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Phil Jackson Fired in New York. Now What?

A surprise breakup between the Knicks and the Zen Master creates a lot of questions at the Garden

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

Late Tuesday night, The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Knicks owner James Dolan was considering the possibility of relieving Phil of his duties following questions of his "fitness" to do the job, his active shopping of Kristaps Porzingis, and the "prospects for success" of the team, among other reasons. A minute before midnight PT, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported that Phil and the Knicks would announce that they would part ways Wednesday morning following the franchise’s reported decision to not buy out Carmelo Anthony.

From the moment Jackson became team president in 2014, little has happened to make Knicks fans think the team made the right move. Instead, it’s been much of the opposite.

Recent transgressions have included: placing franchise gem and cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis on the trade block after Phil didn’t like that he skipped his exit meeting; reportedly falling asleep during draft prospect workouts; insisting on viewing the game of basketball through the lens of his triangle-shaped glasses; and turning his and the franchise’s relationship with Melo needlessly contentious. These past two years have been an incessant stream of disheartening philosophizing by one of the game’s greatest minds. From the glory of 13 rings, and publicly beefing with LeBron, to the disapproval of even his most loyal followers. These last two weeks of ineptitude finally culminated in a fall from grace, and resulted with the seemingly impossible for Jackson: his firing.

Let’s unpack the ripple effects of this sudden move.

The Leadership Effect

With the league on the doorstep of free agency, it’s impossible to expect a new hire to seamlessly replace Phil in time for the start of the signing period. GM Steve Mills will reportedly take the leadership role in free agency while Dolan will likely prepare to look at candidates for the more senior position that Jackson has left empty.

David Griffin and Sam Hinkie are the two high-profile executives out on the market right now who could command such titles. Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who has famously fleeced the Knicks on deals in the past, has also been rumored to be the top Dolan target. The biggest repellant from what would seemingly be a dream job (running the Knicks!) remains the guy who will do the hiring himself. Though Dolan removed himself from basketball operations following Jackson’s arrival (and seemed to be sticking to it, if his NBA draft–night gig with his band J.D. & the Straight Shot is any indication of his level of involvement), he can never be trusted to not meddle in team affairs.

Ujiri would rightfully have some high demands of both salary and autonomy if he were to take the job. You don’t leave an office job to clean windows on a skyscraper without some new insurance. Could the Knicks target Chauncey Billups and snatch him up before the Cavs do? That seems unlikely. Could they look to another former Knick (like Allan Houston) to guide them? More likely but not ideal.

It’s hard not to root for the Knicks to pry away Hinkie from his Palo Alto sabbatical. If the high priest of the Process were allowed to inject his theology into one of the league’s most storied and dysfunctional franchises in the same way he did in Philly, we would be in for a fun, and long overdue, rebuild at Madison Square Garden.

The Melo Effect

Apparently, the winningest head coach in league history cannot just oust Melo from the city he willed himself to five years ago at the expense of all the team’s valued assets. After a back-and-forth affair that was less than friendly, and lasted longer than it needed to, Melo has outlasted Phil.

The ultimate power move by Melo would be to approach the new leadership, give them what Phil always wanted, and waive his no-trade clause, accept a trade, or ask for a buyout, benefiting both parties. It isn’t clear yet, however, if this is what Melo truly wants.

Regardless, Melo is the one getting the last laugh right now, and he will certainly get the next move when there is one.

Kristaps and the Franchise Direction Effect

The Knicks have a unicorn to build around in Porzingis, a possible partner in Frank Ntilikina, and a chance to steer into a youth movement, should they rid themselves of Melo. Adding a superstar no longer represents the Knicks’ pathway to success. That ship sailed before Phil even arrived. Their direction now can be only growth and then targeted acquisition, even if it doesn’t manifest itself as wins right away.

As long as the team builds around Porzingis as the centerpiece, does enough around him to keep him happy, and divorces itself from the triangle, New York’s basketball direction should be a fruitful one. Right now, you could tell a Knicks fan that the team will run a zone, or adopt the Princeton offense, or the four corners set. They wouldn’t mind. Anything but the triangle. Anyone but Phil.

Whether the choice for Dolan was between Porzingis and Phil — the future and the past — or whether it was between paying out Phil’s contract or paying out Melo’s — less money and more money — it appears he made the right one. Now, Dolan needs to hit on his ensuing decisions, a sentence that feels impossible even as I write it.

That Phil was the wrong leader doesn’t mean his departure will immediately net success for this franchise, one historically mired in incompetence. Knicks fans’ pessimism has already kicked into high gear, as praise for ridding themselves of Jackson has quickly evolved into a self-loathing realization that Dolan is as strategically inept as the man he wisely fired, and that he likely will botch the ensuing replacement hire as well as any other moves that require his input.

As for Phil, who departs unceremoniously, he now gets to do nothing and make $24 million off the five-year contract he signed, and the two-year team option the Knicks unfathomably picked up this very year. It turns out Phil has perfected the art of failing up, too.