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Phil Jackson Is Full of Surprises

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I guess we don’t really know Phil Jackson, though this isn’t for his lack of trying, of course. He has written several autobiographical books, regularly tweets to his more than 900,000 followers, and is never shy about giving interviews. He clearly cares about being understood, and his philosophies on life and basketball are not a mystery. Take, for instance, his affinity for the triangle offense — just to pick one random thing about Phil Jackson — something that he has discussed, in-depth, numerous times, in quasireligious terms.

This is why the Knicks hiring former Suns coach Jeff Hornacek comes as such a surprise.

Maybe I buried the lede here — the Knicks are not promoting longtime Jackson aide-de-camp Kurt Rambis to be their head coach! This is good for various reasons, some of which I will list below.

During his two seasons at the helm of the Timberwolves (2009–11), Rambis tried unsuccessfully to shoehorn some very bad players (and Kevin Love) into the triangle, to the trashadelic tune of 32 wins and 132 losses.

His recent stint as interim coach of the Knicks featured Carmelo Anthony playing 36 minutes a game as part of an obviously doomed attempt to make the postseason. Perhaps it’s churlish of me to give Rambis shit for favoring his short-term job security over the team’s long-term goals, but the dude’s win-now desperation was such that his veteran players had to ask him to cut their minutes so that the younger guys could develop.

Rambis also wanted my large adult son Kristaps Porzingis to take fewer 3s and post up more, which is kind of like saying, “I want to use my cell phone less as a multimedia communications device and more as a very light paperweight.”

In the NBA, the triangle, when not being run by the greatest players who have ever lived, has been a failure. The effectiveness of the system’s quick cuts, constant motion, and complicated reads is dulled when not being deployed at top speed by skilled actors. My view of Phil Jackson was (and maybe still is?) that he’s a triangle ideologue who cared more about rehabilitating the system’s reputation than rebuilding the Knicks, brick by brick.

When an ideology fails, the ideologue doesn’t question the underlying philosophy; he questions the execution of it. All the salacious personal issues aside, Derek Fisher’s lack of devotion to the triangle (not to mention his lack of communication with Phil) was a factor in his termination.

A glut of noteworthy and experienced coaches were available after the end of the regular season: Tom Thibodeau, Scott Brooks, David Blatt, Frank Vogel. But Phil seemed primarily concerned with road-tripping around the middle of nowhere. When it was leaked that Knicks general manager Steve Mills spoke with Vogel without Phil, a schism in New York’s front office seemed afoot.

In this light, Jackson’s mid-April “clandestine” two-day triangle seminar smacked of Trotsky’s last gasp at party purity before Googling airplane tickets to Mexico. I can’t think of anything NBA players would rather do than stay 48 hours after school to practice sideline actions, but such is the vaunted complexity of the triangle. (Melo reportedly skipped the camp.) When reports emerged saying that Phil had “great respect” for Jeff Hornacek, whose tenure in Phoenix was offensively forward-thinking and rather untriangular, they seemed inconsequential.

Hornacek had the Suns playing a modern style: pace, space, and 3s. Even more intriguingly, unlike Fisher and Rambis, he did not share a branch, twig, or leaf with Jackson’s coaching tree.

And yet here we are, with Hornacek all but hired and just the contractual details to work out. This being the Knicks — a team that drops the other shoe with very little waiting required — questions remain. How much of Phoenix’s modernist play was Hornacek coaching to his team’s strengths and how much was “system”? Will Hornacek run the distilled triangle, or some hybrid? Does his hiring, despite reports, presage a shadow power struggle between Mills and Jackson? Can Hornacek bring a few of Phoenix’s 85 point guards with him? Will the Knicks use “The Triangle Just Got Horny” as the tagline for their 2016–17 marketing campaign? Will I get royalty if they do?

Like Jackson, the answers are unknowable.

This piece originally appeared in the May 20, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.