Phil to the Rescue?
On March 25, 2014, Phil Jackson entered the familiar abode that was the Staples Center in Los Angeles. This time, however, he represented the other team playing on this day, in other words, not the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson, the undisputed most successful coach in NBA history with 11 championship rings, embarked on a new adventure just the week before when he was introduced as the President of the New York Knicks and seeing him clearly lit a fire under the Lakers.
Leaving the Lakers behind
It was the Lakers where Jackson won five of his 11 rings. It was the Lakers that provided the route for him to meet his fiancée Jeannie Buss, daughter of the late Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss and who herself now serves as Lakers president. It was the Lakers who (if Jackson is believed) enticed him with an offer to return and coach a roster that then had Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, and Dwight Howard before ultimately going with Mike D’Antoni. It was the Lakers, with Bryant and Hall-of-Famer Magic Johnson speaking loudly, who should have tried to mend fences with Jackson to lure him back, not the Knicks.
Instead, Jeannie’s brother Jim Buss, the Lakers’ executive vice-president for basketball operations, has been cast as the villain in the eyes of many Laker fans while their team suffers through one of the worst seasons in history. Jim Buss has never warmed up to Jackson and most believe he has resented the fact that Jackson gets most of the credit for those five titles.
To be fair, it wasn’t Jim Buss that caused the injury to Bryant’s foot in the 2013 playoffs or his knee injury when he tried coming back this season. It wasn’t Buss either who gave Steve Nash his own injury woes that have kept him unproductive since he donned the Forum Blue and Gold jersey last year. But it was his perceived backstabbing of Jackson in favor of D’Antoni and his bad roster moves that have the Lakers mired at the bottom of the standings.
Returning to his NY roots
For Jackson, a return to New York has been long in the works. He was, after all, a utility player in the only two Knick teams that won NBA championships in 1970 and 1973. His then-coach, Red Holzman, was a huge influence on his coaching career. Whether it was his time as coach of the Chicago Bulls or the Lakers, Jackson almost always got stellar performances from his superstars when playing in Madison Square Garden.
Since departing the Lakers’ bench in May of 2011, there have been numerous calls for “the Zen Master” to bring the triangle offense that he learned from Tex Winter to other teams. Brooklyn Nets president Mikhail Prokhorov was supposedly interested, as were an ownership group that tried moving the Sacramento Kings to Seattle. The Detroit Pistons even served as an adviser to the Detroit Pistons in 2013. But it was always his old team that proved to be the most interesting challenge.
After all, the Knicks have been a less than mediocre team since James L. Dolan bought the franchise mired in controversy, bad business decisions, bloated contracts, and unproductive players. All signs pointed to Dolan as the root of all the Knickerbocker woes as not even a rare appearance in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals could erase the years of misery in New York.
Co-existing with Dolan?
One of the problems Dolan faced is that he’s been a notorious control freak throughout his reign. He’s gone through several head coaches and general managers and has been called the worst owner in professional sports.
Another dilemma for the Knicks is the fact that Jackson doesn’t want to coach an NBA team. His 68-year-old body has seen him undergo knee and hip surgeries, and the travel that an NBA season entails no longer appeals to a coach who has accomplished more than any other in his position. If Jackson was going to take over a team, he wanted complete control, the ability to make all the basketball decisions, as well as the decision on who to hire as coach and who would comprise the roster.
It’s these things that have several people wondering if Jackson and Dolan can co-exist, let alone bring New York a championship in the next five seasons (the duration of Jackson’s contract). For all of Jackson’s success as a coach, he has never been in charge of shaping a roster, hiring coaches, and having the final say in front office decisions. It was the universally-hated Jerry Krause who filled that role as Michael Jordan and Scottie
Pippen won six rings in Chicago while Jerry West and successor Mitch Kupchak who had final say with the Lakers.
Phil the All-Powerful
Jackson’s critics have always said that he has had teams that were already filled with superstars when he took over. He inherited Doug Collins’ playoff-tested Bulls and Del Harris’ inexperienced but talented Lakers before leading both franchises to titles. Now with the Knicks, he won’t have that luxury. Despite a recent eight-game win streak, the current Knicks of Coach Mike Woodson are clearly a disappointment and will be lucky to snag a playoff seed. Carmelo Anthony is expected to test free agency while Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler have been hampered by injuries in spite of unreasonably expensive contracts.
Make no mistake, if Jackson can somehow turn the Knicks into winners and break their four decade-long championship drought, he will go down as the savior of the franchise. No coach, not Hubie Brown, Rick Pitino, Pat Riley, Jeff Van Gundy, Larry Brown, Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Isaiah Thomas, not a single one of them was able to win a championship in New York. Whomever Jackson hires as coach (many believe it will be Jackson disciple Steve Kerr), will need to prove that he can implement the triangle offense effectively while living with Jackson’s shadow looming over him. The raising of a third championship banner to the rafters of Madison Square Garden might just prove to be the greatest achievement in Jackson’s already impressive resume.