On Pro Basketball: Knicks’ Phil Jackson Breaks the Silence, but the Turmoil Is Intact
These days, said Sandy Zenker of Manhattan, a 25-year patron of the Knicks, the team refers to its season-ticket holders as “members” — at least as long as they write a big check by April 25 and avoid looking cross-eyed at James L. Dolan, the Madison Square Garden strongman, in a chance encounter on 33rd Street.
Hours before the Knicks announced that Jackson would actually face reporters in person — forgoing Twitter as his means of a postseason state of the franchise — Zenker recalled in a telephone interview the polite rebuff from a season-ticket marketing representative on the subject of the team’s direction.
“Before asking people to renew, shouldn’t you have some idea?” Zenker, a psychologist and college professor, asked of the path of the franchise. “I’m not a basketball expert, so let reporters ask the important questions.”
After all these months — a period that brought 51 more losses, for a total of 166 against 80 victories across Jackson’s three full seasons — there were so many inquiries to raise during his 49-minute allotment, in which poor Carmelo Anthony was lambasted as everything but Crooked Carmelo.
But only one query guided Jackson to the subject of where the Knicks currently stand (practically nowhere) and where Zenker and many of his paying brethren would like to see them go. It wasn’t about the future of Anthony — Jackson was clear that he wanted him gone yesterday — or about the coming draft, or even about Dolan, who made a hefty investment in Jackson and, for once across the past decade and half, shouldn’t be blamed for the current mess.
The question that cuts to the heart of the matter would be this: Has Jackson, 71, come around to the realization that, if any light is to shine on his legacy as a Knicks executive — at least from the won-lost point of view — it will most likely not come until after his $60 million contract expires in two years?
“That’s not a concern of mine,” he said after acknowledging that it was time to rebuild around Kristaps Porzingis, Willy Hernangomez and the team’s coming lottery draft pick. “We understand that a lot of these people are young people — it’s going to take three or four years for them to develop. So in that process, it may be beyond my tenure here, in which the team becomes vibrant, competitive, has a chance to go beyond just being in the playoffs.
“That’s O.K. with me. I didn’t come here just to particularly win a championship but to do things that were directed by my instructions by Dolan — let’s have something that is identifiable in who we are and how we play.”
So Jackson, the man who might wear all of his championship rings if he had 11 fingers, did not “come here just to particularly win a championship?” O.K., whatever. But in saying he “can’t go back and regret it,” Jackson all but admitted he had blundered out of the gate by staking his presidency on Anthony and, worse, by handing him that insane no-trade clause. And now he finds himself in a predicament similar to the one Sam Hinkie wound up in as the general manager in Philadelphia before he resigned: embarking on a bold, slow process that a successor might see to fruition.
Which raised an obvious Part B to the legacy question: If Jackson’s not going to be here when, or if, the real fun begins, why make his young players grapple with the triangle, an offensive system that no one else plays and that his successor is likely to junk?
The answer to that is a long sermon from Jackson on the essence of the triangle, team play and, of course, how it hasn’t worked in New York because, he said, “we faced resistance — and we faced resistance at the top.”
But seriously, he said, “Carmelo’s been great.”
Whether Anthony finally waives his no-trade clause and Jackson finds a workable deal, or he stays, is really no matter of grave consequence anymore. If Anthony remains, the downside will be another season of ruminations on his brand being tethered to a loser and his supposed championship window closing. The upside would be his continued presence to deflect pressure from Porzingis and his playmates.
Anthony has proved for three years running to be unable to keep the bottom from falling out of a season and has also not kept the Knicks from a prime lottery position that helps them continue to grow organically and form a core that makes them attractive to big-money free agents.
Not the middling kind, Jackson should zealously avoid overpaying this summer in the pursuit of what he dismissed as the “sixth, seventh or eighth playoff positions” — the immediate-gratification fixes that situate a team “in and out of the playoffs.”
Concluded Jackson: “It’s a hard process.” Three years into his run, it’s just getting started. That was the big news out of Jackson’s reacquaintance with reporters. Good or bad, depending on how you play it.
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