This isn’t the Phil Jackson we all know and (some of us) love.
Jackson reportedly is within days or even hours of accepting a front-office position with the New York Knicks, bringing him back to the NBA franchise he began his career with as a player in 1967. Naturally, everyone is wondering if Jackson can solve the riddle of Carmelo Anthony and make the Knicks a contender again.
Honestly, nobody really knows. One thing is for sure, though. Whether Jackson succeeds or fails, this move is out of character for the Zen Master.
Since Jackson assumed the No. 1 assistant’s seat beside Doug Collins with the Chicago Bulls, he has calculated his moves to give himself the maximum opportunity to succeed. He proved not to be as easy to manipulate as Bulls general manager Jerry Krause thought he would be when Krause promoted him to replace Collins in 1989, but the timing was perfect as Jackson — with the help of some guys named Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen — reeled off six championships over the next nine years.
Those titles afforded Jackson the ability to be even more opportunistic in 1999, when he took over a Los Angeles Lakers team coming off yet another playoff disappointment. With Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal at the helm, the Lakers won championships in Jackson’s first three seasons — something he wasn’t even able to do in Chicago — and a later Bryant-Pau Gasol combo led L.A. to two more titles before Jackson left in 2011.
Let’s be clear: This is not to denigrate Jackson’s accomplishments as a coach. Other men had failed to capture the greatness of Jordan, Bryant et al into a championship package before Jackson came along. Jackson is on a short list, headlined by Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, Alex Hannum, Bill Sharman and now Erik Spoelstra, of coaches who won championships while deftly navigating the potential minefields of an unusually superstar-studded roster. Cogent arguments have been made that Jackson is the best NBA coach ever.
Yet it cannot be disputed that Jackson always has picked his spots. The personnel had to be ready, and the situation had to be right. This Knicks job has neither of those. The Knicks’ best player, Anthony, is battling for a meaningless scoring title while his team hangs 11 1/2 games back in the lowly Atlantic Division. Their emotional leader, Tyson Chandler, is 31 years old with 13 years of NBA mileage on his knees. The organization has no first-round draft pick this year and only one in the next three years — and the Knicks have that one solely because NBA rules prohibit them from trading it away, too.
This is a long, hard rebuilding job Jackson has in front of him with the Knicks, who visit the Boston Celtics on Wednesday. This won’t be a one- or two-year project like it was with the Bulls and Lakers, with the added factor that he won’t be on the bench, directly teaching Anthony how to win. Recent history shows us we should never underestimate Jackson, but there’s nothing ready-made about the situation this time.