The Knicks did something sensible!
Apparently, even with James Dolan, there’s such a thing as too far. On Wednesday, the Knicks owner announced that the franchise was parting ways with Phil Jackson, a wholly sensible move that only beggars description because it’s the Knicks we’re talking about here. Jackson is an incompetent executive who has become a distraction, if not a liability. Yet his ouster has been met with shock and disbelief. We’ve reached a point where seeing the Knicks making a sensible move borders on surreal.
Since taking the reins as team president in 2014, Jackson’s contributions have been both underwhelming and damaging. He was supposed to turn the Knicks around. Instead Jackson, who at bare minimum was expected to steering this franchise clear of utter oblivion—did the opposite, running them further into the ground. The writing has been on the wall for so long that’s it’s stunning someone finally read it. The question is, what pushed him over the ledge?
Certainly, this past season was a disaster even by the Knicks’ degraded standards. The team finished near the bottom of the league with a 31-51 record. The very public (and probably warranted) estrangement of Carmelo Anthony dominated headlines. But the dysfunction ran so deep that one incident blurred into the next. Derrick Rose testified under oath that he’d never heard of consent; Rose disappeared for 24 hours, later explaining it was related to his mother’s health; the beloved Charles Oakley was forcibly removed from the Garden; and the shell of Joakim Noah, who makes $13.4 million a year, was suspended 20 games after testing positive for a banned substance.
Jackson didn’t just preside over a train wreck, he contributed to it. His petty sniping, simmering feuds, and a ruthless crusade to franchise the Triangle in New York consistently made things worse. Jackson played into the tabloid-ready Carmelo saga with gusto, seemingly immune to his own reputation as a canny operator who excelled at managing other people’s egos. In his dotage, Jackson could scarcely manage his own. As the Knicks spun out of control, he only grew more strident. The coach with the most NBA titles to his name turned into Colonel Kurtz before our very eyes.
[Phil’s] reputation, based on the unique notion of a “superstar whisperer,” is received wisdom, an idea propped up, or at least entertained, by seemingly everyone in the media. Since retiring, Jackson has been sacrosanct. Now, perhaps not so much.
But it was the rift between the Knicks and Kristaps Porzingis that likely sunk Jackson once and for all. The second-year big man, generally forecasted to be an All-Star, stagnated after a strong start. By the end of the year, he was noticeably alienated, a national treasure wasting away in a failed basketball state. Reports leaked that Porzingis found Jackson’s insistence on using the Triangle, which was imposed on the team to the point of assigning homework, especially galling. Before escaping to Latvia, Porzingis offered up a spirited defense of Melo and then declined to attend his exit interview with the team.
The latter, which is a way bigger deal than it sounds, was the point of no return. It essentially drew a line in the sand: While Porzingis had no really leverage, the Knicks risked utter perdition if their lone hope for the future definitively turned on them. It was one thing to take up arms against Melo, a ready-made punching bag who has long been the subject of trade rumors. Pissing off Porzingis smacked of hubris. Yet inexplicably, Dolan picked up the two-year option on Jackson’s contract in the same week, reifying the only possible justification for keeping Phil on board.
It’s this kind of tone-deafness that makes Dolan firing Phil into a banner moment for the Knicks, at least in the eyes of their long-suffering fans. By any measure, the Knicks are very, very bad basketball team and have been for some time. The team’s mythos is largely a product of their market and barely explains why they’re included in the same breath as the Celtics and Lakers. Still, after all these years, Knicks fans persist, at this point spurred on as much by bitter irony as any kind of real optimism. It’s almost a matter of self-preservation.
All jokes aside, this move could be a turning point for the team. It wasn’t so much Phil’s role that was wrong—a more competent figure could do a lot with his degree of influence—so much as it was Phil himself. In addition to confirming every worst stereotype about aging Boomers, Jackson succeeded in further calling into question his legacy. His reputation, based on the unique notion of a “superstar whisperer,” is received wisdom, an idea propped up, or at least entertained, by seemingly everyone in the media. Since retiring, Jackson has been sacrosanct. Now, perhaps not so much.
But the Knicks haven’t just made a symbolic break with folly (as if that were even possible). In ditching Jackson, they’ve affirmed their commitment to Porzingis, which comes as a massive relief to anyone with slightest vested interest in either this team or the general sanity of the sport. Jackson supposedly had KP on the trading block around the time of the NBA Draft. The mere existence of these rumors likely further eroded confidence. In the end, maybe it wasn’t so much Porzingis as the precedent Jackson appeared to be setting: rather than deal with dissent, he wanted to stamp it out. He simply wasn’t a strong enough executive to overrule the talent in this manner. This wasn’t at all what the Knicks signed up for.
While this hardly makes redemption for the Knicks or their fans, it does provide some measure of respite. At least for the moment, disaster has been averted. Even if Dolan’s next hire succeeds only in treading water, the alternative is better than more of Phil Jackson. Building a contender remains a far-off dream and Knicks fans long ago stopped dreaming. Still, they likely fantasized about Jackson one day magically disappearing. That day has finally come. And while Knicks fans may be in love with their own misery, even with them there’s such a thing as too far.
1-on-1 with Kristaps Porizingis
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