Sports

Phil Jackson's Triangle Devotion and the Knicks' Flubbed Coaching Search

Phil Jackson has done some pretty good things in his stint as New York Knicks president, but he also loves some Triangle Offense, and that may wind up hurting the team.

by Joseph Flynn
Apr 22 2016, 12:30pm

Photo by Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Past, present, and future continue to flicker around the consciousness of Knicks fans as they eagerly await any news on the search for the team's next head coach. Team president Phil Jackson may or may not have offered the job to Golden State assistant Luke Walton, who may or may not have already turned him down. He also may or may not be interested in David Blatt. There may not even be a coaching search—the job may already belong to the lightly regarded interim coach Kurt Rambis. The only thing we know for sure is that Jackson never contacted fans' overwhelming favorite for the gig, and the consensus best basketball mind on the market, former Knicks assistant Tom Thibodeau.

It gets weirder from here, because it always gets weirder for the Knicks. Thibodeau was scooped up Wednesday by the Minnesota Timberwolves, an up-and-coming franchise that acted decisively in its coaching search. But Thibodeau brought with him as general manager none other than Scott Layden, the GM responsible for decimating the Knicks' roster between 2000 and 2003. Because these Knicks cannot have nice things even in theory, longtime fans were forced to ask themselves, Would you take back a GM you despise to get the coach you want?

Read More: The Timberwolves Can Be the Canvas for Tom Thibodeau's Masterpiece

Knicks fans are used to these types of compromises. They already know better than to expect a competent coach and a competent GM to occupy the MSG offices at the same time—just give us one out of the two. It is disheartening, then, that the team's immediate future might be undone by Jackson's unwillingness to compromise on a coach.

Phil Jackson has done some pretty good things in his stint as president. He's the first Knicks executive in living memory to hold onto all of his first-round picks, and has spent the ones he's used pretty well so far. He encouraged Carmelo Anthony to play the finest all-around, team-oriented basketball of his career. He drafted promising point guard Jerian Grant and signed the rugged, reliable Robin Lopez to what turned out to be a pretty reasonable deal. Most importantly, he brought 6od to Gotham in the form of Kristaps Porzingis. The record doesn't reflect it, but he has left the team in decent shape, which is a massive step up for this franchise.

But the dude also loves him some Triangle Offense. He has always spoken of the triple-post offense he learned from Tex Winter in almost mythical terms—basketball the way it is meant to be played. It seems to have played a major part in his decision to fire Derek Fisher, whose dedication to the Triangle was less than total. Into his place stepped assistant Kurt Rambis, a true Triangle believer who also happens to be a fairly shitty basketball coach. Rambis took over the team one game before the All-Star Break, and they went 9-19 to finish the season. Their offensive rating was worse under Rambis and their defensive rating was worse under Rambis. That should be the end of it.

"Really, Rambis?" Photo by Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Fortunately for the embattled interim coach, Rambis possesses something far more important to his survival than a 65-164 career record; he has a tight relationship with the president, and allows Jackson to scratch his coaching itch in practice sessions in a way the more independent Fisher never did. Rambis has tapped directly into Jackson's Triangle id. His constant, public advocating of the offense—particularly in defending it from Fisher—reignited Jackson's passion for showing the haters that the Triangle can thrive in today's game.

Papa Zen used to be a bit more pragmatic about the Triangle. He let Fisher grow on the job throughout his first season, even though he had already drifted toward a more pick-and-roll-friendly attack. His two draft picks—the skinny Porzingis and the shooting-impaired Grant—were not exactly tailor-made for the post-heavy offense. And Jackson even steered conversations away from the subject, as in an April 2015 discussion with season-ticket holders recounted by SBNation's Posting & Toasting:

"More hints on the future direction of the squad: Jackson said 'We won't be a high-scoring team.' He was unequivocal that defense is the first focus of a title contender, that in the playoffs especially being able to stop a team enough times over seven games is the road to victory.

Most surprising moment of the event: Phil, after another Triangle question, clearly a bit exasperated, said, 'Forget about the Triangle. That comes after everything else. Players have to have skill, make passes, and help teammates out.'"

Compare that statement to his agitprop exit interview on April 14 of this year:


The guy who made the April 2015 statement? That's someone you want choosing a coach. The guy who waived 11 rings in the face of legitimate criticism and heaped praise on Kurt F. Rambis's work with the Triangle despite the fact that the team, in his own words, "came apart during the end of the season"? That guy maybe not so much.

Phil Jackson may very well shock basketball observers again, in the same encouraging way he did by picking Porzingis on Draft Day last year, and choose someone from outside La famiglia triangolo, like Blatt. Jackson loves the Triangle, but he also loves the idea of Phil Jackson, Unpredictable Supergenius. But the guy who spoke last week sounded far more interested in getting back at critics than making sensible decisions. There's nothing terribly Zen about that.

In a way, sticking with a coach who won't budge from Jackson's old-school offense would be the ultimate insult to old-school fans, who embraced Jackson not as an evangelist for the Tex Winter offense but as the former Knicks player who learned at the feet of legendary coach Red Holzman. Jackson was not brought in to install a system so much as he was to instill the same sense of purpose, clarity, and daring that MSG had during his playing days. If Jackson cannot or will not embrace the future, both the Knicks and their fans will be stuck in this endless, uneasy present.