It is not difficult to see why Phil Jackson would accept the job as Knicks president. There’s the money, obviously -- $12 million a year, four times as much as Toronto’s 2013 NBA executive of the year Masai Ujiri (who actually took that job because it was a raise from his old one) – but the Knicks are giving Jackson perks that go beyond money. He reportedly doesn’t have to live in New York year round, and he’s not expected to go on the grueling scouting trips general managers around the league are famous for. He always has had a soft spot for the organization where he won two NBA titles as a player, and he is still sore at the Lakers for cutting him out of the management team in favor of Jim Buss, one of Jerry Buss’ wayward sons. There is no downside to this job for him: If he craps out in New York, he’ll get to keep the money and everybody will blame James Dolan.
If you squint, you can almost see a mad logic for the argument that Jackson can save the Knicks. He is not a stupid man, and he does have the cache, theoretically, to make pitches to the LeBrons of the world that no one else employed by the Knicks can. Some even suggest that Jackson could be the one who wrests control away from Dolan and finally be the grownup the Knicks desperately need. You don’t bring in Phil Jackson so he’ll fade quietly into the background, is how the thinking goes.
But still: It’s sort of impossible to believe that this will work. Because the thing about Phil Jackson is that the Knicks just had Phil Jackson. They had a top-shelf basketball mind, with an NBA history of wild success, sentimental ties to the organization, a promise from management not to meddle and a mutual understanding that the road ahead would be treacherous and that patience would be required. Mistakes had been made, sure, but this time, they were gonna take the time to fix it. This time, they meant it.
That was of course Donnie Walsh, the decorated general manager and team president who was charged with cleaning up the mess Isiah Thomas had spent five years making. When he was announced as the next Knicks savior, less than six years ago, everyone said all the right things. Walsh would have autonomy. The Knicks would be prudent and forward-thinking, not just chasing superstars and trading away draft picks. Isiah Thomas wouldn’t be a part of the organization. The Knicks were gonna get it right. Three years later, Walsh was gone. Four years later, the Knicks would put a man, Steve Mills, in charge simply because he was friendly with Carmelo Anthony’s agents. And six years later, here we are all again. But this time it’s gonna be different.
Except Jim Dolan is still here.
Sure, Phil Jackson is a bigger, more famous NBA figure than Walsh, but he is doing a job he’s never done before – a job he seems only inspired to do because longtime rival Pat Riley has had so much success with it in Miami – and he’s working remotely. (Some think he’ll still move to NYC, but there’s plenty reason to have doubts: We’ll find out for certain at the press conference tomorrow.) The NBA is not an inherently dysfunctional league: No team’s drama ever approaches what happens with the Knicks. (The Nets can’t close even when they’re trying.) That is something endemic to Jim Dolan, a man infamous for his whims and short attention span, for his inability to filter viewpoints, for his tendency to listen to whomever happened to be talking last. That has always trickled down to all levels of the organization: For amusement, talk to someone who used to work for MSG; they have the cadence and relief of someone who escaped some sort of sad corporate labor camp. If Phil Jackson is made the true leader, the true boss of this organization, that could change. But everyone knows that’s not what is going to happen. All sorts of people come in with big plans to change the Knicks. In the end, only one man remains.
It's possible to praise Dolan for this move, in a Steinbrennian way: At least he’s sinking his money back into the team. At least he wants to win. First off, this is a rather low bar to clear: Owner Of Team With Highest Ticket Prices In Sports Nods At The Notion Of Winning Games. More to the point, though: This is good money spent after bad. That Dolan thinks problems like this can be solved with just money is precisely what caused this problem in the first place. No one at MSG took a step back and reassessed the thought process that led them to this point; instead, it’s the same plunging ahead, the headfirst leap into the abyss, that imploded all the good work Walsh had done. More money. Let Phil fix it. Phil Jackson might be a smart team president and he might not be, but the one thing he isn’t is a magician: He can’t make the Knicks’ cap problems go away, he can’t make the team’s aging “stars” 25 again and he can’t bring the traded away draft picks back. You could pay him $100 million a season and he couldn’t do any of that. The Jackson hiring isn’t a solution to the Knicks’ problems: It’s a symptom.
Jackson has a lot of big decisions to make, most immediately what to do with the coach (fire him, probably within minutes of the final game of the season) and most importantly what to do with the team’s superstar Carmelo Anthony, who could become a free agent after this year. Jackson is one of the rare humans with the NBA gravitas and authority to let Carmelo go without it looking like a dramatic walkback of the team’s entire strategy for the last three years – Carmelo has been a great Knick, but this authority is perhaps the best argument for Jackson -- but both sides are saying all the right things about a potential union. There is a forming narrative about how Jackson can do with Carmelo what he did with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant – turn their scoring ability into championship, to morph the player into me-first superstar into enduring champion. But that does a disservice to all parties involved. Jordan and Bryant were all-timers – better than Carmelo by a wide berth – but they also had superstars alongside them, along with perfect role players on rosters put together with fewer restrictions than NBA teams have now. And the notion that the Knicks haven’t won the last few years because “Carmelo has been selfish” is wrong and purposefully thick-headed: Carmelo has done all he could do, and it is not Carmelo’s fault that the entire roster has disintegrated around him. (Well, not entirely his fault.) That Jackson is going to “fix” Carmelo is a narrative in search of facts.
And that’s sort of what this whole hiring feels like: Rather than taking a cold, clear-eyed look at all these self-inflicted wounds and how to heal them, Jim Dolan, as usual, is subscribing to some invented storyline of magical thinking. We don’t have to change what we’ve done: We just have to bring in Phil. Trust the rings. That’ll last for a couple of years, until it becomes more and more clear that Phil Jackson cannot, in fact, reverse the course of space and time, no matter how much you pay him. (Particularly when he’s not even in town.) Then Dolan will hear something, or someone (Isiah!), change his mind again, and there will be a new savior, someone who will be paid a lot of money and who, Dolan promises, will be left alone this time. This is what James Dolan does. It is who he is. The fundamental virus at the core of the Knicks hasn’t been cured with this move. It has just grown stronger.