Phil Jackson and New York

[Jackson is] coming back because he wants to work. He misses being involved in basketball. Check his life story. It’s not Native American culture and Zen philosophy. Those are hobbies. He’s a basketball lifer.

At least now we know where Carmelo Anthony is going this summer: Nowhere.

After all, if your stated goal is to win would you then leave an organization being run by the greatest winner in basketball history?

The New York Knicks Tuesday are expected to announce Phil Jackson will manage their basketball operations. This after Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson last week made last, desperate pleas for Jackson to remain in Los Angeles to help revive the Lakers. Those are two guys who know something about winning with 10 championships combined, though three fewer than Jackson as a Bulls and Lakers coach and player with the Knicks.

So we can safely assume that even Anthony will figure out there are no better alternatives for success.

And this is going to be a great success for Jackson and the Knicks.

This will be the first time since Pat Riley left the Knicks in 1995 that the Eastern Conference has to worry about the Knicks. It is the sum of all sports fears, an excellent New York franchise.

This is more than just Jackson having won by coaching great players. Jackson knows along with the best, like Riley and Jerry West and Larry Bird — by the way not long time executives before they became great executives — the elements required for success.

The Knicks, actually, should be much better next season.

Though that’s because they’ve way underachieved this season with poor coaching and widespread disorganization. Jackson’s presence alone will repair that even if the doesn’t coach.

The Knicks’ big chance comes in the summer of 2015 when the contracts of Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani expire. That’s almost $60 million off the books. But before then the Knicks can put out a team for next season of Anthony, still one of the game’s elite scorers, and Chandler as a core. Tim Hardaway Jr. is an excellent young perimeter player along with Iman Shumpert. That should be a playoff team with responsible leadership.

The Knicks already are rid of Ron Artest and Jackson will drop Kenyon Martin as the Knicks themselves brought in troubled players. He’ll marginalize J.R. Smith. But Jackson’s teams always have been able to have a player like that as long as you surround him with competitors. Smith can be salvaged.

The Knicks will have a salary cap exception this summer, so they can sign a point guard. Maybe someone like Kyle Lowry or Greivis Vasquez. The point is with a scorer, defensive center and young athletes with another starting guard and the structure they lack they should be a high level playoff team immediately. They’re actually playing so well now I’m guessing the Pacers don’t want any part of them to open the playoffs.

Then comes 2015 and who knows. LeBron, as I wrote about a week ago? Kevin Love? LaMarcus Aldridge? The possibilities are appealing as even with Anthony on the books the Knicks should have substantial room to add a maximum free agent along with having their first round draft pick and another free agent.

Obviously, this also includes Jackson hiring a coach and full time general manager. There’s been much about how Jackson would not be in New York all the time and it’s a fulltime job.

Of course, it is.

I’ve used the example of if you are a physicist and can have Albert Einstein for two hours a day or someone else all day what would you do?

It’s not like Jackson will be working from the golf course. He’s coming back because he wants to work. He misses being involved in basketball. He had health issues to deal with when he left coaching the Lakers. He has done that. But check his life story. It’s not Native American culture and Zen philosophy. Those are hobbies. He’s a basketball lifer. It’s truly all he’s ever done and he misses being involved. If you are great at something and have a passion for it you don’t want to leave. Ask Michael Jordan or Riley, West or Bird. And why should you or would you?

The reason being a sports general manager is so difficult is there’s no school, no degree. No one knows what you do to qualify. There’s no true job training. You want to be a lawyer, you go to law school and there’s a test. You want to be an accountant, you take the CPA exam. Watching basketball games or playing in them is not enough. Sports is the only modern business that operates with 18th century practices. You do an apprenticeship. Basically you work next to and stand with someone who’s done the job before. You watch and then you do it.

It’s also why there were a lot of bad horseshoes and newspapers back then.

Just because you are a great player doesn’t mean you will be a great coach or executive, as we know. But it also doesn’t mean you’ll be a poor one.

Riley wasn’t a successful executive until he became one. Same with Bird. Julius Erving couldn’t. Michael Jordan hasn’t. There’s this bromide about reserves being better coaches or managers because they watched the game more closely and didn’t have the extraordinary talent.

It just comes down to something not easy to measure, of whether you understand the elements that go into team success and winning.

The great team executives understand it’s team building, and Jackson always has had an extraordinary feel for that part of sports.

Though it’s more than that. Many mock Jackson’s unique bonding practices and spiritual initiatives. But they equate to the essence of sports or business, a group working together to create the best environment for success. Growing up in a family of ministers, Jackson has dealt with his teams as his congregation. That sort of care, concern and community unity seems simple enough, though difficult to duplicate in sports. It’s part of the essence of Jackson’s leadership.

They’ve come to mocking Jackson in New York these days as there’s a natural negative media response in New York to previous success, which is rare there. That’s OK because skepticism is healthy. Show us. Jackson often has been the object of jealousy for having had so much success and generally not being a part of the inner circle of NBA coaching where every coach talks about what a great job every other coach is doing all the time no matter the ugliness of the record.

Jackson is a student of life and other disciplines, which is another reason he is so good and seems a mystery to others.

Jackson likely isn’t going to be in a bunch of small colleges watching games. Which guys like Riley and Bird and West have rarely done, anyway, and somehow succeeded as well. They are CEO’s directing organizations. But they also understand well what leads to success.

In basketball, Jackson endorses the elements of defense and unselfish, team oriented play. They are the rudimentary foundations of success in all sports. His means may be different, but his philosophies are the same.

When Jackson was Bulls coach he lobbied constantly for the Bulls to trade Charles Oakley for Bill Cartwright. General manager Jerry Krause was much against it because he’d drafted Oakley. Jordan was bitterly opposed because Oakley was his physical protector against the cheap shot Detroit tactics and Oakley was his closest friend. But with Doug Collins’ support the Bulls made the trade — Krause deserves the credit for doing so as he didn’t have to as the final voice — and Jordan would later admit he didn’t know if the Bulls could have won without Cartwright to hold off the top East centers then, like Patrick Ewing, Brad Daugherty, James Edwards and Robert Parish.

In the Bulls’ second threepeat, it was Jackson who lobbied everyone for Dennis Rodman. Krause had said Rodman should never be a Bull. But Jackson had persuaded everyone the need to, as he then said, “fetch the ball” was vital to success.

Jackson’s philosophies were the same as everyone else’s. There are no secret formulas. It’s hiring the personnel to do so and knowing who that is. Jackson didn’t always have Shaq. His three-headed Bulls’ monsters were centers basically not starting anywhere else. His perimeter guys in Los Angeles also were role players, like Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Brian Shaw. The point was to bring in players who could fill out a team with certain skills. It’s not just using them as a coach; Jackson always recommended the kinds of players he’d like. If he didn’t, you’d have seen a lot more rookies on those teams.

Sure, the Bulls had Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and the Lakers had Kobe and Shaq and then Kobe and Pau. But his teams were always able to add role players who were crucial to success in big moments. And Jackson was involved in those processes. Jackson never much wanted rookies on his rosters, and he never had them. Anyone who knows team executives knows they love draft picks. But those title teams rarely had them. It’s another reason Jackson is not back in Los Angeles. It’s not just Jim Buss. Mitch Kupchak also knows Jackson’s abilities with meshing talent. Kupchak would be without a job as well.

But New York needs Phil more than the Lakers do.

And it’s classic full circle for Jackson to return to where he started his pro career. He’s always loved the city, just walking around and exploring, and he’ll embrace it as well.

Jackson never joined those clubs of coaches he’s not known that well. You hear all the time he’ll run the Knicks from his ranch in Montana. He doesn’t have a ranch, by the way, but a house on the lake next to the house he and his brother literally built themselves and where he stayed in summers for years. His singularity produces mystery. Sometimes in sports when you read a book you’re considered an outsider. But Jackson is astute with both X’s and O’s as well as the tic-tac-toe of human nature.

Another of the mystery fears is the triangle offense, that Jackson and his coach will force it on unsuspecting players and that it’s never worked without Phil. It’s really a basic basketball offense that became over dramatized because of Jackson’s success. If it were called anything else it would not be an issue. I’m sure you won’t hear it called that in New York. But it’s not like the Bulls or Lakers were a Mensa society. Check those rosters.

Every general manager and top team executive makes major mistakes. Auerbach had his share on down through West. You can’t always predict humanity, as we all find out. But what they all had in common was an understanding of the elements that combine for team success. It’s not something you study in class or learn just by playing or watching. It’s also a feel and a sense, so perhaps there is some Zen in all the great ones.

Now the latest speculation, which I also mentioned last week when the Heat was in Chicago, notes that LeBron could opt out in 2015 when the Knicks have salary cap room and go to New York. Sure, if Pat Riley could produce the winning environment in Miami I’d stay there. Who else but Jackson after enabling both Jordan and Bryant to become winners — and they played a combined 15 seasons for other coaches winning no titles — could help put LeBron in position to get more titles than Kobe and Jordan? And how sweet would that be for James to pass them while playing for an organization run by their favorite mentor?


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