Is Phil Jackson Already an Elite NBA Executive?

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Is Phil Jackson Already an Elite NBA Executive?
Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Phil Jackson has gone through the later stages of his NBA career with the "Zen Master" moniker attached to him at the hip, but it's time to add a new descriptive phrase—elite NBA executive. 

At some point, he might end up with a list of nicknames and titles as long as Daenerys Targaryen's, and he'll deserve every one of them. Retaining Carmelo Anthony for five years and an estimated $122-123 million, as reported by the New York Post's Marc Berman, is already the feather in an impressive cap, and he's only been on the job for a period of time better described in months than years. 

Jackson was hired as the New York Knicks president of basketball operations during a disastrous 2013-14 campaign, and his first offseason in charge saw him tasked with doing the impossible. He was supposed to enter the summer with no financial flexibility, few tradable assets and no draft picks at his disposal, only to emerge having secured Melo's services throughout the foreseeable future. 

Somehow, he's done that and more. 

"Trading for Jose Calderon is a splash in itself purely because the Knicks were considered inflexible to the highest degree," writes Bleacher Report's Dan Favale, and he's exactly right. Regardless of who you feel "won" the trade that swapped Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and a spot in the draft, the fact that a move was made is significant in and of itself. 

Of course, it gets even better because Jackson flat-out nailed the draft, selecting Cleanthony Early out of Wichita State and drafting Thanasis Antetokounmpo before buying a third pick from the Indiana Pacers for draft-and-stash purposes. 

Even then, he was emerging as a high-quality front-office player. 

But Melo? Melo changes everything. 

 

Against the Odds

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The Knicks never could've been considered the prohibitive favorites for Anthony's services. Sure, they had appeal, but so did everyone else, especially if we narrow things down to the three de facto finalists in the contest for his signature. 

New York is not going to be a highly competitive team right way, no matter what Jackson does throughout the rest of the offseason. Until the 2015 free-agency class hits the open market (more on that later), the Knicks are capped out and presumably done making major moves, leaving them with a limited roster that isn't capable of competing with the best teams in the Eastern Conference, much less in the NBA's tougher half. 

The appeal of the Knicks largely rested in the fact that it could throw more money at Melo than anywhere else. And money, mind you, wasn't supposed to be a major factor when Anthony was making his decisions. 

"If it was just about money he would have made a decision days ago," a person close to Anthony told Frank Isola of the New York Daily News on July 8. "It’s not that simple."

That extra money on the contract, as well as the appeal of staying at home and completing what he started with the Knicks, was the extent of the New York pitch. After all, he could get just as many endorsement options with a Los Angeles Lakers outfit that also was set to enjoy plenty of cap space during the 2015 offseason. 

By agreeing to remain with the Knicks, Melo turned down an opportunity not only to play for the Lake Show, still one of the NBA's premier organizations, but also to take over as the face of the franchise when Kobe Bryant had laced his sneakers up for the final time. Plus, Anthony is friends with the Mamba, which had to weigh on his mind at least a little bit. 

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

But he also turned down the Chicago Bulls, the team with the best shot to help him add a ring to his collection of accolades, trophies and honors. The potential of a lineup led by Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Melo, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah was the greatest, at least from a purely basketball perspective. 

However, it was New York that won his services in the end, and the 'Bockers have a certain Zen Master to thank for that. Per Isola, Jackson's confidence might have done that trick: 

Jackson, of course, has made it clear that losing Anthony would not be a major setback for the franchise, considering the Knicks will have significant cap space next summer. In fact, Jackson famously said that if Anthony re-signed or decided to leave the Knicks, in both instances they would consider themselves 'fortunate.'

It was a revealing comment and one that undoubtedly caught Anthony’s attention.

Don't make the mistake of confusing that sentiment with indifference. Jackson most certainly was not indifferent, as Adrian Wojnarowski makes clear for Yahoo Sports: 

In the meeting that included general manager Steve Mills, Jackson dispelled doubts that he was indifferent about Anthony staying with the Knicks, sources said. New York officials have made it clear to Anthony that they need him on the roster to have a chance to attract star players in free agency, sources said. After a week of franchises fawning over him during recruiting trips to Chicago, Houston, Dallas and the Los Angeles Lakers, Anthony needed to hear that enthusiasm out of the Knicks' top management – and of course needed that max contract extension made available to him.

He wasn't indifferent; he had a vision with or without Anthony, and that confidence was presumably quite attractive to Melo when he was considering his future. And it should be, as Jackson has already done quite a bit to earn his trust. 

Maybe that was shaken when his initial coaching pursuit of Steve Kerr failed, but it was dispelled by the actual personnel moves he's made thus far, including hiring a coach (Derek Fisher) who could help sway his star forward.

Plus, there's no chance whatsoever that Anthony would've agreed to play out his prime years in New York without being convinced of Jackson's vision for restoring this roster into a contending one. 

Yes, that's right. There's hope in Madison Square Garden again. 

 

What? Hope in New York?

The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

The New York faithful have been conditioned to expect the worst, even if they steadfastly cling to belief that the next iteration of the Knicks is going to be the one that finally gets the franchise off the schneid

This is an organization that hasn't claimed a title in over four decades now. The last time a championship was earned came back in 1973, when Jackson was averaging 8.1 points and 4.3 rebounds per game while suiting up at power forward. 

Recently, even playoff victories have been hard to come by.

Since Patrick Ewing led the Knicks to the 1999 NBA Finals and then made the Eastern Conference Finals one year later, New York has won only a single playoff series. The 2012-13 team ended a drought that had lasted over a decade, but the follow-up was awful. 

Yes, that would be last year's Knicks. The same ones that made as many headlines for ill-advised shots at the end of games, defense that resembled a blindfolded toddler playing NBA 2K14 on Xbox, shoelace scandals and gun arrests than for anything positive.

2013-14 was an absolute disaster, a season that dragged on and on until it ended in a missed postseason and a distinctly negative feeling. 

USA TODAY Sports

Dysfunction reigned supreme, but that's come to an end with Jackson at the helm. In its place? Hope. 

Hope that perhaps a championship is in the cards in the near future. Hope that the 2015 free-agent class will provide Melo with quite a bit of help in that quest now that he's reportedly on board for five years at a slightly discounted rate and the Knicks still plan to enjoy plenty of financial flexibility. 

"Anyone who thought that Phil Jackson came to New York City to sit around and wait until July 2015 may be mistaken," wrote The Knicks Blog's Moke Hamilton. "According to a league source, his grandiose vision of building a contender may begin sooner than anyone—even Carmelo Anthony—thought possible."

He hasn't sat back to wait, but he's also preserved the flexibility necessary to reap the benefits during his second summer in charge. There's still space to offer a max deal to Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol or whoever else Jackson and Melo covet next offseason. 

How many other executives could've pulled this off—keeping Melo, making moves against the odds and allowing hope to creep back into the equation—without breaking a sweat? Better yet, how many could do that during their first year on the job? 

Jackson has already earned a title during his playing career, which just so happened to be the last time New York won a championship. He wasn't technically a part of the 1970 title-winning roster, as he missed the full season with a back injury, though you'll see him credited with a second ring as a player in some places. 

Is Phil Jackson already an elite NBA executive?

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When he was coaching, he filled up more than two hands with jewelry. Between the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls, he managed to win another 11 titles. 

How long will it be before he earns his first championship in this new facet of the Association? It certainly seems as though it's more of a possibility now than when he first took over. 

Considering the Knicks' status heading into the offseason, that's an accomplishment in and of itself. 

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