In end, New York Knicks failed to find footing under Phil Jackson
Discord between legendary coach, New York's front office eventually became a constant
The stormy tenure of Phil Jackson as New York Knicks’ president ended Wednesday, with the team announcing the 71-year-old Jackson will not remain in his current position — an abrupt change of direction less than a week after New York took point guard Frank Ntilikina in the 2017 Draft and amid continuing uncertainty about Carmelo Anthony’s future with the team.
The decision to relieve Jackson of his duties came after Knicks owner James Dolan lost confidence in Jackson’s ability to turn the fortunes of his franchise around. The team has been in turmoil for several weeks, with Jackson insisting that Anthony be moved either by trade or by buyout so that the team can move forward. In addition, Jackson inexplicably found public fault with Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks’ second-year emerging star and one of the few positives from Jackson’s tenure as the franchise’s decision maker. New York took Porzingis with the fourth pick in the 2015 Draft.
The Vertical and ESPN.com first reported earlier Wednesday morning that Jackson’s tenure with the Knicks was nearing an end.
The Knicks never got traction during Jackson’s tenure, going 80-166 in his three years running the show. It was a far cry from Jackson’s brilliant tenure as coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. He won six titles in eight seasons with Chicago, then won five more championships during two stints as Lakers coach, passing Red Auerbach as the coach with the most NBA titles when he got his 11th ring in 2010.
Jackson’s insistence on sticking with the triangle offense — a system that worked when run by the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Scottie Pippen and Shaquille O’Neal during Jackson’s coaching stints in Chicago and Los Angeles, Hall of Famers all — was a sticking point in the team’s pursuit of difference-making talent in free agency. It also hamstrung Jackson’s coaches, former coach Derek Fisher and current coach Jeff Hornacek, who were looking to move away from exclusive use of the system but were overruled by their boss, who used assistant coach Kurt Rambis to continue implementing the triangle during the season.
Jackson often took positions that were discordant with the necessary culling of players. The Knicks couldn’t even get a meeting two years ago with LaMarcus Aldridge when he was the top free agent available that summer. Jackson insisted that Aldridge play center in New York, a position Aldridge had expressly said he did not want to play.
Jackson’s frequent criticisms of Anthony rubbed a lot of players around the league the wrong way; Anthony, while hardly a perfect player, is well-liked around the league and is close with many of the league’s superstars, like LeBron James and Chris Paul. All three are in leadership positions with the National Basketball Players Association and Paul was just re-elected as NBPA president last week.
Jackson embraced Anthony upon taking the job. One of his first acts after being hired in 2014 was to give Anthony a five-year deal for $124 million that included a no-trade clause, a rarity for any player in the league. But the relationship quickly soured. Anthony tried to play in the triangle but struggled, believing the team was more successful in “free flow” offense with more determination to get out in transition early.
And Jackson abandoned the idea of counting on Anthony to be an integral part of the team’s future. Before this past February’s trade deadline, the Knicks made serious inquiries into trading Anthony, either to the Cleveland Cavaliers or LA Clippers, with a possible deal with Los Angeles involving Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford getting at least some traction before the idea was tabled.
By the end of this season, Jackson was openly saying it was time for Anthony to move on, even as Anthony insisted he wanted to stay.
“We have not been able to win with him on the court at this time and I think the direction with our team is that he is a player that would be better off somewhere else and using his talent somewhere he can win or chase that championship,” Jackson said at the end of the Knicks’ season. It was one of the few times that Jackson met with the New York media.
While he was often gregarious and willing to engage reporters both on basketball (and other matters) while coaching the Bulls and Lakers, Jackson withdrew in New York, going months without any kind of contact with the press.
Jackson then got crossways with Porzingis, after Porzingis, reportedly angry about Jackson’s treatment of Anthony, skipped his exit interview with the team at season’s end and flew back home. Jackson has had no face-to-face with Porzingis since, though other team officials have communicated with him via text. Then, bizarrely, the Knicks began hinting they’d be willing to trade Porzingis, who has become a fan favorite with his unique skill set and size, thus earning the nickname “The Unicorn.”
In an interview last week on the MSG Network, Jackson said the team was exploring offers for Porzingis for “the future,” even though Porzingis is just 21 years old. The Knicks asked for two high Lottery picks as well as a young player in exchange for Porzingis. After finding no suitors, they remained at No. 8 in the Draft and took Ntilikina, an 18-year-old prospect from France who has talent and potential — and who, at 6-foot-5, fit Jackson’s long-desired preference for big guards in his offense.
Jackson was hired with great fanfare by Dolan in March of 2014, and given a five-year deal that paid him $60 million. (The final two years of Jackson’s deal were picked up by the team earlier this year.) His hiring signaled a change of direction for Dolan, who had been directly involved with the team’s decision-making in previous years and received withering criticism because of it. But by all indications, Dolan stayed away this time and let Jackson make all the calls.
Jackson made some good decisions, like taking the then-teenager Porzingis out of Latvia in 2015, a selection that was, predictably, met with boos by Knicks fans after he was announced. Rookie center Willy Hernangomez, acquired on Draft night last year from Philadelphia, was a 2017 All-Rookie first team selection.
But there were personnel misses. Jackson gave oft-injured center Joakim Noah a four-year, $72 million deal that still has three years remaining, with Noah’s future as an effective player going forward very much in doubt. The Knicks gave up on J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, who went on to help the Cavaliers win a championship in 2016 after Cleveland acquired them in 2015.
Jackson acquired Derrick Rose from Chicago last summer in what was essentially a one-year tryout in the final year of his previous contract. Rose played reasonably well in New York, averaging 18 points a game, and could return to the Knicks next season.
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