Phil Jackson, Knicks Could Learn Difference Between Coaching, Front Office Acumen

Phil Jackson, James Dolan, executive chairman of the Madison Square Garden CompanyLeave it to owner James Dolan, who has specialized in painting himself into corners as owner of the New York Knicks, to indirectly sum up the major issue with future Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson taking over the team’s front office.

“I am by no means an expert in basketball,” Dolan said at the televised press conference to introduce Jackson as Knicks’ president. “I’m a fan, but my expertise lies in managing companies and new businesses, so I’m a little out of my element when it comes to the team. I’ve found myself in a position where I’ve needed to be more a part of the decision-making for a while, but it wasn’t necessarily something that I wanted to do. As chairman of the company, I felt obligated to do it”

Couldn’t have said it better, Jim. Thanks. There, in a nutshell, is why the Knicks’ assumption that they have hired an elite executive to lead their basketball operations is flawed.

Sports and business share a number of traits, but one is their mistaken belief that successful people are inherently and objectively successful, that Bill Gates would have made been the world’s greatest blacksmith if he’d been born 200 years earlier. That the skills don’t matter, only the man or woman. Jackson was a tremendous coach, ergo he’ll be a tremendous exec.

Well, maybe he will be. But why do we assume this?

Coaching and team-building, like Dolan’s business and basketball ventures, require separate skills. Just because Jackson’s previous and current positions fall under the header of “basketball” doesn’t mean being elite in one automatically makes him elite in the other. You wouldn’t commission Sherman Williams to paint a landscape any more than you’d hire Picasso to paint your house.

Jackson’s own history illustrates this. Despite winning two championships as a player with the Knicks, he was never a star. He averaged 6.8 points per game over 10 seasons in New York, and didn’t contribute to the 1970 title at all due to a serious back injury. A couple of years later, the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers set a record for wins in a single season. The best future coach to come off that squad, which included Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich: Pat Riley, who averaged 13.8 minutes per game and received 15 DNPs. (Though Riley, to be fair, has built some great teams in Miami and West is a terrific roster architect.)

This is not to say Jackson can’t adjust and thrive. He came back from spinal fusion surgery to have a long and mostly productive playing career. He overcame initial doubts that a known free spirit could harness the relentless drive of a young Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls. At 54, he managed to get a 21-year-old Kobe Bryant to play nice with Shaquille O’Neal long enough to bring another title to Los Angeles.

The man has won at every level, and he sounds determined to keep it up.

“One thing I know,” Jackson said, “there’s no better place to win than New York City.”

Perhaps, but there’s no worst place to lose, either. Knicks fans are floating on a cloud of happiness at the moment, but they’re an impatient lot. In two or three years, if the Knicks aren’t winning, nobody will give Jackson a pass based on his glorious past. All they’ll care about is his not-so-glorious present.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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