas, Mike D'Antoni and Mike Woodson) lead the team to four playoff berths in the 12 seasons since Van Gundy's departure.
Regardless of who the new man in charge ultimately turns out to be, it's reasonable to believe that tabbing another retread won't be in the cards for Jackson. After spending most of the last 20 years as a head coach, Jackson will likely look to appoint a younger coach that he can mold with his own views in mind.
If Steve Kerr winds up with the job, as has been wildly rumored, one could suspect the triangle would be New York's go-to system.
If Jackson does find success early in his tenure—in cahoots with his presumably inexperienced head coach—it'll put the team in a much more viable position to succeed moving forward. Per Grantland's Jared Dubin, since 1996, first-time head coaches had led their teams to an average winning percentage of just .416 in their first season (entering 2013-14). It's also noteworthy that first-timers went on to overcome their early struggles, posting a .517 winning clip over the course of their tenure, compared to just .495 from the retreads.
This is to say that Jackson will be better suited to—and most likely will—hire a coach whom he can mold, but such a move could cost him Anthony, in his win-now mindset, who may view it as something of a long-term payout.
Starting from Scratch
Jackson, though, it appears, is willing to take that chance.
If Anthony re-signs, he has a star under his control and the ability to restart the following offseason. If he bolts in free agency, that's $20 some-odd million that the team could then use in 2015.
All things considered, regardless of Anthony's decision, Jackson will be building this Knicks team from the ground up. If Anthony remains a Knick, though Dolan was responsible for reeling him in three years ago, he'd be returning on Jackson's terms—under Jackson's coach, and on a less-than-maximum salary.
Jackson understands that cleaning up James Dolan's mess of a franchise and grooming it into a true contender will take time, and it's understandable if Anthony, 30 years old next season, won't be interested in sacrificing that time.
Documented by Posting and Toasting's Seth Rosenthal immediately after Jackson's introductory presser:
Asked about winning a championship, Jackson responded "Wow, you've jumped ahead", mentioning that a championship would be the end of a long process and "a capstone on a remarkable career that I've had."
The process would be mandatory given the situation Jackson has inherited, and will include reshaping nearly every on-court entity of the team.
After appointing a coach and general manager, Jackson's regime will need to find a way to obtain assets to build around. The search for a suitable point guard will likely carry into the 2014-15 season, after Raymond Felton proved himself incapable this past year. Deciding Chandler's fate in his contract year will be a priority this summer, and the team will need to scrape the bottom of the free-agent barrel in order to add talent for 2014-15.
Then, after flushing the roster clean of Bargnani and Stoudemire's deals after this season, the team will look to make its big splash in July 2015—whether that includes signing a max-level free agent or not. Depending on Anthony's fate, New York may be better off rounding out the roster with, say, three $8 million players as opposed to one $24 million player.
By that 2015-16 season—no matter which path he takes—Jackson will finally have a Knicks team made up primarily of his acquisitions (Felton and Smith have player options for that season, if they aren't moved by then).
He will have altered just about every aspect of the team he took control of last March. And if those Knicks contend for hardware soon after, it'll be pure Jackson product that does so.
But what if Phil, for the first time in his NBA career that began nearly 50 years ago, fails? Will Jackson's legacy suffer a bruise if he fails in his first—and possibly only—go as an organization's shot caller?
It'd be hard to imagine significant backlash, given how the odds are already stacked against him. Morphing New York from its current state into a playoff mainstay is what every Knicks fan is banking on, but what nobody outside the Big Apple can truly expect.
Considering who owns the team—the man who fired his previous general manager days before training camp, insisted on trading three players and three picks for Andrea Bargnani and doled out an NBA roster spot to J.R. Smith's brother as a favor—it's fair to not expect much at all.
Dolan has reportedly already intruded on Jackson's reign, according to Frank Isola of the NY Daily News. Isola reported earlier this month that Jackson has attempted to fire members of the Garden's staff, only to be vetoed by his owner.
Dolan’s interest in keeping certain employees could be something as innocent as wanting to remain loyal to workers with whom he has grown close. The more plausible theory is that Dolan doesn’t want to fully cede control of the team and that certain employees who serve as pseudo organizational spies are too valuable to lose.
This job is certainly the Zen Master's hardest yet. Phil has tackled coaching a previously ringless Michael Jordan in Chicago, then fused together the polar opposite personas of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal with the Lakers.
In working under Dolan, 11 coaching championships later, Jackson is facing his toughest challenge yet. While taking orders from the second-worst owner in the NBA, Phil's previous track record should keep him relatively immune from scrutiny should he hit a few bumps in the road.
Even if Phil exits the team's front office prematurely out of frustration with Dolan, it'd be the owner's reputation that suffers the blow, if he truly couldn't get out of his own way yet again. Jackson should have leverage in this regard, knowing that if he walks away, Dolan—certainly not Jackson—would then be pinned the unwavering, uncooperative loser.
But if he constructs the first Knicks team to bring a trophy to the Garden in more than 40 years? Jackson would cement his legacy as the best coach, the best champion and the best basketball mind the league has ever seen.