Phil Jackson Had to Go, but Knicks Owner James Dolan Remains Ultimate Problem

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistJune 28, 2017

Dec 16, 2015; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks general manager Phil Jackson looks on during a stop in play against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the first half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Christmas in June? That, at least, was certainly how New York Knicks fans felt as they woke up Wednesday morning to the news, courtesy of ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne, that team president Phil Jackson would be stepping down from his post. That decision, according to Shelburne, came late Tuesday night following a series of conversations between Jackson and Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan that centered on the future of the organization.

There's no doubting the Knicks are better off with Jackson far away from the franchise and with general manager Steve Mills temporarily running the show. Removing Jackson from the picture might be the best decision Dolan has made in his nearly two decades as Knicks owner.

Jackson spent his three-plus seasons as team president alienating players, both in his own locker room and around the league. From his obsession with the triangle offense to shots at LeBron James, from his handling of the Carmelo Anthony mess to the PR war he waged against New York City's beloved unicorn Kristaps Porzingis, Jackson has spent his tenure proving over and over again he was not qualified or equipped to run a 21st-century NBA team.

That the Knicks went 80-166 in his three years at the helm, losing 50 or more games in each of those seasons and with no life vest in sight solidified his fate. More damaging to Jackson, though, is the way his actions and comments over that period will affect his once-golden legacy. Has the world ever seen a man's reputation flip from genius to fool so quickly?

The Knicks no longer have to deal with Jackson's not-so-cryptic tweets, his attempts to undercut a head coach, players' grumbling about his archaic offensive system or his poorly executed mind games. They're a better franchise Wednesday than they were Tuesday.

Porzingis' New York future, it would seem, is now secure. Given the timing, it's fair to wonder if the rift between Porzingis and Jackson at least played a part in Dolan's pushing Jackson out (which is no doubt what Porzingis was aiming for when he skipped his end-of-season exit meeting).

That this is all happening before free agency is helpful; agents and players around the league have had no qualms expressing how unappealing the prospect of playing for Jackson's Knicks had become. Perhaps this changes that. It's possible that Carmelo Anthony, no longer engaged in a staredown with Jackson, becomes more open to waiving his no-trade clause, giving the Knicks more cap space.

But to assume that the ousting of Jackson will solve all the problems that haunt MSG is naive.

Just last week, Dolan told SB Nation he had completely sequestered himself from the team's basketball operations. Yet just five days later, here we have Dolan once again stepping, and once again his timing is poor. Just last week, Jackson selected Frank Ntilikina at No. 8 overall in the 2017 NBA draft because he fits the triangle. Perhaps, if not for Jackson, the Knicks would have instead gone with Dennis Smith Jr. or Malik Monk, guards better suited for the modern game.

Smith, in particular, was viewed by many as a better prospect than Ntilikina but a poor choice for a triangle team because of his preference to play pick-and-roll basketball. A league source told Bleacher Report that Smith, who was drafted No. 9 by the Dallas Mavericks, would likely be a Knick if Jackson had been let go prior to the draft.

Which is all to say that while the decision to get rid of Jackson may be sound, the process certainly was not. 

And where does this leave the organization? Maybe Dolan tosses money at now-former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin. Maybe he tries to pry respected personnel men like R.C. Buford of the San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder's Sam Presti or Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri away from their current employers. According to Shelburne, the Knicks have brought in former Raptors executive Tim Leiweke to run the process of finding Jackson's replacement. 

Whatever he does, though, it seems clear Dolan is done taking a backseat, even if he said otherwise in the press release issued by the team announcing Jackson's departure. You can't help but wonder whether part of him enjoys how muddy things got by the end of Jackson's reign. Three years ago Dolan was the man most fans blamed for the team's poor record and circus-like atmosphere. His allegiance to Isaiah Thomas, his pushing out of Donnie Walsh, his hijacking of the Carmelo Anthony trade negotiations with the Denver Nuggets, not to mention a a myriad of other questionable and troubling decisions, had Knicks fans begging him to step aside.

This all changed over the past year, when those same voices could be heard clamoring for Dolan to step in. Since then Dolan has seemingly relished the chance to point out that he was finally acquiescing to fan requests that he keep himself far away from basketball decisions. Look, he would say, things have only gotten worse. 

"I recognized some three-plus years ago that this—running a basketball operation—this is not my skill set," Dolan told ESPN New York's Michael Kay Show following the Charles Oakley saga. He added: "And you know the best thing I could do was find the best guy. A lot of people said: 'You wont be able to stay away; you're going to meddle.' Well I think everybody recognizes now that I have stayed away that I have let Phil absolutely run the franchise and that I intend to do that for the length of the agreement."

Will Dolan now view the Jackson debacle as proof the Knicks are better off with him heavily involved? If so, not only would Jackson's mistake-filled tenure have set the Knicks back at least three years, but it could also wind up thrusting Dolan back into picture, an obstacle that history says will be impossible for the franchise to ever overcome. 

*This story was updated to include information from a press release issued by the Knicks

Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks, and other things, for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here.

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