The Dangers of the Phil Jackson Coaching Tree

Josh CohenCorrespondent IIMay 31, 2014

Mar 18, 2014; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks new president of basketball of operations Phil Jackson is introduced at a press conference at Madison Square Garden.  Mandatory Credit: William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER via USA TODAY Sports
The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

Phil Jackson very reasonably wants someone he knows and trusts to be the next New York Knicks coach, but the people he knows and trusts either have spotty histories on the sideline or no experience there at all.

Though he hasn't outright limited his coaching search to onetime acolytes, as ESPN New York's Ian Begley reports, the new Knicks president has made no secret of his preference for someone with whom he has worked before to manage the roster he winds up building.

That much has been clear dating back to Jackson's unfruitful courting of Steve Kerr, who won three championships as a point guard on Phil's Chicago Bulls. Kerr was both an attractive coaching prospect and a Jackson guy, which made him the clear first choice for New York before he took the Golden State Warriors job instead.

Even so, Kerr's candidacy was all a matter of potential. He has never coached before at any level, though his headiness as a player, insight as an analyst and ease as a communicator all indicated he would be a natural to lead an NBA locker room.

The connection to Jackson mattered first and foremost, though.

Take Stan Van Gundy. He might not have Kerr's charm, but he's every bit the basketball mind, and he has proven he can translate that intelligence into on-court success; Van Gundy has posted a winning record in each of his eight seasons as an NBA head coach.

He ultimately took a coach/exec combination gig with the Detroit Pistons, but prior to that, he was Golden State's top prize over Kerr. Jackson never expressed interest in Van Gundy, to no one's surprise; he had his own coaching philosophy and strategies, and had never worked with the triangle offense, so he could not be a Jackson option.

There is merit to that closed-minded gambit. If it works, it's synergistic, ensuring the Knicks have a cohesive organizational vision in the front office as well as in the locker room. At the very least, that would be novel for this perpetually dysfunctional franchise.

But if the next Knicks coach struggles, egoism and nepotism will be significant factors. Jackson wants to do things his way, so he is looking at his guys, even though his guys are not empirically the best candidates.

He knows it, too. That's why he's openly stating that his coaching search is skewing younger, per Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal.

There are layers to that quote.

On its surface, its dissembling. If Jackson cared what the media thought about his hire, he would heed ESPN New York's Stephen A. Smith and others loudly calling for Mark Jackson to come home to Madison Square Garden.

Beneath that, Jackson is subtly rejecting his former assistants as desirable targets. As ESPN Stats & Info points out, the foursome of Jim Cleamons, Bill Cartwright, Kurt Rambis and Brian Shaw have produced a .297 winning percentage in a combined 495 games coached. If you want to add Frank Hamblen into the mix, his 33-71 career record actually improves the picture slightly.

It's all a polite way of Jackson saying that, if he's staying within his circle, he'd prefer a Kerr to a Rambis; the guy with potential to succeed gives Jackson more confidence than the guy who has already failed given the opportunity (though Shaw, who went 36-46 in his first season with the Denver Nuggets and is currently not an option for New York, deserves exemption from this line of thought).

But that's still not justification for hiring an inexperienced coach.

If Kerr took the Knicks job, or if Derek Fisher or another former Jackson player does, the Zen Master would have the greatest possible ability to serve as a coaching mentor as well as an executive. Those guys owe their development as basketball thinkers to Jackson and his legendary coaching; put in an unfamiliar situation in the world's biggest media market, they would take his advice eagerly.

Call it Jackson striving for harmony or for control, the motivation is the same: empowering someone who will give Phil the most influence over a job he can no longer perform.

Jackson believes in the triangle, and he knows as well as anybody that he's the only coach who has found any championship success employing the offense. That leaves him to choose someone who, while capable in his own right, will implement a system that the Zen Master believes is best.

It could work. Prior Jackson disciples failed with franchises lacking the commitment to the triangle philosophy that the Knicks now have. Between organizational unity and more effective implementation, there is a clear method at work.

Yet there is madness in Jackson clinging to a system that he has seen repeatedly fail without his firsthand stewardship and empowering inferior talent to implement it.

Whomever winds up holding the clipboard for the Knicks will be Jackson's handpicked choice, because he knows no other way to build a winner. On the other hand, none of his possible options has proven that anyone else can win that way, and New York could suffer for it.