Let's Remember The Phil Jackson Era with the Knicks
On the occasion of his firing, let's look back on all the ways Phil Jackson improbably made the Knicks worse.
© Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
They finally went and did it. Phil Jackson, the legendary coach and arch-boomer cosplaying as president of the New York Knicks, is belatedly out of a job. As first reported by ESPN's Ramona Shelburne, owner James Dolan canned Jackson after a week in which he'd grown increasingly frustrated with the trouble Jackson had brought to an already deeply damaged franchise. Dolan was irked by Jackson's determination to dump Carmelo Anthony, to whom Jackson had bequeathed a no-trade clause when resigning him to a five-year, $124 million contract, and by his increasingly fraught relationship with Kristaps Porzingis, because the young star had the temerity to skip out on his now-infamous exit interview. Dolan is a man who is constitutionally prone to being irked, but in this case he was not alone, or wrong.
In no uncertain terms, Jackson's departure is a good thing. For those who shied away from the Knicks for the last two years, it's worth taking a step back to review the laughably awful and often surrealistic idiocy that Jackson visited on this team.
In June 2016, Jackson acquired Derrick Rose from the Chicago Bulls. This was despite the fact that Rose isn't a very useful player any more and more jarringly in defiance of the fact that, at the time, Rose was in the midst of a civil trial for sexual assault. Rose then mysteriously ditched the team in January without seeing fit to let his employers know that he'd be leaving them; that act of AWOL-ery stood out more this offseason when, for some reason, Jackson wouldn't stop whining about Porzingis' refusal to sit down for an exit interview. Jackson never said squat about Rose's disappearing act; before he was fired, the Knicks showed "legitimate' interest" in re-signing him.
On a podcast, I ranked the most galling examples of Knicks-ing this year. I speak fairly quickly, which I mention only because the podcast lasted over an hour and there was barely enough time to cover the examples, above, or delve into Jackson's numerous botched trades and terrible free agency additions—Hello, Joakim Noah! Or, now that I mention it, the baffling year-long trolling of Melo, or Jackson's groaning insistence on the team running an archaic offense that his hand-picked roster hates, all while subverting his coach's authority. There wasn't time to touch upon his troubling propensity for firing off cryptic (at best) tweets, or is decision to lob racially-tinged comments about LeBron James, or creating and cultivating a culture that's viewed as downright toxic by the rest of the league.
And that's not even counting Jackson's first two seasons on the job, during which then-head coach Derek Fisher bailed for a weekend with Matt Barnes's ex, only to get into a brawl with Barnes in full view of Barnes's children. Fisher was fired, partly because of his refusal to fully adopt Jackson's precious Triangle. Jackson subsequently installed Kurt Rambis, an erotica enthusiast-slash-hacking victim whose players reportedly loathed him, as interim coach. Reportedly, Jackson seriously considered keeping Rambis around for the long haul.
You will not be surprised to learn that these teams also stunk. The team finished with a 31-51 record in 2017, giving Jackson a cumulative total of 90 wins and 171 losses in his three-plus years in charge. He can also claim a "rebuilding" project with very little Process to Trust; thus far, it has netted a grand total of three players that could conceivably be a part of a future contending (ha, I know) team. If nothing else, now Jackson will have plenty of time to take unplanned naps without the distracting presence of possible first round draft picks working out in front of him. Per Steve Popper of the Bergen Record, that happened on more than one occasion.
Three years ago, Jackson seemed like he could have been one of the few people capable of keeping Dolan's meddlesome, kazoo-clutching fingers away from the Knicks' tiller. Amazingly, Jackson managed to pull this off, and yet the Knicks find themselves in the exact same spiritual place: a hospital ward where there are no doctors, or performance art that leans into the the theater of cruelty, all of it packed with clowns. Snooty French clowns.
Whatever his skills as an evaluator of on-court talent, Jackson failed because he insisted upon relying on the same tricks that worked as recently as seven years ago. Not just the blasted triangle, which was bad enough, but the belief that he could drag his players in the press and still maintain their respect, and that his two fistfuls of rings would be more than enough to send free agents scurrying to Madison Square Garden in droves. Whenever Jackson was told that he was in the wrong or his planetary ego was even gently bruised, he grew more insistent in his beliefs. Hence the arrival on the morning of the NBA draft of a trial balloon by his buddy, Charley Rosen, laying out the case for trading Porzingis.
About the kindest thing that can be said about Jackson's tenure with the team is that, outside the broad comedy and grim mediocrity, there is nearly an element of tragedy to it. Jackson's narcissism and stubbornness blinded him to the changing hoops world around him; by the end, he was left begging people to trust him when he said he knew what he was doing. He might have been the last one to believe it.
If there's any true injustice to be found here, for one, brief, shimmering moment, James Dolan gets to play the hero, even if he doesn't really deserve it at all. Hell, a New Yorker might even walk up and thank him for ridding the Knicks of their meddlesome Zen priest, rather than getting right up in his grill. Dolan does not get many of these days. Maybe he can write a song about it.