Phil Jackson Facing Enormous Pressure to Turn Around New York Knicks

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2014

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Phil Jackson voluntarily agreed to a massive undertaking when he attached his reputable name to the New York Knicks, a team brimming with promise and appeal, yet corrupted by ornery politics.

To say that is to state the obvious. This was always going to be a difficult project, one overrun with unbending pressure and soaring expectations, both of which were and remain byproducts of the Zen Master's involvement.

For all that has been predicted and even known, few could have seen this coming. Months into his tenure, Jackson is already being subjected to inordinate amounts of impatience, and being tested by startling and sudden hardships that are increasing the difficulty of the task at hand.

Everything that's happened between March and now has been dissected and scrutinized by fans and pundits, and anyone hoping to validate or disprove Jackson's front-office intellect. 

Fair or not, the bar has been set exceedingly high. It continues to rise at breakneck speeds, showing no signs of slowing, continuously threatening to stain Jackson's tenure in New York before he has a chance to clean anything up.


Coaching Search Gone Wrong

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 20:  Golden State Warriors new head coach Steve Kerr looks on during a news conference at the Warriors headquarters on May 20, 2014 in Oakland, California. The Golden State Warriors announced NBA veteran Steve Kerr will be their new head
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Reality wasted little time in catching up with Jackson, who learned early on that even the simplest tasks can turn into racking obstacles.

Take New York's coaching search. It was supposed to be a piece of cake, a slice of pie. Whatever dessert you like, that's what it was supposed to be.

Steve Kerr's arrival quickly became a formality, something many—including myself—didn't just expect, but were planning for, Jackson included. He didn't have a Plan B, because he didn't need one. 

Then, quite suddenly, he did.

All Jackson's Zen couldn't keep Kerr from joining the Golden State Warriors, who offered him the opportunity to coach closer to home while guiding a contender. It was a valuable lesson for Jackson, a trial-and-error experience that taught him, as Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan puts it, not to "hop on the coaching carousel without knowing which horse to eye when the first one bucks you off."

Frankly, he learned something else too: There is always red tape in New York.

According to the New York Daily News' Frank Isola, notoriously meddlesome Knicks owner James Dolan drove Kerr out of the Big Apple: 

Jackson has spent the past two days in Chicago at the NBA draft combine trying to regroup after Kerr, his one and only choice to coach the Knicks, decided to take the same position with the Golden State Warriors. Kerr wanted to stay closer to his San Diego home but was also concerned about working for Garden chairman James Dolan, who undermined the potential hiring by originally offering Kerr a three-year deal. Kerr eventually received a five-year, $25 million deal from Golden State.

Attempts to "revamp" the Knicks' medical staff were also thwarted by Dolan, Isola says. Yet while the report screams "typical Dolan," the extent of the damage he inflicted remains questionable.

Fresh off paying a first-time president $60 million, why would Dolan pull financial rank on said president's only coaching candidate? Is he that daft? If he is, would the ever-outspoken Jackson remain this quiet about it?

Maybe, maybe not. Either way, Jackson is left to pick up the pieces of his coaching search, facing restrictions that have been imposed by Dolan and/or his reputation.

As if finding a replacement for their original coaching replacement (Kerr) wasn't hard enough.

In the short time since Kerr spurned the Knicks, they've been linked to a variety of different names. From Derek Fisher to Brian Shaw to Mike Dunleavy to Tyronn Lue to Kurt Rambis—you get the idea. Jackson is looking everywhere for someone he knows, someone he trusts. And everyone is waiting.

The Knicks' coaching search has been swarming with reports, both original and repetitive. Everyday someone new enters or a familiar face gets mentioned. It's absolute madness. 

A great deal has been made over Jackson's "inability" to land his first choice. His failure has been interpreted as pointless or a sign of weakness and used to doubt his power and mystique. 

Something so simple, so certain, now stews in a pressure cooker set to "viciously unpleasant."


Talent Hunt

Jim Mone/Associated Press

"We’re in a talent hunt," Jackson told The New York Times' Billy Witz in March. "We have to bring in talent."

Eventually, right? He meant eventually, didn't he? The numbers suggest he meant eventually.

Cap space is something the Knicks don't have until summer 2015. It's then they're expected to retool and restructure, turning their fringe-playoff team into an indomitable contender with the addition of another superstar.

Re-signing Carmelo Anthony once he enters free agency is priority No. 1. Really, it's Jackson's only priority. He can explore trading Raymond Felton and others all he wants. Fans won't be clamoring for him to work miracles this summer. He's expected to work his magic next year.

Or, you know, now.

Marc Berman of the New York Post says that Jackson has been "plotting" to trade for Kevin Love, who is apparently unhappy enduring a real-life version of Groundhog Day in Minnesota. Never mind that the Knicks don't have enough assets to broker a deal, it never hurts to look. And it doesn't.

But it hurts to create false hope.

Not all of this falls on Jackson. None of it may be his fault. Rumors linking the Knicks to Love could be fabricated, the brainchild of a news cycle that knows no bounds.

Distributing blame isn't the goal, though. Whatever his immediate intent, this is an important experience for Jackson, who is witnessing firsthand how potent New York's thirst for big names is. 

This team—Melo or no Melo—was supposed to have one year before Love-level coups were the standard. Yet Jackson's gradual quest for talent has snowballed into present starry-eye visions, bringing with them an underhanded message: There is no escaping the demand for instantaneous progress in New York, no matter unrealistic it may be.


The Importance of Patience

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 18:  Phil Jackson looks on during his introductory press conference as President of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on March 18, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Cause for doubt can be found in everything just discussed.

Things were supposed to be different under Jackson. This is why he was brought to New York, to change the culture, to ensure that they weren't a consistent, headline-dominating sideshow. Whiffing on coaching targets, potentially butting heads with Dolan and being associated with haphazard talent searches wasn't the plan. There was supposed to be more stability, more confidence emanating out of New York than this. 

Is it time the bar for Jackson's Knicks and their future be lowered?


Patience is a difficult word to stomach in New York, but there's no reason to draw any substantial conclusions from what Jackson has and hasn't done thus far. The first part of his offseason hasn't gone as planned, but these things happen. 

Jackson wasn't hired to reel in big coaching names. If he wanted to hire that kind of character, he would. For all the excitement over Kerr, he's still a first-timer. Jackson is clearly looking for a protege, someone who will allow him to essentially coach from afar, hence the less-than-flashy list of candidates he's pursuing.

Equally important, Jackson wasn't brought in to turn the Knicks around overnight. This was always going to be a process. That the Knicks won't be able to trade for Love or another star right now—and they won't—means nothing. They don't have the assets. End of story.

Judge Jackson next summer, when he has the means (cap space) to put his sterling reputation to good use. He's supposed to appeal to star free agents. If he's unable to land stars in the coming summers, doubt him for that. Not this.

Not now. 

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 18:  Phil Jackson is introduced as the new president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks on March 18, 2014 in New York City.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Pho
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The pressure Jackson faces is real, more overwhelming than anticipated. The standard he's being held to is not. It's unfair. This soon, it's unjust.

"Wow," Jackson said at his introductory press conference in March when asked about bringing a title to New York, per The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring. "You've jumped ahead [in asking that]."

Many are still jumping ahead. Too far ahead. And those who jump will miss the point: We haven't learned anything about him yet.

There is still no harm in placing faith in Jackson, who, despite what's happened early on, has yet to prove he isn't the man for this progressively challenging job.


*Cap space information via ShamSports.


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