When Phil Jackson made his return to the New York Knicks, everyone thought the sky was the limit. Now, the dream combination must come to an end.March 14, 2014. A day that will live in infamy for the storied franchise of the New York Knicks.
Since the turn of the millennium, the same storied franchise — one that went from championships in the 70s, to Bernard King and Patrick Ewing in the 80s, to the determined, tough, and rugged bunch of the 90s — became the laughing stock of the National Basketball Association.
It all began in late 2001 when Jeff Van Gundy decided it was time to ditch New York for greener pastures. Instead of hitting the reset button and make wholesale changes, the organization decided to retool and build around the recently acquired Antonio McDyess. The All-Star played in just 18 games in orange and blue, becoming the first in a long line of players, coaches, and executives to fail on Broadway.
Next up was the dreadful Isiah Thomas era. Despite hiring two legendary coaches (Lenny Wilkins and Larry Brown), terrible trades, embarrassing losses, and off-the-court incidents still leaves a sour taste in fans’ mouths. The Hall-of-Fame point guard holds the fifth-worst winning percentage in team history (.341), and the uttering of the name Isiah Thomas makes fans cringe to this day.
Donnie Walsh was up next. Were the Knicks good during his time as team president? Not necessarily. But not only did he give the franchise a chance to sign top stars in the summer of 2010, but he also brought competitive basketball back to Madison Square Garden.
The signing was a risk, of course. But unlike everyone else, Stoudemire wanted to be a Knick — that, and they were the only team to give him a $100 million contract. While his knees proved to be the issue everyone thought they would be, Stoudemire also helped lure Carmelo Anthony to the Big Apple.
Sure, the Knicks had a 54-win season on the back of Anthony and a slew of veterans, but even that season ended in disappointment.
From Starbury to the trade of the over the hill veteran Tracy McGrady. From Linsanity to David Lee‘s tip-in with 0.1 on the clock. From the disastrous Eddy Curry transaction to the underrated signing of Tyson Chandler — so many faces, so much potential, so little success.
And then, came March 14, 2014. The day Dolan decided he was done with having a say in personnel decisions. The day the NBA took the Knicks seriously.
The day Phil Jackson signed a five-year, $60 million contract to become the President of Basketball Operations.
For both sides, it was a match made in heaven. Jackson spent 10 of his 12 years as a player wearing a Knicks uniform. His smarts and defensive-oriented game embodied the city. He helped the franchise capture their only two championships (1970 and 1973).
More importantly, however, was Jackson’s time spent as a coach. Sure, he was blessed with generational talents like of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal on his teams. But Jackson was also the head honcho behind two separate dynasties: one with the Chicago Bulls and the other with the Los Angeles Lakers.
All in all, he is an 11-time champion. The Zen Master. The intellect of the Triangle offense. A man with a big city personality and a pedigree and reputation to match.
Before the ink could dry on his eight-figure pact, he gave the Knicks fans something they haven’t had since Pat Riley was in town — hope.
Fast forward almost three years later, and it’s safe to say that the only hope Jackson has brought to the organization is a false one.
From day one, things were shaky.
His first move at the helm of the Knickerbockers was firing head coach Mike Woodson and his entire staff. In his place came the recently-retired Derek Fisher, a former point guard who, in the prime of his career, helped run the show with the Lakers. Despite having no prior coaching experience, Jackson believed he could mold Fisher’s mind into the next great leader.
The five-year, $25 million experiment never paid off. Fisher went 40-96 — including an organization-worst 17-65 record in 2014 — and was fired less than two seasons into his contract. While the team’s success (and the love triangle with Matt Barnes) played a factor in the decision, it was also revealed Jackson wasn’t happy that Fisher was straying from the triangle.
His next coaching decision was to give his buddy Kurt Rambis a shot. While the former player found little success as a head coach (56-145), he, too, was a proponent of Jackson’s beloved offense. He finished the 2015 campaign with a record of 9-19.
This offseason, Jackson named his third coach in as many years under contract with the Knicks. While it’s still too early to tell, Jeff Hornacek has been nothing short of a positive influence with the organization. But of course, Jackson has voiced his displeasures over — you guessed it — his little use of the triangle.
Unfortunately, however, it’s not only the coaching decisions that have hurt Jackson in New York. His player personnel moves have been equally as puzzling.
His first trade involved the aging-yet-still reliable center in Tyson Chandler. While many believed he could fetch an impressive haul in return, Jackson was only able to pry Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin, and a second-round pick from the Dallas Mavericks for Chandler and point guard Raymond Felton.
None of the players acquired are currently on the Knicks roster.
When Jackson was trying to clean house, the next two players he moved were JR Smith and Iman Shumpert. Sure, Smith is as erratic as they come while Shumpert never blossomed into the talent many believed he could be. But to only get Lance Thomas, Lou Amundson, Alex Kirk, and a second round pick in 2019 in exchange for the guards? It was a far cry from the originally reported package of point guard Reggie Jackson and a first-round pick.
Oh yeah, and only Thomas remains on the roster while both Smith and Shumpert took home an NBA Championship in 2016.
Even this past offseason had many scratching their heads.
Joakim Noah is someone any team would love to have. He plays with unmatched passion, wears his heart on his sleeve, and is the ultimate teammate. But giving the veteran center a four-year, $72 million contract already looks horrendous, and the two sides are only two months into the deal. While he will certainly have a valuable presence in the locker room, the pact has albatross written all over it.
And if you thought his on-court decisions were bad, look no further than his presence in the media. Whether it’s his use of the word “posse” when describing LeBron James and his friends or saying Anthony holds the ball too much, his public words are more of a hindrance than a help.
Of course, Jackson hasn’t been a complete bust. He turned Pablo Prigioni into Alexy Shved and two second-round picks. He found a diamond in the rough in the aforementioned Thomas. He didn’t re-sign Aaron Afflalo. He made the smart signing of Robin Lopez and then flipped him for a hungry and motivated Derrick Rose and the underrated Justin Holiday. He signed Brandon Jennings and his built for New York swagger to a one-year, prove-it deal and also found successful international talents in Willy Hernangomez and Mindaugas Kuzminskas.
And of course, he brought the magical, mythical unicorn known as Kristaps Porzingis to the Mecca.
But Jackson also never gave Tony Wroten or Jimmer Fredette or Thanasis Antetokounmpo a chance. He made Hornacek — who wasn’t his first choice to begin with — keep Rambis on his coaching staff, which means there’s a chance that he could, once again, become the head coach. He continues to keep Sasha Vujacic employed even though he’s better served as anything but an NBA player.
The negatives far outweigh the positives. Jackson’s stubbornness and questionable personnel decisions continue to plague the organization. He was supposed to bring stability to the Knicks. He was supposed to put his rings on the table and bring legitimate talent to New York. He was supposed to turn the organization into a respectable, hard-working, and winning team.
He has yet to do any of that.
With the Zen Master at the helm, it’s hard to think the Knicks will really get better. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, however.
And once Jackson exits Broadway and heads back to LA, that noticeable but faint light will all of a sudden be brighter than its ever been.