Phil Jackson lost every power struggle he fought.
He publicly said everything bad he could about Carmelo Anthony, in hopes of getting the waning superstar to waive the no-trade clause on his enormous contract. No dice. He discussed trading Kristaps Porzingis, the future of the franchise, whom everybody presumed was untradable. The backlash was enormous, and owner James Dolan began to question whether Jackson was the right guy for the job, per Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical. And of course there’s the triangle offense, his white whale: His coaches never wanted to coach the philosophy and his players never wanted to play it.
With a potential trade for Anthony untenable, Jackson tried to talk Dolan into agreeing to a $54 million buyout on Anthony’s contract. Dolan didn’t want to make that splurge, and that, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, was the final straw that led to Jackson’s exit as Knicks president Wednesday.
Jackson was canned — er, mutually parted ways with New York — at an awkward time. He’d just opted into the last two years of his contract with the Knicks, ensuring the team will pay him the final $24 million of his five-year, $60 million contract. He’d just overseen the Knicks’ draft process, as the Knicks used their predraft workouts to test whether prospects would fit with Jackson’s offense. Now he’s gone, and the Knicks can move forward without an executive antagonizing the team’s most important players.
Jackson has 11 championship rings as an NBA head coach, and in time we’ll forget about his tenure as the Knicks president. After all, we hardly remember Washington Wizard Michael Jordan, or Birmingham Baron Michael Jordan, or Lakers coach Magic Johnson, or University of Houston coach Clyde Drexler. We remember the great ones for their greatness, and it’ll be the same with Jackson. In fact, we might actually remember Jackson’s stint fondly; if Porzingis stays on a superstar path and recent draftee Frank Ntilikina develops well, Jackson’s Knicks tenure might be remembered for his savvy finds.
No matter what Porzingis and Ntilikina do, though, Jackson’s tenure was baffling. It’s the tale of a man who thought he could fix everything but ended up loudly doing little. Let’s revisit every moment:
March 17, 2014: Knicks hire Phil Jackson as president
Let’s set the scene. In 2012–13, the Knicks were a good team. They won 54 regular-season games and were the no. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. But it wasn’t enough: They lost painfully to the Pacers, who in turn weren’t good enough to contend with the Heat. In 2013–14, it was clear something with the Knicks was off. Head coach Mike Woodson didn’t use Carmelo Anthony properly, and the decision to trade for Andrea Bargnani had clearly made things worse. Instead of contending, the Knicks were barely in the playoff picture. They had talent, but not direction.
In stepped Phil Jackson:
New York fawned for its returning hero, who played for the team from 1967–78. (That’s not why he became a basketball legend, but it happened in New York, so it was important.) Knicks fans like to assume every great basketball person will eventually want to come to the Knicks, but they almost never do.
And so we embraced Phil. He had led us to glory in the 1970s — well, not led, exactly, but participated in it — and he was back for more. Phil Jackson T-shirt jerseys were sold in the Knicks team store. Word of advice: Never buy an executive’s T-shirt jersey.
March 20, 2014: Knicks sign Shannon Brown
Stephen A. Smith recently went on TV to yell about how Jackson’s very first signing as Knicks president was Lamar Odom, "WHO WAS ON CRAAAAAAAACK." Smith was wrong: That was Jackson’s second move. His first was to bring in Brown, another unemployed guy who had previously been on the Lakers. Jackson made no other moves in-season, and the Knicks missed the playoffs by one game.
April 16, 2014: Knicks sign Lamar Odom
Odom’s lawyer wrote a letter to ESPN about Smith’s comments. Mainly, Odom took offense to the fact that Smith had made light of his addiction, which nearly killed him in 2015. The letter didn’t, however, refute the argument that the Knicks made a bad basketball decision by signing a player who was addicted to drugs. Odom never played for the Knicks.
April 21, 2014: Knicks fire Mike Woodson as head coach
It would be revisionist history to heap praise on Woodson, whose coaching flaws probably kept the team from making the 2014 playoffs. But the Knicks went 109–79 under Woodson, including posting their only 50-win season this century. He wasn’t good, but he was better than the next guy — a thing you can say about virtually everything Knicks-related recently.
June 2, 2014: League fines Phil Jackson for tampering with Derek Fisher
Jackson quickly set his sights on Derek Fisher as Woodson’s replacement and spoke about his interest publicly, which was illegal because Fisher technically remained under contract as a player for the Thunder. Jackson said he was "undaunted" and would "continue to have a relationship with the press which informs our fan base."
June 10, 2014: Knicks hire Derek Fisher as head coach
Fisher was an absolute disaster in New York. He sucked at, you know, coaching: The hypothetical reason behind his hiring was his familiarity with the triangle offense from his time as a player with the Lakers, but he reportedly didn’t know the offense very well and eventually stopped running it. His team started 5–36, and he was fired with the second-worst winning percentage in Knicks coaching history, behind Larry Brown (.280).
He also failed to realize that being the head coach of an NBA team would place certain restrictions on his social life. After his 2015 divorce, Fisher was linked to ex-wives and current girlfriends of players on the Knicks and other teams. He’s been dating Matt Barnes’s ex-wife for a few years now; it’s not Fisher’s fault that Barnes once escalated this situation to the brink of violence, although it is Fisher’s fault that he drove drunk in Barnes’s car two years later. Tim Hardaway Jr. once denied that Fisher had been involved with his girlfriend, but he confirmed that he had asked his girlfriend whether she’d been involved with Fisher, which means a player on the Knicks plausibly thought that the team’s coach was hooking up with his girlfriend.
Every coach is a first-time coach at some point. But most coaches work as an assistant before being a head coach. Most coaches seem to have a nuanced grasp of basketball strategy when they’re hired. And most coaches aren’t gossip blog fodder. Hiring him was loyalty that turned to stupidity.
June 25, 2014: Knicks trade Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to the Mavericks for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin, and two second-round draft picks
This is when Jackson began dismantling a roster that had won 54 games and replacing it with one that he liked better. Chandler and Felton were past their peak at the time of this deal, but the Knicks basically traded them for Jose Calderon. Dalembert played a few games with the Knicks and hasn’t been in the league since; Larkin was objectively awful; and the Knicks traded Ellington before he played for the team. This wasn’t a particularly good salary move for the Knicks either, as they got stuck with the remaining three years on Calderon’s contract instead of having Chandler’s expiring deal.
June 26, 2014: Knicks draft Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo
Hard to fault the Knicks for swinging and missing on two second-round picks! But neither guy approached NBA readiness during his Knicks career.
June 27, 2014: Knicks trade cash to Pacers for Louis Labeyrie
July 13, 2014: Knicks re-sign Carmelo Anthony
The Knicks were wise to re-sign the team’s franchise player to a five-year, $124 million extension, even if Anthony isn’t perfect and the length of his contract extends past the end of his prime. Still, Jackson didn’t have to give Anthony a full no-trade clause. But we’ll get to that later!
July 18, 2014: Knicks sign Jason Smith
Smith played only one year for the Knicks. He didn’t do much on the court, but he did manage to dance a lot in the midst of a 17–65 season, the worst in franchise history.
I’m glad he was happy.
August 6, 2014: Knicks trade Wayne Ellington and Jeremy Tyler to the Kings for Quincy Acy and Travis Outlaw
This was a slight loss for the Knicks — Ellington was the best player in the deal, but Outlaw was the most expensive. Acy played one season with the Knicks, while Outlaw would never play a game.
September 9, 2014: Knicks sign Langston Galloway and Travis Wear
Honestly, it’s impressive that the Knicks found Galloway, a real NBA player, as an undrafted free agent.
October 8, 2014: Knicks sign D.J. Mbenga
I’m not including most training camp acquisitions in this rundown, but I feel obligated to mention that in 2014 the Knicks kicked the tires on a player who hadn’t seen NBA action in three years. The reason: Mbenga warmed the Lakers bench during their 2009 and 2010 title runs.
Perhaps it’s a little flawed of us to mention so many minor moves the Knicks made — Jackson was the president, Steve Mills was (and still is) the GM, and it was never clear how involved Jackson was in day-to-day operations. But it seems unlikely Mills was the guy behind bringing the entire 2009 Lakers bench for a tryout at one point or another.
October 27, 2014: Knicks trade Travis Outlaw and a 2019 second-round pick for Arnett Moultrie
The Knicks instantly cut Moultrie. To recap: They gave up a future draft pick to avoid paying Outlaw’s $3 million salary, which they took on so they could acquire Quincy Acy, whom they had to give up Wayne Ellington — probably the best player of the bunch — to get.
January 5, 2015: Knicks trade J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in a three-team deal, receiving Lou Amundson, Alex Kirk, Lance Thomas, and a 2019 second-round pick
Smith and Shump have helped the Cavaliers reach three straight NBA Finals and win a championship.Yes, that’s mainly due to the efforts of LeBron, but Smith and Shump have been important cogs for Cleveland. For two useful players, the Knicks got replacement-level randos. Thomas is OK, Amundson was on the tail end of an uninspiring career, and Kirk never played for the Knicks. Trading key players for spare parts would have been justified if the Knicks had used the cap space vacated by their salaries to execute a meaningful rebuild. They did not.
February 19, 2015: Knicks trade Pablo Prigioni to Rockets for Alexey Shved, a 2017 second-round pick, and a 2019 second-round pick
It was a good deal to get two draft picks for the 38-year-old Prigioni. But did they have to trade my beautiful Pablo? He was so lovely and kind and loved playing basketball so much. I miss him.
February 22, 2015: Phil Jackson gets fed up
After the Knicks lost their seventh straight game, Jackson seemed to question their effort on Twitter:
Jackson had traded away many of the team’s best players and Carmelo Anthony was injured, but, sure, the players just don’t want "it."
March 19, 2015: Knicks sign Ricky Ledo
I watched some games that Alexey Shved and Ricky Ledo played in during a 17–65 season.
May 10, 2015: Phil Jackson asks how the Warriors’ postseason is "goink"
The Warriors went 16–1 in the playoffs en route to a championship this year, but it wasn’t always that easy. In 2015, they lost a whopping five games before winning the title. On May 9, they lost their second game in a row to the Memphis Grizzlies, falling behind 2–1 in the Western Conference semifinals. And the next day, Jackson took to Twitter to mock teams (like Golden State) that centered their offense around 3-point shooting.
The Warriors would win 11 of the next 14 and become NBA champions for the first time in 40 years. Jackson tends to spell intentionally sloppily on Twitter — "daze" instead of "days," etc. — but his attempts to explain "goink" were confusing. He said it wasn’t a typo, but also that it wasn’t a racial epithet or sexual term as Urban Dictionary suggested.
June 25, 2015: Knicks draft Kristaps Porzingis
The second-most important moment in franchise history, behind the Ricky Ledo signing. I’ve woven a quilt that says DRAFTED KRISTAPS PORZINGIS and I’m going to sneak into MSG and hang it over the 1970s championship banners. I have invested my entire soul in Kristaps Porzingis.
June 25, 2015: Knicks trade Tim Hardaway Jr. in three-way deal, receiving Jerian Grant from the Hawks
I was thrilled with this move at the time — Hardaway had been a dud for the Knicks, and I liked Grant in college. In retrospect, it’s an awful move — Hardaway has grown into a legitimate NBA player, impressing this past season with the Hawks, while Grant was cringeworthy when forced into action during the Bulls’ playoff series against the Celtics back in April.
June 25, 2015: Knicks trade 2020 and 2021 second-round picks for Willy Hernangomez
I believe very strongly in young Willy. Between Porzingis and Hernangomez, draft night 2015 was a success for the Knicks.
July 9, 2015: Knicks sign Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Derrick Williams; acquire Kyle O’Quinn from the Magic for cash considerations and a 2019 second-round pick swap
Yes, the Knicks gargled poop in Jackson’s first year in charge, but this was the hypothetical turnaround point. None of these four players was a star, but they were inexpensive role players to surround Anthony, hand-picked by Jackson to execute the vision he wanted to execute. Lopez is a quality big and Jackson signed him at a modest price; Afflalo is a decent starter.
Only O’Quinn played more than a season with the team. If this was Jackson’s rebuild, he decided to unbuild it after just one year.
August 7, 2015: Knicks sign Sasha Vujacic
There is nothing Phil Jackson believes can’t be fixed by somebody who contributed modestly to championship teams he used to coach.
"Phil, the radiator’s on the fritz again. Should I call the handyman?"
"No, I have taken care of the situation. Jordan Farmar will be here any minute, and his presence will return the air conditioner to its former glory."
August 16, 2015: Knicks sign Kevin Seraphin
Seraphin’s season in New York was so bad that, before he signed with the Pacers, Larry Bird asked him, "What the hell happened to you?"
February 8, 2016: Knicks fire Derek Fisher, promote Kurt Rambis as interim head coach
"Phil, Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar couldn’t fix the radiator. They just stood there. Actually, it’s gotten worse. It smells like something’s burning. Wait — something is burning. Phil! It’s on fire!"
"Relax. I have arranged for Kurt Rambis to stand near the radiator."
"Phil, you need to leave! You’ll die!"
"Rambis is the answer to all problems."
February 22, 2016: Knicks sign Jimmer Fredette
Jimmer literally hit every shot he took for the Knicks. Sure, it was just the one shot. But that makes him, by field goal percentage, the most efficient shooter in Knicks history, and the best signing of the Jackson era.
March 16, 2016: Knicks sign Tony Wroten
New York signed Wroten late in the season to secure his rights without any intention of playing him as he recovered from an ACL injury, and then cut him for disciplinary reasons three months later in the offseason.
March 30, 2016: Phil Jackson tweets "Embrace the serpent"
I really don’t think we paid enough attention to this at the time.
April 19, 2016: Phil calls Luke Walton just to chat
Walton led the Warriors to a 39–4 record as an interim coach at the start of the 2015–16 season, which naturally made the Warriors assistant the hottest coaching prospect last offseason. Jackson’s team didn’t have a coach at the time. In the midst of this, they spoke to each other — but denied that it was about the open Knicks job, helping Jackson avoid another tampering fine. Jackson never did quite get the hang of the fact that his job prevented him from talking to certain people. (Kinda like Derek Fisher, but in a different way.)
April 20, 2016: Jackson holds a "triangle seminar"
The Knicks missed the 2016 playoffs, but after the season Jackson held a minicamp for his coachless team during which he gave hands-on instruction about his beloved triangle offense. It was thought that the presence of interim coach Rambis at the camp meant he’d be the next guy in charge — he wasn’t — and some attendees, like Lopez and Calderon, never played for the Knicks again.
May 2016: Jackson goes on vacation during the Knicks’ search for a new head coach
Jackson shared photos from the American heartland, ate Thai food in Sioux City, Iowa, and eventually went to his home in Montana as the NBA coaching carousel turned. He missed out on only Dave Joerger during that time, but it still wasn’t ideal.
June 2, 2016: Knicks hire Jeff Hornacek as head coach
I don’t love Hornacek, but he’s not completely overwhelmed by the basics of basketball and has never been romantically linked to the significant others of any active NBA players, so I’ve been OK with him.
June 22, 2016: Knicks trade Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon, and Jerian Grant to Bulls for Derrick Rose, Justin Holiday, and a 2017 second-round pick
Jackson believes in things that haven’t worked in years, like the triangle offense and Derrick Rose’s legs. Every other team seems capable of fleecing a Bulls front office that Chicago hates more than ketchup on hot dogs; the Knicks gave up a reasonably priced, effective center for a washed-up star with a year left on his contract.
Jackson was reportedly interested in re-signing Rose before his ouster. He made a big fuss about the player who represents New York’s future skipping an exit interview; he was apparently willing to forgive a player who represents the past for skipping a game.
July 7, 2016: Knicks sign Marshall Plumlee
The third-best Plumlee.
July 8, 2016: Knicks sign Joakim Noah
The $72.6 million deal for Noah was certainly the worst free-agent signing of the 2016 offseason. The Lakers’ Timofey Mozgov contract was pretty bad — so bad that the Lakers ditched young prospect D’Angelo Russell to get out from under it after just one season — but Mozgov played about as well as Noah per 36 minutes last season, his salary is lower, and he doesn’t have the injury concerns Noah has.
Rose might be a shadow of his former self, but there’s not even enough of Noah’s former self remaining to block light from shining through. He averaged 5.0 points per game while missing about half of the season with a knee injury. This could have been expected if the Knicks had watched Noah in 2015–16, when he averaged 4.3 points per game while missing two-thirds of the season with a shoulder injury. He appears to have forgotten basic basketball skills — even with his bizarre sidewinding release, he shot over 70 percent from the free throw line for most of his career, but dropped to 43.6 percent this year.
It would have been much easier to keep Lopez, who is younger, cheaper, and better, instead of trading for Rose and spending big on Noah. They paid a ton to downgrade.
July 8, 2016: Knicks sign Brandon Jennings
Jennings was a splashy signing, but eventually he realized it wasn’t fun to back up Derrick Rose for a sub-.500 team. He requested to be waived midseason, giving him the opportunity to join the Wizards for the playoff hunt.
July 8, 2016: Knicks sign Courtney Lee
A sad realization: Courtney Lee is the most successful signing Jackson made in his time as a Knicks executive. He’s fine! He’s really OK.
July 9, 2016: Knicks sign Mindaugas Kuzminskas
July 14, 2016: Knicks sign Maurice Ndour
Hey, did you notice we got to July without mentioning the NBA draft? That’s because the Knicks traded three draft picks (one was a first-rounder) for Andrea Freakin’ Bargnani in 2013. We’re bashing Phil Jackson here, but many Knicks executives before him also failed.
August 1, 2016: Knicks sign Ron Baker
People always celebrate when an undrafted rookie starts some games, but Baker is not going to be an NBA player — he was one of just 13 players to start a game and finish the season with negative win shares this year.
December 27, 2016: Phil Jackson and Jeanie Buss break up
No need to harp on Phil’s personal life, but it is important to note when one team’s president ends an engagement to another team’s owner.
January 12, 2017: Phil’s friend bashes Carmelo Anthony
Charley Rosen is Phil Jackson’s mouthpiece, which explains why he wrote an article about how he is not Phil Jackson’s mouthpiece. In January, Rosen wrote an article about how it’d be in Anthony’s best interests to move on from the Knicks, and Anthony treated it as a message from Jackson.
February 7, 2017: Phil maybe bashes Carmelo? We think?
In-depth analysis of the tweet reveals it probably was a shot at Melo. I guess we’ll never know.
February 23, 2017: Rose reveals dissatisfaction with the triangle
Rose calls the triangle offense "random basketball." A week later, he’ll ask "Do I have a choice?" when asked about whether he enjoys the offense, which was a step in the right direction. In March, Porzingis also used "random" to describe the team’s sets.
Jackson’s insistence on the triangle seemed to grow more and more desperate as his time with the Knicks marched on and the people in the organization became more and more convinced it wasn’t the way. It’s so strange. The triangle is an awkward, mechanical concept built for a different NBA, and its strengths don’t necessarily explain the successes of the hypertalented teams that Jackson coached. Why didn’t Jackson ever try to innovate? Why did he believe the philosophy he adopted was greater than his own ability to create basketball strategies?
February 27, 2017: Knicks sign Chasson Randle
March 11, 2017: Jackson holds a secret triangle meeting for guards
On a day the Knicks weren’t supposed to have practice, Jackson tells the guards to meet him to discuss the principles of the offense.
April 13, 2017: Knicks and Jackson agree on two-year option
Jackson’s five-year contract as team president came with an opt-out clause after three years. Both sides had the option to leave each other. But in April, both parties made good on their handshake deal to opt in to the final two years unless a lockout happened. This took place behind closed doors; there was no public announcement about the decision. It ensures that the Knicks will pay Jackson $24 million over the next two years, even though he has now been fired.
April 14, 2017: Jackson actually says out loud that the team should trade Carmelo
Remember 2014, when Jackson boldly proclaimed he’d always talk to the press to help keep the fans informed? Well, he didn’t speak to reporters all year this past season — just once before the year, and once after the team’s final game. He had this to say:
June 21, 2017: Phil discusses trading Porzingis
June 22, 2017: Knicks draft Frank Ntilikina, Damyean Dotson, and Ognjen Jaramaz
The timing here is unfortunate. I like Ntilikina, but Jackson picked him only after drilling every potential draftee in the triangle offense. He passed on Dennis Smith Jr., a point guard who thrives in the pick-and-roll, for Ntilikina, who fits his philosophy. Jackson might be gone, but the decisions he made as president will remain: Ntilikina is part of the future now, and they’ll be paying Noah $19.3 million in 2020 as he turns 35.
The overarching theme of Jackson’s time in charge of the Knicks is that he always believed he could fix things by selecting a new crop of players year after year. He dismantled the team he inherited in 2014, and produced a revamped roster for 2015. But he didn’t like that roster, so he revamped it again for 2016. But that team wasn’t good, either, so he spent his last few weeks with the club publicly discussing his plans to eliminate its two most important players.
He acted as if his managerial greatness could overcome anything — the lack of star players willing to play for him, the changing strategies of the NBA, even the league’s tampering rules. If something went wrong, the problem was with the players — their effort, their skill sets, their belief in the triangle.
Jackson came to a 37-win team with the hope of making them better. They won 17 games, 32 games, and 31 games, respectively, in his three years in charge. He inherited a team with problems; he leaves them with his own problems, the ones he blamed on everybody else.