Unless my web-archive sleuthing skills are betraying me, the first time Phil Jackson was seriously connected to the New York Knicks’ head-coaching job was May 23, 1999. Less than a year before, Jackson had won his sixth championship as a coach in Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls and retired, vowing, “It’s time to go.” But as a member of the 1973 Knicks championship team, he’d always considered the Garden his true home, and that May, Mike Wise, then of the New York Times, broke the story that then–MSG president Dave Checketts was meeting with Jackson to take over for Jeff van Gundy. Jackson eventually signed to coach the Los Angeles Lakers and won five more titles.
Since then, Jackson has been the Knicks’ perpetual object of desire. Every time the Knicks have ended a season without coming close to a title—and that has been every season—Jackson’s name hits the tabloids. Come and save us, the back pages plead. You’re the only one who can. Jackson had always politely demurred, mostly because the Knicks’ rosters have been awful for the last thirteen years, while never ruling out the possibility. But this off-season, Jackson showed a little leg, apparently allowing “sources close to him” to leak word that the Knicks could maybe have him this year, for the right price. At last, it appeared a perfect fit, the star-crossed lovers finally finding their moment: The Knicks had the sort of talent-laden but dysfunctional roster in which Jackson has always specialized, the team was rolling in cash with a remodeled Garden ready to print some more, fans were growing skeptical after a second consecutive first-round playoff loss, and, perhaps most important, the Knicks had a coaching opening. It had been thirteen years, but these two kids, they finally had a chance. And then the Knicks never called.
The Knicks have been known for being an all-in, all-risk, championship-or-nothing, give-us-superstars-or-give-us-death team for so long that their decision to ignore Jackson this off-season and simply remove the “interim” tag from Mike Woodson’s title would, under almost any other circumstances, feel like a triumphant leap forward. Whether it was the end-of-days clawing for one last chance at a title in the twilight of the Patrick Ewing era, the disastrous Larry Brown one-year investment, or, most of all, the apocalyptic Isiah Thomas half-decade of horror, the Knicks are known, more than anything else, for grabbing any and every big name they can find as a desperate bid for attention and a vague, poorly conceived opportunity for another title. There’s no bigger name in coaching than Phil Jackson, and the Knicks passed right by him, choosing instead to promote and extend the contract of the low-key, well-liked, in-house candidate. This should feel like progress. This should feel like the grown-ups are finally in charge. This should feel like a bit, at last, of sanity.
So why does it feel like the Knicks just doomed themselves?
Mike Woodson was undeniably a terrific coach for the New York Knicks this season. After the resignation of Mike D’Antoni—a worldly, intelligent coach who had guided the Knicks through the most exciting fortnight in recent history with Linsanity but who, after a subsequent two weeks of trying to work with Carmelo Anthony, decided he’d rather be anywhere else in the world than coaching this team—Woodson took a team on the brink of mutiny and led them to a fantastic 18-6 record down the stretch, securing a playoff berth and notching the team’s first playoff win in eleven years. Had the Knicks finished one spot up or down in the Eastern Conference standings—avoiding the hypertalented Miami Heat in the first round—you can make a strong argument the team would have won at least one playoff series, and maybe two. There is no way that would have happened had D’Antoni stayed on; they would have been lucky to have made the playoffs at all. Woodson has earned considerable credit for all this, and he deserves every bit of it. He also has a staggering, fantastic beard.
But let us not get carried away. The Knicks were a dramatically different team with Woodson in charge, most noticeably on the defensive end, but while some observers credited Woodson with clichéd, empty platitudes about “pushing his guys to play hard” and chalkboard locker-room hokum, the real reason the Knicks played better under Woodson than D’Antoni was because Carmelo Anthony likes Mike Woodson and didn’t like Mike D’Antoni. Anthony played so much harder under Woodson that you wondered if he was physically allergic to D’Antoni, as if the coach’s mustache gave him mono or something. Hey, don’t take my word for it. Listen to Anthony himself. When the Knicks won the first three games after D’Antoni resigned, thanks largely to outstanding efforts from Anthony, Carmelo—a man who was paid $18.5 million this past season and will make more than $65 million over the next three years—actually said, “I think in the last three games, my focus was to have an energy that I haven’t had so far this season, especially on the defensive end.” That’s a pretty amazing thing to say to a reporter, or even out loud. The next time you have a crap month at work and everyone notices, try explaining it away by saying, “You know, I need a new boss. That’ll motivate me to work with more energy.” (This is not recommended.)
That said, part of the job of being an NBA coach is massaging the egos of 25-year-old multimillionaires: If Woodson can make his star play defense, hey, isn’t that a reason to keep him? Isn’t that someone the Knicks should want around? Someone Carmelo Anthony likes and wants to play hard for?
The obvious rejoinder to that, of course, is, Well, he does for now. Carmelo Anthony has become the most powerful person in the Knicks organization, which means Woodson will have job security as long as he does everything Anthony requests of him. Of course, the reason Anthony likes Woodson so much—other than the fact that, by all accounts, Woodson is a likable, friendly chap—is because Woodson’s offensive scheme calls almost exclusively for isolation plays, which (lo!) happen to be Anthony’s specialty. Anthony put together some impressive performances in the postseason, as he should; he’s a freakishly talented offensive player.
But that’s not how you win championships; you win championships by working within an offensive system, trusting your teammates, and playing as a collective unit (the reasons the Spurs won twenty consecutive games, not to mention four championships). Watching the Knicks play offense in the playoffs was often excruciating. It was mostly Anthony dribbling around the perimeter as his teammates stood around waiting for him to shoot his way out of increasingly impossible situations. Anthony can score as well as anyone in the NBA, but not when the entire defense is focused on him. Anthony is of the Kobe generation, the Heroball era, when a player’s superstar value is determined by how well he hits the big, impossible shot. As enjoyable as this is to watch, this isn’t the way basketball is going. Several advanced statistical experts, led by ESPN’s Henry Abbott, have proved time and again that the way you win games in the fourth quarter isn’t by letting your star chuck up any old shot; it’s by finding the open man and passing it to him. (This is why LeBron James has often struggled, until recently anyway, in the fourth quarter. He gets away from his game—including teammates and finding the best shot—and starts playing like … Carmelo Anthony.) The more analysis there is, the more it makes clear the obvious: It’s more difficult to stop five guys than it is to stop one.
This message has not been received by Anthony (who never could handle D’Antoni’s more democratic system), and Woodson, who for as much respect as players have for him will never be confused with an offensive mastermind, is hardly in a position to shake up the system. How powerful has Anthony become at the Garden? As part of the condition to be considered for the full-time job, Woodson was required by MSG president Jim Dolan to fire his agent and sign with Creative Artists Agency, which, surprise, surprise, happens to be Anthony’s agency. (The conspiracy-minded might note it is also Isiah Thomas’s. [Thunderclap.]) Anthony, in four months, has run off the coach he doesn’t approve of, forced the Knicks to play a system that suits him, and now made certain that his new coach’s financial future is tied up entirely with his own. He has made his power move, and he has won. Sure, he likes Woodson now … as long as Woodson continues to play the way Anthony desires. And by firing his agent just to be considered for the job, Woodson has ultimately rendered himself powerless. Anthony is going to do what he wants.
This would be great if there were much indication that winning a championship is, in fact, what’s most important to Anthony, if he could find his inner Paul Pierce, sign himself up for some of that infamous Celtics inner Ubuntu. But Anthony has confessed that he only plays hard when he has a coach who gives him what he wants. This is not how a championship is built. Time and again in the NBA, championships have been won by coaches and players who challenge each other, who bring the best out of each other, who respect each other enough to step forward and recede at the right times. Anthony didn’t need a coach he could push around; he needed a coach who, unlike D’Antoni, had the authority of multiple rings to push Anthony out of the comfort of the isolation system and into a championship. He needed Phil Jackson. This once, it could have worked.
This story appeared in the June, 11, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.