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Phil Jackson Has Run the Knicks Into the Ground

The king of the triangle is gesturing at accountability while passing the buck — and alienating his team’s longest-tenured player

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In March 2014, when James Dolan, the rumpled regional cable empire heir and owner of the Knicks, hired Phil Jackson, the move was simultaneously the team’s best hope at a return to relevance and a philosophical dead end. Best hope because Jackson’s unparalleled résumé of 11 NBA championships brought much-needed gravitas to the three-ring clown orgy Knicks, a team that had once considered the tottering zombie Andrea Bargnani as a building block of a championship squad. Dead end because the Knicks’ raison d’etre has always been the acquisition of big names — even if those big names are past their prime. Few come larger or more respected than Phil, and optimistic Knicks fans talked themselves into their peyote-loving savior. The subtext of the hire was this question: What would happen if even the winningest coach in NBA history — the man who shepherded Jordan and Pippen and Kobe and Shaq to the mountaintop again and again and again — couldn’t pull the sword from the stone? What would that look like?

The answer is several new species of Knicks ineptitude: an unhinged, quasi-religious fervor for robotic pinch-post actions; a player rebellion; an unexplained disappearance; the owner accusing fans of being alcoholics; the gaslighting of the team’s best player via paternalistic old-man blog fuckery; an iconic ex-player dragged bodily from his courtside seat and arrested on national television. And the old standbys which fans have come to know and loathe: a depressing on-court product, swollen contracts for players with shipwrecked bodies, a public relations regime that treats team news like state secrets, and the prospect of losing a beloved player to the churn of incompetence.

On April 14, Jackson gave his end-of-the-season press conference at the Knicks’ practice facility in Westchester. It was a fascinating display of solipsism masquerading as love for the game. Jackson proclaimed that Carmelo Anthony would “be better off somewhere else.” Beyond the spectacle of a team’s president rhetorically cutting bait with its star, this is notable because one of Jackson’s first moves was to sign Melo to a five-year, $125 million extension which included a no-trade clause. This was Jackson being too Machiavellian by half. The only reason to agree to a no-trade was to shift responsibility for any future deal onto Melo’s shoulders. The aim was an abdication of blame; the effect was a surrender of agency. Any trade involving Melo now requires his consent. Compounding this difficulty, Jackson’s comments effectively undercut his ability to recoup anything resembling value since now everyone knows he wants to move Melo. The stated reason that Anthony needs to go is, of course, his incompatibility with the triangle offense. “We haven’t won with him,” Jackson said of Melo. Anthony, in 2012–13, powered the Knicks to 54 wins and the franchise’s lone playoff series victory in the past 15 years. In Jackson’s three full seasons as president, New York won 17, 32, and 31 games.

Jackson isn’t wrong about Melo’s weaknesses. That’s what makes his comments interesting. Melo clutches the ball like a beloved family heirloom and is a mostly indifferent defender. Even if the rest of the team was interested in the ancient and robotic collection of post-ups and cuts known as the triangle offense (and there is no evidence that they are interested and a lot that they are not), Jackson’s preferred system would run aground on the reef of Melo’s #StayMelo style. In the abstract, the triangle’s principle aims of ball and player movement are objectively good for a basketball team. The irony is that Jackson pursues his egalitarian aims in single-minded, dictatorial fashion.

Jackson cares more about rehabilitating the triangle offense than he does about the Knicks. The team and its players are simply the vehicle, and the coaches are his proxies. Meanwhile, the players, according to numerous reports, don’t want to play the system. “We faced resistance. We faced it from the top,” Phil said when asked why the system hasn’t taken root in New York. In truth, the system, lacking GREATEST EVER–caliber personnel, has struggled to do anything except confuse players and lose games in large numbers.

In addition to handicapping the Knicks’ best players, Phil has also empowered the wrong people. There’s years of evidence that Kurt Rambis is a bad coach. He won 32 games — combined — in two years as the head coach of the Timberwolves, and coached the Knicks to a 9–19 record after taking over for Derek Fisher during the 2015–16 season. This season, his portfolio, outside of being Phil’s supervisor of ideological purity, is ostensibly to manage the defense. He did so to little discernible effect; the Knicks were one of the worst defensive teams in the entire league. The team is slightly below league average offensively, and looked, at times, pretty good on that side, especially when they weren’t running the triangle. Rambis is secure, though, despite all of this because, Jackson says, “Kurt has all the knowledge I have.” Which, again, is knowledge that’s been proved mostly useless in today’s NBA.

Most troubling for Knicks fans is the apparent unhappiness of Kristaps Porzingis. KP skipped his exit interview with Jackson in protest of the team’s dysfunction. The Latvian’s growth stalled noticeably this season. Nonexistent player development is a longtime Knicks specialty. The team has quietly drafted very well in the Dolan era. There are a raft of Knicks draftees playing major roles in this year’s playoffs — Nene, Trevor Ariza, Channing Frye, David Lee, Tim Hardaway Jr. (!!!) — whom the Knicks, for one reason or another, felt the need to trade, release, or let walk. Phil’s mission — to resurrect the triangle offense within the two years of his contract extension — compounds the team’s existing issues with young players. When asked at his end-of-year talk what he liked from KP this season, Jackson said, in part, that he was proud of a game in which Porzingis didn’t take a 3 because “they’re a cheap way to get points.” WHY DON’T YOU WANT YOUR TEAM GETTING CHEAP POINTS, JACKSON? The Houston Rockets are one of the best teams in the league based wholly on a strategy of let’s just go for all the cheapest baskets. The Knicks are in disarray, their players are in revolt, and their brightest young talent is already looking elsewhere. This guy should be fired immediately.

Allow me to sprinkle a few more choice Jackson quotes from his recent press conference on this feces sandwich that is the New York Knicks organization.

On Joakim Noah, whose body is disintegrating like a sand castle at high tide, and who still has three years remaining on the deal Phil signed him to: “He’s 31. He’s still relatively young.”

On Derrick Rose, who is bad and disappeared at one point: “Someone told me today that he’s still a leading guy in the league in scoring in the paint.”

On the triangle: “Somehow or another we got completely off course here in the idea that a system of basketball, particularly the triangle offensive, is an impediment to a basketball team. It’s not an impediment.” Phil’s Knicks have never made the playoffs and his players don’t want to play the triangle.

On his players: “There’s some rebelliousness to this team.”

The last quote gets to the heart of it. Teams are made up of individuals with their own goals. If Jackson hasn’t been able to convince them, by now, that the triangle would benefit them — that it could make them better players, or at least help them land that next contract — then the failure is his. Not theirs. Time for Phil to go.