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Phil Jackson Was the Worst Kind of Stupid

A New York fan says goodbye to the Zen Master, the latest legend to ruin the Knicks

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The worst kind of stupid is the kind that reads a lot of books. That kind of incompetent person ends up affecting your life. Their bad ideas are exceptionally well thought-out; assembled, over years and decades, from pieces of many other good ideas — like sharing and Buddhism and trout fishing and passing the ball and taking LSD on the beach. A range of viewpoints have been weighed in crafting this particular species of ineptitude. And after all that care and consideration, the result is that no one, and no result, no matter how disastrous, can dissuade this specific kind of stupid from doing the stupid thing it wants stupidly to do.

On Wednesday morning, Phil Jackson was fired. New York could have let Jackson walk back to Montana for free, but only this spring, team owner and indie blues musician James Dolan picked up the two-year, $24 million option on Phil’s contract. This, after ostensibly letting Phil make the team’s draft selections (WELCOME TO NEW YORK, FRANKIE SMOKES, WHO IS ALREADY INJURED), and mere days before free agency is set to begin. Jackson’s tenure could have ended only this way: In the most Knicks way possible.

And what a tenure it was! It was the most stunning act of sports-related self-sabotage I have ever seen that didn’t involve George Costanza.

The Knicks have had bad general managers and front-office executives before, of course. Scott Layden came to the team in 1999 after a highly regarded career with the Utah Jazz and promptly lost the plot. GAZE UPON MY CHECKBOOK AND DESPAIR!!! He traded Patrick Ewing, whose contract was set to expire, saddling New York with the cap-sapping salaries of Glen Rice, Luc Longley, and Travis Knight. He drafted Nene. Great! Then traded him along with Mark Jackson and Marcus Camby to Denver for Antonio McDyess and his history of left knee injuries. Right on cue, Dice’s kneecap blew apart during a preseason game, effectively ending his career as a Knick. Layden made Allan Houston the second-highest-paid player in the league. Drafted Mike Sweetney over various players including Boris Diaw and David West.

Isiah Thomas was hired in December 2003, and the litany of his fucked-up decisions is simply too tiring to get into. But the highlights include signing Jerome James to a five-year, $30 million deal after Big Snacks played a few solid playoff games; adding Steve Francis to a team that already had Stephon Marbury; acquiring Eddy Curry, who may have had a heart condition and definitely didn’t rebound or play defense; and sexually harassing a coworker. Zeke was replaced as coach and president of basketball operations in 2008 but his poltergeist haunts Madison Square Garden to this day.

And now, Phil. He’s the worst Knicks executive of my lifetime, I think. Not just for his moves. But because of the towering heights from which he flung himself. The fact that I have to remind myself that Phil, by any measure, but specifically in terms of rings, is a legend, is a testament to the damage he’s done. For years, New York’s overarching philosophy has been: Hire old guys with great résumés for lots of money. Phil is that philosophy’s death rattle. Though I’m sure, like the specter of Thomas’s potential return to the front office, it will continue, zombie-like, to shamble on for years to come.

At first blush, it seemed like a great hire. As a member of the Knicks championship teams in 1970 (though he didn’t play due to injury) and ’73 (he was Clyde Frazier’s roommate on road trips), Jackson had a unique understanding of the team’s legacy. His 11 titles — six with the Bulls, five with the Lakers — marked him as one of the greatest coaches, if not the greatest coach, of all time. And his belief in Zen philosophy, fondness for hallucinogens, and adherence to the triangle offense lent him a mystique that could not help but hypnotize the easily bamboozled James Dolan.

Over three seasons in New York, Phil Jackson took a wrecking ball to all of it, in a way that leaves you questioning everything he accomplished over his 50-year career. The rings, the titles, the mystique, everything.

There are many places to start, but Carmelo Anthony’s contract is the most emblematic, because it contains all the hallmarks of Phil’s reign. In July 2014, Jackson signed Melo to a five-year, $124 million contract. Melo, of course, relies heavily on a ball-clutching, jab-stepping style which runs contrary to the egalitarian philosophies of the triangle. For reasons which we may never fully understand, which I think boil down to basic cowardice, Jackson gave Melo a no-trade clause. Almost immediately, Phil came to regret it.

The last year of Phil’s tenure has been dominated by various public statements, either from the Zen Master directly or his sock-puppet blogger Charley Rosen, unified by a simple theme: Melo, please leave.

Then Phil took aim at Kristaps Porzingis, one of the brightest young stars in the league. Upset at the Knicks’ slapdash organizational style, KP skipped his exit interview with Jackson and GM Steve Mills. This, reportedly, angered Jackson, who then set out to ply the trade market in search of a deal for New York’s best draft pick since Patrick Ewing. This is like drawing a 19 in blackjack and telling the dealer to hit. Phil’s reasoning is best explained in a post titled "The Pros and Cons of a Kristaps Porzingis Trade" written by his pal Rosen, who presumably can’t blog if Phil is drinking a glass of water:

In 2016, Phil Jackson signed Joakim Noah’s 31-year-old mummified remains to a four-year, $72.6 million contract. Noah missed 36 games last season. He also traded for Derrick Rose, whose best Adidas commercial is about him getting injured.

It’s almost like 21-year-olds need time to develop. Also, he’s a stretch 5. Fuck the triangle.

Because Phil has acted shamefully by allowing Rosen to assassinate Melo’s career and character so he didn’t have to put his name to it. All that, just to get him to waive the no-trade THAT HE HIMSELF PROVIDED.

Rose literally disappeared — left the team on a game day, boarded a plane, and didn’t tell anyone — and Phil had essentially no comment. Rose was fined a reported $200,000 which may or may not be in excess of the price the Knicks paid for his charter flight back to New York City. Recent reports have the Knicks interested in re-signing Rose.

Get out of my face forever with this patronizing bullshit.

The pro-Jackson analysis of the past two months, and the Porzingis affair in particular, is: This is the Zen Master playing mind games. He doesn’t really want to trade KP; just look at the ridiculous return he was looking for. He was just trying to teach the kid a lesson.

I think this is more or less right. In that case, the best read of Jackson’s strategy is that it wrecked Carmelo’s trade value, needlessly angered the team’s young star, and revealed the franchise to be a toxic destination, a place of last resort for free agents.

Good riddance, Phil.