Is Phil Jackson Stunting New York Knicks' Rebuild Before It Starts?

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Is Phil Jackson Stunting New York Knicks' Rebuild Before It Starts?
Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

So much of the Phil Jackson mystique pivots on a picture of the 13-time NBA champion as basketball philosopher, someone for whom a particular problem—on the court or otherwise—seldom demands a single, rigid solution.

This is the Legend of the Zen Master: relationships forged in spite of sordid pasts, a coaching curriculum honed as much by ancient wisdom as hardwood truisms, books bequeathed by fit rather than fiat.

But if there’s one issue on which Jackson is loath to relent, it’s in his longstanding love of the triangle offense.

Unfortunately, Jackson’s passion for his offensive system may wind up stunting his New York Knicks rescue mission before it starts.

It began during his first official press conference on March 18, the day the Knicks formally anointed Jackson as their new president of basketball operations.

In a nearly 10-minute soliloquy, Jackson broached everything from the future of Carmelo Anthony to how he’d seek to infuse the Knicks with a fresh commitment to organizational community and camaraderie.

Jackson also made it abundantly clear that, after years of wayward flailing, the Knicks would finally return to some semblance of offensive continuity:

I believe in system basketball. Steve Mills came out of Princeton, I came out of a system that we ran here in which team ball was an important aspect of playing. We believe thats what we want to get accomplished as we go forward from here.

If there was any question as to which “system” Jackson was referring, the subsequent list of potential coaching candidates left little doubt.

Steve Kerr, Derek Fisher, Jim Cleamons, Kurt Rambis, Brian Shaw: It doesn’t take a Rhodes scholar to realize what these names have in common.

Jackson further crystalized his commitment to giving triangle disciples top billing in a recent media session conducted at the Madison Square Garden Training Center. From the Knicks’ official website:

Reed Saxon/Associated Press

“I like to have a prior relationship with a coach, so that we know that we’ve gone through some kind of issues together, Jackson said. “We’ve dealt with some kind of battle situations, we’ve had conflicts, we’ve had disagreements, and we know how to work things out.”

And while Jackson also said he wouldn’t rule out specific collegiate candidates, New York’s future as a triangle bastion seems all but set in stone.

To be sure, as The Star-Ledger’s Dave DAlessandro wrote back in March, there is plenty of leeway within the system itself to give the game’s more improvisational tenets plenty of room to breath:

It’s more of a philosophy than an offense. In execution, it is pragmatic: If the spacing is right, and guys don’t loaf through their cuts, and they use all the options available, the triangle creates many more open looks than a conventional NBA set, because a defense tends to flow to the level of the ball.

It differs from other motion systems, because players replace cutters with prescribed routes, so that the spacing is maintained (usually by forming a triangle on the strong side) and options are maximized. It is an equal-opportunity offense, yet it still allows stars to be stars. As John Paxson once put it, ‘You can find a way to fit into it, no matter what your strengths are.’

There’s just one small problem: Since Jackson’s retirement following the 2010-11 season, the triangle has been relegated to relic—a totem, however title reaping, to a bygone era.

In fact, short of Jackson, no one coach has employed the offense, complicated as it is, to anything resembling consistently successful ends—Rambis two-year, 32-win stint with the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2009 to 2011 being the most notorious case to the contrary.

Even Kerr, who famously spurned the Knicks for the Golden State Warriors, acknowledges the triangle will inform, rather than dictate, his offensive approach.

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

Jackson clearly understands this. But short of running the show himself—something he’s repeatedly stated he has neither the energy nor the inclination to do—what exactly are his expectations?

It could well be that Phil sees the Knicks as his last grand experiment, a basketball incubator where his deepest-held beliefs can be brought to bear. Perhaps he truly believes he can help guide New York’s next coach in a way that no past general manager ever has—the approachable-yet-distant ivory-tower professor.

Scott Cacciola of The New York Times hit on precisely this point in a dispatch penned just before Jackson’s official hiring:

Jackson appears to want someone who will operate as an extension of himself, someone familiar with the triangle, perhaps someone he has coached. Someone young and fairly compliant would not hurt, either. Jackson, after all, is as much coach emeritus as team president.

And yet, it’s impossible not to wonder whether Jackson’s seeming insistence on the triangle offense may hinder, rather than help, New York’s already precarious path back to relevance.

Believing in a system is one thing. But levying artificial constraints on what kind of basketball team you intend to be flies in the face of the spirit Jackson ostensibly seeks to instill: a team committed to the free-flowing basketball poetry of Red Holzman’s halcyon teams.

If Jackson truly wants to heal New York’s wounded basketball reputation, wouldn’t it make sense to broaden his coaching search to include all manner of methodological minds? To give him as many operative options as possible?

That Jackson hasnt explicitly squashed the idea of employing other systems might be a valid point, if the existing hints werent so obvious. 

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Then again, the trump is all too obvious: This is Phil Jackson we’re talking about. What bearing 13 rings have on one’s front-office acumen is debatable only by degrees. “None” simply isn’t a legitimate answer.

Between Melo’s free-agent foray and the franchise’s failure-riddled past, the still-vacant skipper’s seat and so many questions of roster readiness, Phil Jackson’s full-circle stand promises to find a permanent place beneath the NBA spotlight.

It’s a top-to-bottom overhaul that requires a master of the trade, and Jackson is nothing if not that. But with so many major fixes to make, the last thing you want is to ruin the whole renovation by letting something as seemingly secondary as how you choose to paint put you in a corner.

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