Three weeks ago, I hit bottom.
It was Monday, March 3, and the New York Knicks–the team I live and die for–had suffered a 96-85 defeat to the Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills, thanks in large part to being outscored by 16 points (57-41) in the second half.
A season after winning 54 games and advancing to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Knicks had lost for the 40th time in 61 tries and had even fallen behind the tanking Boston Celtics in the standings.
At that moment, I gave up, not just on this year’s team, but on the franchise and on the organization moving forward.
The 2013-14 season–a campaign that was supposed to be even better than last year’s–was, by almost every account, a lost cause. The playoffs? They seemed about as likely as New York landing Jabari Parker in the 2014 NBA Draft. (For those who might be unaware, the Knicks don’t have a first-round pick this year.)
Even worse, it was becoming more evident with each loss that Carmelo Anthony was inching closer to making the decision to leave New York during the summer’s looming free agency period.
After his team’s nationally-televised 19-point loss to the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, March 2, ‘Melo called the beatdown “frustrating and embarrassing.” Then, following the Pistons game, he simply told reporters he was “running out of comments.”
Clearly, those quotes were coming from a man who was fed up and who wanted out, and, frankly, I couldn’t blame him. The Knicks were (and still might be) on their way to missing the playoffs in a historically bad Eastern Conference, and it’s not a stretch at all to say that ‘Melo was the only one in the organization free of blame.
In fact, I even wrote a column imploring Carmelo to leave New York and chase a ring, rather than spend the remainder of his career in dysfunction.
Yes, that’s how disgusted I was: For a time, I had hoped that my favorite athlete would choose to part ways with my favorite team.
In the column, I wrote that Carmelo deserved better than the Knicks, and specifically that he deserved better than James Dolan, perhaps the most incompetent owner in any sport. From his firing of Glen Grunwald to his pulling of the trigger on the Andrea Bargnani trade, Dolan’s consistently questionable decision-making, I argued, should have been a sign to ‘Melo that it was time to look for a new home.
But then, at around 5:45 PM on Saturday, March 8, when it was first reported that Phil Jackson was leaning towards accepting an offer to become the Knicks’ president of basketball operations, my outlook on the team and its future was prepared to undergo a complete 180.
Understand, this was the Zen Master that the Knicks were potentially dealing with. This was the 13-time NBA champion–11 times as a head coach and twice as a player–that they were reported to be close to landing. Jackson was and still is pure basketball royalty.
Naturally, I paid very strong attention to the story. But, because these were the Knicks and because the Knicks have so often gotten my hopes up only to later disappoint me, I refused to allow myself to become overly excited. It was almost too good to be true–after all, good things like this weren’t supposed to happen for New York.
Wrong! On Tuesday, March 18, it became official: Phil Jackson was formally introduced as the new president of basketball operations for the Knicks.
This, in my mind, was more than a big deal. It was more than a huge deal. It was a monumental deal.
Of course, I can already hear the naysayers. I can already hear those who will point out that Jackson has no front office experience, that he’s 68 years old and that he somehow won’t have the constant drive to compete with guys like Masai Ujiri and Sam Hinkie, and that he will be at a disadvantage by often working from Los Angeles.
So, because I have already heard and will surely continue to hear those critiques, allow me to be clear about something: I don’t care.
Those same naysayers are also quick to point out that, in the last 13 seasons, the Knicks have won a total of only one playoff series–last year’s first round defeat of the broken down Boston Celtics. But what the Knicks “haters” overlook is that the team’s failures during that span were due largely–if not completely–to Dolan’s mismanagement of the franchise. His missteps–from the outlandish contracts he handed out to players like Stephon Marbury and Jerome James to this past summer’s re-signing of J.R. Smith and trade for Bargnani–have been the only constant with the Knicks since 1999, when he became owner.
But now, with Phil Jackson on board, Dolan has suddenly seen the light: at the introductory press conference, he swore that the Zen Master would be in charge of all basketball operations.
Finally, James L. Dolan relinquished control.
It was the victory that, amid Dolan’s perpetual power mongering, New York has desperately needed for the last decade and a half.
And I, for one, have faith in Phil Jackson, even if he doesn’t have experience in this position, even if he is 68 years old, and even if he will be working from Los Angeles much of the time.
Phil has been in or around the NBA since the beginning of his playing career with the Knicks in 1967. That’s nearly 50 years of life in the Association, with most of them spent holding a position–whether it be player or coach–on a team. That longevity, combined with the fact that Jackson really is a basketball genius, is enough to convince me that he will have a strong eye for talent when drafting players.
But, what could turn out to be Jackson’s biggest strength as president–especially in today’s NBA–is his legacy. He’s Phil Jackson. He’s the Zen Master. He’s the 11-time NBA Champion head coach. He coached Michael Jordan to all six of his titles, and Kobe Bryant to all five of his. There’s a certain lure, a certain mystique that comes with Phil. Playing for him, even if he’s not the head coach, is a privilege.
I will bet that players–particularly star players–are going to be more attracted to the Knicks than ever before with Jackson on board.
In 2015, when there will be several marquee free agents available (perhaps including LeBron James?) and when New York will have a boatload of cap space, Phil will have the opportunity to put together a legitimate version of a “Big Three” for the Knicks, and I won’t doubt his ability to pull it off–playing under Jackson, playing in New York City, and playing with Carmelo won’t be a difficult sell.
Of course, for Phil to be able to make that exact pitch to free agents, he will need to convince Carmelo to stay with the Knicks, something that I sense he has already accomplished.
You can sense it through Carmelo’s comments: with Jackson around, his faith in the Knicks has been restored. Last Wednesday, he told reporters that he was hoping he “would be part of the future plans” and that he “never once said [he] wanted to leave New York.”
I love ‘Melo, but even I have to call B.S. on that one. Sure, he never blatantly stated that he wanted out of New York, but he surely hinted at it. And, as I alluded to previously, I took no issue with that. Now, however, it’s clear Anthony believes that, with Phil Jackson calling the shots, he can be a part of something extraordinary, right here in New York City.
Of course, that’s what Phil does and it’s what he will continue to do; he instills a sense of belief–a belief that if you’re on his side, you’re on the right side–into those around him.
So, no, Jackson doesn’t have prior experience as a president of basketball operations, but I’m not going to be the one to bet against a 13-time NBA Champion–a man that has succeeded at every level–being able to figure this thing out.
And, allow me to address this next question to those who claim that Phil is doing this for the money and that he won’t have the commitment necessary to be a successful president: Do you really believe that Phil Jackson–a lock on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore–would risk his legacy for money that he doesn’t need? Do you really believe that Phil won’t be determined to prove that he isn’t just the greatest coach of all time, but also the greatest basketball mind of all time? Whether he’ll admit it or not, he has to be itching to show the world that he can outperform Pat Riley as a general manager. He has a chance to do that–and more–as president of the Knicks, and I can’t envision motivation being an issue. He’s 68, not 88.
If nothing else, it at least seems like Phil’s presence alone can be the difference between success and failure–just take one quick look at the current state of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Jackson coached the Lakers to his 10th and 11th championships in 2009 and 2010. He retired following the 2011 season, and now–less than three years later–the Lakers find themselves with the Western Conference’s second-worst record.
Is that coincidence? The Lakers’ sudden downfall has to be at least partially a result of Jackson’s absence, right?
I mean, seriously, is it possible that Phil is already having a positive effect on the Knicks? Since it was rumored that he would likely become team president, New York has won seven of nine games and has climbed right back into the playoff race.
With 10 games to play, the Knicks trail the Atlanta Hawks by only one-and-a-half games for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.
Miraculously, they still have life. The remaining schedule isn’t easy–they play the Raptors twice, the Nets twice, at Miami, at Phoenix, and at Golden State–but the postseason is once again a legitimate possibility for the Knicks.
The Hawks, currently 31-40 and currently losers of five straight games, are reeling and almost seem to be begging the Knicks to steal the eighth seed. Their remaining schedule isn’t much easier than New York’s–Atlanta plays at Washington, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Chicago, vs. Cleveland, at Indiana, vs. Detroit, vs. Boston, at Brooklyn, vs. Miami, vs. Charlotte, and at Milwaukee to finish the season.
Realistically, I could see the Hawks losing as many as eight or nine of those games, which means the Knicks would have to win only four or five of their final 10 games to qualify for the playoffs. Conveniently, I see New York winning seven times over the next three weeks, which–in all likelihood–would be enough to secure a postseason berth.
If the Knicks do reach the playoffs, the sky will be the limit. They would at least have a fighter’s chance against a struggling Indiana team and would certainly have more than a fighter’s chance in a potential second round matchup with Brooklyn or Chicago.
Yes, that’s right: If the Knicks can just get into the postseason tournament, they might cruise all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. Go ahead and laugh, but it’s possible.
But even if New York fails to make the playoffs or fails to advance past the first round, it won’t matter.
What matters is that, for the first time in 15 years, the Knicks are moving in a promising direction. That, of course, is due only to one person.
Welcome home, Phil.
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