A common reaction to Steve Kerr’s spurning of the New York Knicks pivoted on a simple question: How bad does the job have to be for someone—a former player and noted friend, in fact—to tell Phil Jackson “no.”
The long answer is that owner James Dolan has cultivated a culture where paranoia and shortsightedness trump patience and trust as operating ethics.
The short answer: It’s really not that bad.
Yes, the Knicks are capped-out and in danger of watching their lone superstar, Carmelo Anthony, head for the hills in free agency.
Yes, New York gave up its lone 2014 pick in the 2011 deal to bring Melo to Manhattan, preventing the team from using one of the deepest drafts in recent memory to bolster its aging core.
Yes, the Knicks have a history of cycling through coaches like brake pads and haven’t employed a single one longer than six years since the days of Red Holzman—the only skipper, appropriately enough, to ever bring home a banner.
And yet, for all its foibles and failures, New York can still, after all the years of painful yearning, hang its hat on two, huge hooks: that Dolan’s pockets are Pacific trenches and the Knicks—decades of dormancy and undiluted failure aside—remain one of the NBA's few legacy franchises.
What’s more, whoever’s hired will have the full faith and credit of a true basketball bon vivant behind him.
Here’s a bit of what Buckley had to say about how, despite an immediate media seizing, “The Phil Effect” may, at this point, actually be underrated:
Perhaps that's being overly optimistic, but remember how sharp the basketball mind is that will be plotting these architectural drawings. It's impossible to ignore Jackson's lack of front-office experience, but it's just as hard to pretend his treasure trove of championship rings (11 as a coach, two more as a player) does not exist.
… The Knicks have more weapons than the Lakers now, arguably more wiggle room for next summer considering the weight of Bryant's deal and the Zen Master's brilliance to help guide the next coach along.
When Jackson was officially announced as New York’s new president of basketball operations on March 18, the terms of the deal were crystal clear: Phil would enjoy unprecedented control over all personnel decisions.
The implications for the Knicks’ next head coach couldn’t be more encouraging. Indeed, Jackson’s pick will immediately find his fortunes tied to a true Teflon legend—a man and mind whose spectacular success warrants as close to full managerial immunity as it gets.
For a team whose near-future course could veer in any one of a million directions, that built-in flexibility should be seen as a draw in and of itself.
Early indications are that Jackson is looking to bring on a trusted triangle denizen to help spearhead a systemic transition in New York. Already, Kurt Rambis, Jim Clemmons, Bill Cartwright, Brian Shaw and Derek Fisher—Phil acolytes all—have been linked, with varying degrees of seriousness, to the Knicks vacancy.
But while such a searching scope could be construed as overly narrow, if you’re any one of these candidates, that kind of personal tie could mean the difference between having, on the one hand, a real chance at a career stamp, and a year-three buyout on the other.
Maybe Melo stays, and maybe he doesn’t. Maybe Jackson can steer the Knicks safely out of their fiscal pitfalls, and maybe he can’t. Maybe the triangle successfully sparks a full-blown basketball renaissance in New York, and maybe it doesn’t.
Ironically, and in spite of the seeming insecurity, the next coach could enjoy more leeway than any Knicks skipper since Pat Riley.
Kerr was supposed to be that guy. But contrary to prevailing opinion, Kerr’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors may have been less about organizational apprehension than it was sheer, family-focused practicality.
Here’s Jackson speaking on the subject, from the New York Daily News’ Frank Isola:
There were plenty of things in the contract where he could have come here and been very satisfied. So that really wasn’t the issue. The issue was about California, and the issue was about — to be perfectly honest, it’s a better job for him. He’s a California guy. It’s a group of guys that are for him, been in the playoffs, been there. They have a really good operating team right now.
We’re still a team that didn’t make the playoffs, have to put together a roster. I’m not saying we have to rebuild, per se, but we have to build a competitive team, whereas that team — what did they get, to the semifinals last year, and this year they got bumped in the first round. But that’s — playoff experience is important.
Reading between the lines of that second paragraph, it seems as if even Phil recognizes the challenge he faces in New York.
To blow it up, or not to blow it up: That is the question.
The first and foremost concern is, of course, the fate of Anthony. According to ESPN New York’s Ian Begley, Anthony said during a conversation with Jackson that he’d “think about” opting into his 2014-15 contract and waiting until next summer to test free agency.
It stands to reason there will be some degree of consultation with Anthony if and when Jackson begins to amp up the coaching search. To what degree, it’s impossible to say.
At the very least, opting in will at least give Anthony a yearlong look at what Jackson has in mind for the franchise going forward. If the coaching hire is a success and the Knicks somehow ride the triangle back into the postseason, perhaps Melo sticks around, thereby becoming the beacon with which New York will seek to attract more top-caliber free agents next summer.
Should Anthony leave, New York’s newly minted coach will have even more leeway as part of a full-on rebuild—the kind of project where prudence and patience are paramount.
So which comes first: Anthony’s courting, or a coaching hire? How the Knicks answer that question will be perhaps the biggest tell for where Jackson envisions his franchise going.
In short, any Knicks coaching prospect will be looking at one of four possible outcomes:
- They’re hired and Anthony stays.
- They’re hired and Anthony leaves.
- Anthony leaves and they’re hired.
- Anthony stays and he’s hired.
Regardless of which path Jackson chooses, each scenario affords his candidate more than enough cover to make coaching in the World’s Most Famous Arena a much safer prospect than perhaps at any time in history.
More than that, he'll have ample opportunity make good on a promise four decades in the making: a third banner for a city starving for a return to NBA glory.
When Kerr backed out on his verbal commitment to coaching the Knicks, it was seen as Exhibit A for why the change in culture portended by Jackson’s arrival was little more than a mere mirage.
Which is why whoever winds up taking the reins should be someone who recognizes that, just beyond the shimmer façade, there’s a real franchise waiting to be found.