What lesson is there to take from Phil Jackson’s tenure in the Knicks front office? There are quite few that one could draw. Certainly, Jackson’s irascible nature didn’t help him. Nor did prioritizing the triangle offense over all else. Let’s dive in and do a review of Jackson’ time in New York and break it down with another one of our GM reports (I know Jackson wasn’t technically the GM but you get the idea).
Here are his hits and misses:
–Drafting Kristaps Porzingis: This was obviously a home run pick and the one great thing Jackson gave the Knicks. Cynics will point out that the Knicks drafted fourth in a four player draft (Karl Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell, and Porzingis) and Zinger fell into Jackson’s lap. This is a fair point (there are rumors that Jackson really wanted Okafor). Still, Jackson was smart enough not to trade the pick, which he could’ve done and he will always get some credit for this pick.
-Tanking early in 2014-15: Jackson should get a little bit of credit for cutting the chord on the 2014-15 season. Yes, the Knicks were already 5-31 at the time, but Jackson quickly traded the few competent pros on the team (Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith) to ensure that there would be no bounce back in the second half of the season, guaranteeing a top four pick.
-Non-Porzingis good moves: Yeesh…not much. There are a few decent moves (drafting Juan Hernangomez, signing Robin Lopez, signing Ron Baker, signing Kyle O’Quinn) but none of them moved the needle to much more than decency.
–Somebody wake up Samuel Dalembert: Jackson assumed he had a playoff team going into 2014-15 and he tweaked the lineup by trading Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler for Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert. Chandler was (and is) a far superior player to Dalembert and it was not realistical that the older (and sometimes totally sedate) Dalembert would be an acceptable starting center. Dalembert was even worse than expected and the Knicks had no defense in the middle. On top of that, Calderon, who had always been a solid offensive player (but bad defender), also cratered in New York. So, 60% of the projected starting lineup for 2014-15 (Calderon, Dalembert, and Andrea Bargnani) was sub-replacement level. It was laughable at the time to think that the Knicks could’ve competed for even the eight seed with that core and it is even more ridiculous in retrospect.
-Carmelo: In the summer of 2014, Jackson had a choice: resign Carmelo Anthony or let him walk in free agency. It made some sense for Jackson to bring Melo back if they wanted to try to contend. Jackson made a crucial mistake and gave Melo the leverage of a no-trade clause. When Jackson decided Anthony wasn’t helping and couldn’t trade him without consent, Jackson kept sending his trademark cryptic messages that implied that Melo was the reason the team isn’t any good. Anthony has his faults but but when you have players like Jerian Grant, Arron Afflalo, and Bargnani playing major minutes, Melo ain’t the real problem.
-Triangle to nowhere: Jackson’s devotion to the triangle offense was beyond silly for a lot of reasons. It’s not that the triangle is totally unviable. It is a motion offense and many teams still use aspects of it today. The real issue is that the Knicks have had really bad point guards all three seasons of Jackson’s reign and no offensive scheme was going to fix that. Love of the triangle also led to Phil’s absolute worse signing, Joakim Noah. Jackson was convinced that a younger, healthier Noah would be a perfect fit both offensively and defensively. That might have been true but Noah hadn’t been healthy in years and he wasn’t in New York either. Now, the Knicks are stuck with a really bad deal for an older declining center because Jackson was chasing the Noah of 2011-12.
-The weird tweeting stuff: For as long as Jackson has been a coach, he has sought to challenge his own players (Horace Grant was his designated whipping boy in Chicago) and tweak opposing players and coaches (remember when he called the Clyde Drexler Trail Blazers dumb or when he said the Spurs 1998-99 title was tainted?). These tactics seemed effective when he had Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal backing him up. With Lance Thomas as your power forward, on the other hand, dissing LeBron James or the Warriors didn’t have quite the same oomph. Similarly, Jackson’s repeated tweets and leaks to his buddy Charley Rosen that were negative against Melo and then Porzingis just seemed petty and did not endear Jackson to neutral observers. Finally, when it was clear that the Knicks should rebuild and flip Melo, Jackson had so hurt Anthony’s market value that he became a toxic asset they couldn’t move. It was quite a strange way to maneuver a delicate situation and it seems Jackson’s attempts to just release Anthony and eat his salary was the final straw that got Jackson canned.
The Jackson years in New York will go down as another ugly time in Knicks’ lore. They were not Isaiah Thomas ugly but they were pretty bad. Jackson did exactly one thing correctly, drafting Porzingis. The rest of his transactions were middling to bad. In the end, though, it was not the blah moves that killed Phil. Rather, it was his personality. He alienated his two best players and put out an air pomposity that spent any goodwill he had to the point that even James Dolan noticed how crappy things were. It’s a shame that a coach as great as Jackson will have such a bad ending to his career but he clearly brought this on himself. Had Jackson navigated the personality side of the job better, he probably would’ve been given those final two years of his deal to try to win.