FINALLY: the one word that was on the mind of New York Knicks fans when it was announced on the morning of June 26 that Phil Jackson would no longer be associated with the organization.
As a Knicks fan myself, who has suffered pretty much my entire life through losing season after losing season, the news could not have come any sooner. From the very first day of the Phil Jackson era in New York, I knew he was doomed for failure. The Knicks needed someone who could rebuild a team, but instead they hired a man who had never built anything.
Sure, he has 11 NBA Championship rings as a coach on his resume, but being a coach and being an executive are two completely different things. Coaching is implementing strategy for and managing the egos of the players that are already on your roster. Being an executive is actually going out and finding those players.
The fact of the matter is, despite all of his rings, Phil Jackson has never spent a day in his life building a roster, not even when he was successful as a coach.
Jackson just happened to be the next man up on the coaching staff when the Chicago Bulls fired Doug Collins in 1989. In the late ’80s, the Collins-led Bulls were scratching the surface of a title, but they just did not have the depth nor the experience to get past a veteran Detroit Pistons squad. Although Michael Jordan was already the NBA’s most dominant player, Scottie Pippen had yet to develop into a viable co-star.
After the Bulls fell short to the Pistons in the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals, Collins was fired and Jackson took over. Jackson was gifted with both Michael Jordan at the peak of his powers and Scottie Pippen as he ascended to stardom. You can credit him for implementing the triangle offense and for managing player egos, but the truth is Jackson played basically zero part in the creation of that early ’90s Bulls roster.
The same can be said for the Lakers dynasty of the early 2000s. While Jackson gets all the credit for coaching Los Angeles to three straight championships, people forget that it was Jerry West who planted the seeds for that team’s dominance.
In 1996, it was West who stole Shaquille O’Neal away from the Orlando Magic in free agency. It was West who traded Vlade Divac to the Hornets in exchange for 17-year-old Kobe Bryant. It was West who drafted Derek Fisher late in the first round. A year later, it was West who acquired sharpshooter Robert Horry.
All of these moves took place while Michael Jordan was busy helping Phil Jackson in the middle of a second championship three-peat for the Bulls. After Jordan retired in 1998, Jackson decided to do the same. Meanwhile, over in the Western Conference, the Lakers were getting better and better each year.
In 1998, with Del Harris as their head coach, the Lakers won 61 games in the regular season and claimed the three seed in the West. Los Angeles was able to get all the way to the Western Conference Finals that year, but they were swept by a veteran Utah Jazz team that had more depth and playoff experience. Sound familiar?
The following season in 1999, the Lakers were swept in the Conference Semifinals by the eventual champion, the San Antonio Spurs, a team that featured the twin towers of Tim Duncan and David Robinson. While Los Angeles had Shaq, the most dominant player in the league, on its roster, his co-star Kobe Bryant was still only 20 years old and had yet to develop into a legit second option. Jordan and Pippen much?
Looking for a coach who could take his young roster over the top, West fired Harris and asked Phil Jackson to come out of retirement to coach the Lakers. It was a no-brainer for Phil, who would take over what was by far the best young roster in the NBA.
In the 1999-2000 season, Jackson’s first year in Los Angeles, Bryant took a huge step forward and O’Neal was the clear-cut favorite for MVP. With the league’s most unstoppable force, a young assassin as their second option, and solid role players in the starting line-up and on the bench, Los Angeles dominated the League for the next three years.
Again, credit Jackson for implementing the triangle, but he was not the one who put that great team together. In terms of roster building, all Phil Jackson ever did was have fortunate timing at his side.
This was the “roster building” experience Jackson had when he was hired by the Knicks in 2014, and his first big move as an executive made it immediately evident that he had no clue what he was doing. After a tumultuous 2013-14 season, Jackson decided to give Carmelo Anthony, at the age of 30 years old, a five-year maximum contract with a no-trade clause.
He gave an aged star player, who was arguably already past his prime, a contract that would do nothing but clog up cap space until it expired.
It was no secret that New York was not going to compete with Cleveland for the East that year. Signing Melo was a five-year guarantee of mediocrity, and mediocre is the worst thing a franchise in the NBA can be. With an aged Anthony as their centerpiece, the Knicks wouldn’t be good enough to compete for a title, but they also wouldn’t be bad enough to get a good pick in the draft lottery.
However, in the first year of his max deal, Melo was hurt half way through the season, and the Knicks were atrocious. This gave fans hope, as Karl Anthony-Towns was the top prospect in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Growing up in North Jersey, I watched Anthony-Towns throughout his high school career and wanted nothing more than for the Knicks to be in a position to draft him. At the beginning of the 2014-15 season, it appeared there was no chance that would happen, but with Melo out for the second half of the season, I had hope.
With just three games to go, the Knicks had the worst record in the league. All they had to do was lose out and they would have the highest odds to get the first pick. All Jackson had to do was instruct first year head coach, and terrible hire, Derek Fisher to rest his starters and Phil would have a chance to put a potential future Hall of Famer alongside Melo.
But no. The Knicks won two of their next three, including a road victory against the Atlanta Hawks, who happened to be the one seed in the East. You’ve got to be kidding me, right? Jackson couldn’t even tank correctly.
With the two late season wins, New York finished one game better than the Minnesota Timberwolves. Minnesota not only got the highest odds for the draft’s first pick, but it also won the lottery and drafted Anthony-Towns.
With the second highest odds, New York unluckily dropped all the way to fourth in the draft. Come selection time, it was between Emmanuel Mudiay and Kristaps Porzingis, and I thank my lucky stars each day that Jackson somehow made the right choice.
Despite the idiotic reactions by many Knicks fans at the draft Porzingis was the right pick, even before anyone had seen him play. He was a seven-foot, three-inch big man with a 35-inch vertical and three point range. If he wasn’t Karl Anthony-Towns, he was the next closest thing.
Jackson lucked into drafting Porzingis with the fourth pick, and that is really the only bright spot on his resume with the Knicks. That’s why I was ready for New Yorkers to stage a protest outside of Madison Square Garden when the Porzingis trade rumors started to circulate a week ago.
How could you you even think about trading someone who has such a high ceiling? Perhaps that that was the final straw for Knicks owner James Dolan, but I can’t believe it took this long for Jackson to be gone.