Sports

Phil Jackson Knows What He's Doing

Phil Jackson's attempt to bring the Triangle Offense to the Knicks isn't working yet. But for that offense's legendary apostle, this is about something bigger.

by Colin McGowan
Feb 5 2015, 4:25pm

Photo by Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

What must it feel like, to be the last person to believe in something? Phil Jackson is shipwrecked. He finally resides in his spiritual home of Manhattan, but nothing else about his predicament offers any solace. The Knicks suck as violently as they ever have, and even if that's by design, that hasn't stopped those who doubt Derek Fisher from taking the team's win-loss record as evidence he's a thoroughly imperfect executor of Jackson's vision.

It can be unclear, at times, to see evidence of that vision at all. The abject failure of this year's team, a squad composed of Carmelo Anthony plus a gaggle of also-rans and rotation dandruff, has provided ammunition for Triangle opponents. Their argument is that the offense is outdated and only ever gained legitimacy due to the superior athletes under Jackson's employ rather than some built-in systematic specialness; that argument's ostensible proof plays its games in Madison Square Garden.

What all this bluster supposes is that the Triangle itself is a panacea, and that its brilliance and Fisher could or should have turned a team composed mostly of scrubs into a respectable one. Neither is true, as anyone with half a brain knows, which makes it a little strange that it took just three months for Jackson to be transformed from returning hero to stubborn jerk. New York media isn't renowned for its patience or level-headedness, but this was fast, and rough.

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The result of this fervor has been Phil sensing that the Triangle, his precious, is under attack. In a New York Times article that is essentially an extended Sure, but... from Jackson, he says "I think it's still debatable about how basketball is going to be played, what's going to win out." The implication being that the currently successful Popovich-ian pace-and-space model is not necessarily better than the Triangle, but simply what's working right now.

This is a bit of ass-showing from Jackson, if not difficult to understand. He's wedded to an ideal, and the ideal is wedded to him; in arguing for the Triangle, he's also arguing for himself, and attempting to validate his own genius. It's en vogue to point out that Jackson has a hilariously outsized ego and worships at the altar of himself and his own brilliance. This is fair enough, and not necessarily untrue, but it also seems somewhat beside the point. It seems disingenuous to bristle at the proposition that philosophy is on some level about the philosopher, or that criticism is about the critic. You think Sartre wasn't self-impressed? More directly, do you think I'm not thinking about what this piece says about me as I write it?

Adherents of theories laboring to prove that their theories aren't bullshit is not new, and it's nothing new in sports, either. Johan Cruyff, for instance, is a vocal and frequent rejector of the idea that soccer should be played pragmatically. Cruyff was a member of Dutch national teams that employed a delightfully quixotic iteration of Total Football and a manager of Barcelona teams that ran a proto-tiki-taka not unlike Total Football. He adamantly believes teams should aspire to play joyfully above all else. An approach even a smidge more cynical (or practical), he asserts, fails to realize the game's potential.

Of course, fans of José Mourinho's Inter or Diego Simeone's Atlético Madrid would tell Cruyff to get bent. Soccer that's gruesomely ends-based may be heretical, but it can also be quite fun to play and watch. This an obvious thing: people look for different things when they watch games. And styles, for fans, are often as much about efficacy—what will help us win?—as essence. In the answer lies a certain beauty.

Jackson's Triangle is high-minded. It's a way of playing basketball, and also—insert bong rip sound effect here—a way of being. Sports-philosophers are both silly and deadly serious, mockable and profound. Jackson loathes offenses that revolve around what he described to the Times as the "screen-and-roll, break down, pass, and two or three players standing in spots, not participating in the offense." This is a fine and principled thing to loathe, provided you're willing to expose yourself to people scoffing at the broadness of the brush with which the argument is painted.

Jackson seems a genuine romantic in addition to a personal brand-polisher. He thinks he has The Answers, and he has credibility in that regard that extends beyond that of many other ostensible visionaries. It's hard to imagine that he has entirely spent down that cred over the course of one (perhaps intentionally) bad half-season with the Knicks. But sports are sports and as much as Jackson cuts and cultivates a deity-like figure, his work is that of a glorified manager, not an archbishop. He can do only so much. His power doesn't extend beyond the team he builds.

The Triangle works. There's ample evidence of that on the historical record, as Jackson is fond of indicating. He's a bit salty that he has to prove it again, in a town that has been desperately calling out for him for more than a decade. Perhaps he's beginning to understand that the Triangle is not just the concept with which he's most associated, but also the hill he's going to die on.

That's what I hear, at least, when he talks about laying a stylistic foundation in New York that he hopes will exist for a very long time, and support something great and enduring. These are the grandiose and human sounds of an old man trying to leave his mark. Styles are styles, as rich and disposable as they are. They also belong to someone. What we're witnessing with the Knicks is someone who both believes in and embodies a trying to make sure that it—and by extension, he—are properly revered. Or, failing that, at least not forgotten. Phil Jackson knows exactly what he's doing.