John Feinstein Blog: James Dolan And Phil Jackson After The Honeymoon
When James Dolan introduced Phil Jackson as the president of the New York Knicks last month, he pledged to stay out of Jackson’s way and to let him rebuild the fallen team. He even went so far as to admit that he really didn’t know much more about basketball than the average fan.
Those words must have been music to the ears of Knicks fans. The last time the team won an NBA title was 1973, when Jackson was a backup forward on a legendary team led by Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Earl Monroe, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley. Since then, the Knicks have come close to an NBA title exactly once — in 1994 when a Pat Riley-coached team lost to the Houston Rockets in seven games in the NBA Finals. The Knicks reached the Finals (as a No. 8 seed) in the strike-shortened 1999 season but were swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
Since then, they have become a comedy act with Dolan hiring and firing coaches and general managers, all the while continuing to somehow believe that if he kept bringing back Isiah Thomas, whether as team president, general manager, coach, adviser or perhaps soothsayer, that would somehow make the Knicks a serious basketball team again.
Instead, they became a joke. A year ago, they managed to win a playoff series for the first time in 13 years but slid back into mediocrity this winter, finishing at 37-45, which wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs, even in the NBA East.
Which is where Jackson came into the picture. Clearly, he was itching to get back into the spotlight somewhere, and after the Lakers — a team co-owned by his fiancée — decided not to hire him in the fall of 2012, he began looking for another place to land. The Knicks were perfect: he had played there in the team’s heyday, and his resume — 11 NBA titles as a coach; two as a player — should attract the kind of players and coaches needed to finally rebuild the Knicks to some semblance of their long-past glory.
Dolan offered him a lot of money — $12 million a year for five years — and the two men took their vows in a much-ballyhooed press conference. Dolan would stay out of the way, and Jackson would wave his magic wand and make it all better.
Of course it isn’t close to being that simple. Jackson’s genius as a coach was getting great players to work together for the greater good — which was winning championships. He got Michael Jordan to stop thinking of the Bulls as “me and my supporting cast” and won six titles there. He got Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant to co-exist long enough to win three straight titles in Los Angeles.
He was always smart enough to know when to get out of town: when Jordan decided in 1998 that he was really done with the Bulls, Jackson was right behind him. When O’Neal and Bryant could no longer co-exist, Jackson sided with O’Neal and followed him out the door after the 2004 season. A year later — for a lot more money — he came back to the Lakers and healed his relationship with Bryant. And Mitch Kupchak was able to add Pau Gasol to Kobe Bryant after Jackson’s return. Jackson coached the Lakers to two more titles in 2009 and 2010.
Never — not once — did he put together a team. Jordan was waiting for him in Chicago; O’Neal and Bryant were in place in L.A. Jackson never had to hire a coach or make a smart draft-day decision or trade.
That doesn’t mean he can’t do those things. He’s a bright guy with an experienced, smart basketball mind. The Knicks have all sorts of issues that revolve around lack of draft picks; the salary cap and what to do with Carmelo Anthony, but there’s no doubt that Jackson took the job fully aware of all that.
What he may not have been fully aware of — regardless of what he was told — is Jim Dolan’s ego. Dolan’s the classic “born on third base and thought he tripled” owner. He inherited everything he owns from his father and somehow believes that membership in the lucky sperm club adds 100 points to your IQ.
Little more than a month after all the hugs and kisses at Jackson’s introductory press conference, a story surfaced this week in the New York Daily News that Dolan and Jackson are already skirmishing over moves Jackson wants to make in the front office. Basically, Jackson wants to clean house — bring in his own people — not just on the bench, but behind the scenes.
Apparently Dolan doesn’t want to see people who have worked for him for years swept out the door. It’s a nice sentiment. But it isn’t the way the world works. If Jackson is in charge, then HE’S in charge. He has to make all the important decisions and he has to take responsibility for those decisions. If Dolan can’t keep from meddling NOW, about decisions that probably aren’t critical to the future of the franchise, what’s going to happen when truly key decisions have to be made?
For example: Jackson says he wants Carmelo Anthony back with the team next season. The Knicks will have to pay him max money to keep him, and his presence a year from now and two years from now, when players like Kevin Love and Kevin Durant (two examples, there are more) will hit the free agent market, may make it more difficult to pay those players and stay under the cap. Let’s say Jackson has a talk with his capologist — presumably someone HE will hire — and he’s told, “if you want to have any chance at Love AND Durant, Anthony has to go.”
So, he tells Dolan he doesn’t want Anthony back, that he’s willing to take the hit in won-lost record next winter to set the team up for the future. The conversation might go something like this:
Phil: “I’ve decided not to bring Carmelo back. We need to clear cap space. He’s a one-dimensional player anyway, and he’ll be 32 by the time we can seriously contend.”
Jim: “Whaa? We won’t win 30 games next season without Carmelo.”
Phil: “I know. We actually have a first-round draft pick in ’15 so next year’s the year to be bad. We can get a lottery pick AND a really good free agent in the summer of ’15.”
Jim: “But I have to sell tickets next season. Luxury boxes. Sponsorships.”
Phil: “Not my problem, Jim. Building the team is my problem. In the NBA, you sometimes have to get really bad to get really good.”
Jim: “I like Carmelo. I like his wife too.”
Phil: “Sorry, Jim. You promised I’d be in charge.”
“Jim: “You didn’t think I meant it, did you?”
Dolan hangs up the phone and buzzes his executive assistant.
“Get Isiah on the phone for me. It’s time to bring him back.”