Losing Phil Jackson


Jan 9, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; NBA coach Phil Jackson (left) and actor John Lithgow watch the game between the UCLA Bruins and the Arizona Wildcats at Pauley Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Only in places where expectations are unrealistic is this scenario even possible. Two cities holding their breath while waiting on the decision of one man. Will Phil Jackson stay? Will he leave? One franchise is overbidding for his services in order to make themselves more credible and keep at home their star player. Another franchise is terrified he will leave even though he has no discernible place in their front office. And Phil Jackson is graciously in the middle, the master orchestrator, pulling the strings, yanking the chain of these two franchises who have had ruined years. For all of his Native American and mystical religious philosophies and practices there is a pragmatic side to Phil Jackson that is on display when he decides to change addresses. In that way he is no different than the players he has coached to excellence. Competition and greed and ego and money are driving forces but not in that exact order. This human side to Phil does not make him any less of a great coach or a legendary figure. But even as the triangle offense has defined him and the eleven rings have exalted him, Phil Jackson, the NBA lifer, is on the outside looking in.

Remember his last game for the Lakers? It was a humiliation in Dallas, the fourth game in a second round playoff sweep. His team looked tired. They had been in three straight NBA Finals. His team looked old and slow as they were annihilated and exposed. His players lost their composure and all evidence of maturity. First Lamar Odom delivered a flagrant foul on Dirk Nowitzki and then Andrew Bynum did the same on JJ Barea. Both were thrown out. The game was a thirty six point blow out. Dissect what happened, take it apart, divide it into pieces and what remains is how fast things can change. Like a car wreck there was no undoing the bottom line. Phil Jackson’s system was no longer effective. Phil was old school, still married to the ancient philosophy of the big guard and the dominant post player. The Lakers were the victim of the reverse. JJ Berea, a small guard, went in and out of the lane at will and the Lakers were too big and too slow to stop him. The Lakers could not guard the perimeter. Small, quick guards and athletic power forwards who shoot threes were the future of the league. It was the Mike D’antoni effect. The Lakers no longer fit.

Phil’s definition of permanence is always in flux. If given the right amount of money and authority and the right team he will leave without looking back. He left Chicago. He left Los Angeles (twice). When he returned to the Lakers in 2005 he knew they were not contenders and he played the patience game while he imparted his wisdom and philosophy. So it is true that Phil Jackson can build from the ground up. (Though with a 27 year old Kobe Bryant it was an easier proposition). So the question is: are the Knicks the right team for him?

Imagine there was no Mitch Kupchak. Imagine Jim Buss was hiding in some faraway corner. And Phil Jackson was in charge. That is what the Knicks have offered him and that offer may be too lucrative for Phil Jackson to turn down. Of course the Knick team is fraught with problems. They can’t shoot; they are 20th in field goal percentage. They don’t get to the line. They are a horrible rebounding team. They don’t move the ball and are at the bottom of the league in assists. They jack up shots; they take the second most three point shots in the league. All of this for a 40 loss team that will be in the lottery but won’t be in the lottery. The Knicks traded their draft pick in the Carmelo Anthony deal so Denver (or Orlando) will have their lottery pick. They will not have cap room until 2015. Their current point guard is a bloated player who is shooting 39%. Their 21 million dollar man, Amare Stoudamire, is averaging 5 rebounds, a career low, Their bench scorer is a malcontent who likes to untie other players shoes. He is making five million dollars and is shooting 39%. They waived Metta World Peace. Carmelo Anthony is a free agent having a typical Melo season but how much more of this misery can he take?

The hope is that Phil Jackson will influence Melo to stay but at best that is a long shot. The roster is stuck in no-man’s land for at least another year. This year has been so agonizing for Carmelo there is not much more he can do other than see the light at the end of the tunnel even if that means he has to squint his eyes. Carmelo is desperate to win. He is an eleven year veteran who has lost in the first round of the playoffs six times. He has been in a Conference Finals once. He is on the verge of a 50 loss season while his closest friends, Lebron James and Dwayne Wade, are working on championships number three and four.

As for the Lakers, it is not true that they are letting Phil get away as much as it is true there is no place for Phil. Dr. Buss set it up that way. His children would never go against their father’s wishes. Never. Phil needs full autonomy and control which means Kupchak would have to be replaced and Jim Buss would have to neuter himself. Phil is not a third wheel kind of guy. For all of his insistence on team values and team principles he operates on a system without collaboration. It has always been him against the world. His way. His team. His fingerprints.

Walk it all back. Take it away in an instant. If the titles were gone and the scoring champions were gone and of course all of that beautiful glory fell into an imaginary void- what would be left? If the stubbornness of his players and their skill and brilliance and dominance, if that was just a figment of our imagination, who exactly would Phil Jackson be? What would he represent? He has walked away from the game three times. Two of those times, he returned to find a different NBA. But change is not always a bad thing; Phil believes in circles, in closing them, in coming to a complete stop and then beginning again. This is certainly what New York is, a beginning. But a beginning of what?

These are the Phil Jackson facts: When he walks into a room everything changes. He is the ultimate winner. As a player he won 2 NBA titles. As a coach he won 11.He went to a seventh game once. Six of his 11 coaching titles he won on the road. The Bulls never had a 7th game. The Lakers had a sweep and won two series in 5 games. He had great talent but he had invaluable role players and this is true too, without Phil Jackson in the NBA, the league is a different sort of place. Not better or worse, just different. He should be involved but he isn’t, not yet. Perhaps that will change. He is 68 years old and for much of his career he developed players into his own image. Talk to Kobe now and it sounds like you are talking to Phil. The question remains: can he do this for a dysfunctional organization like the Knicks. The last time they won a title it was in 1973, forty years ago.

Phil imbeds values in his players such as trust and forgiveness and sharing and competition and fairness and karma. Erase selfishness, was his enduring message. If he goes to New York this will be a challenge as he will have to work with Jim Dolan who, in running things, has the place is in disrepair. The Knicks are one of many franchises who need a builder. So the question with Phil Jackson always returns to the root. Can he tear the house down and build something new? Or is his way gone and buried, appropriate for an era gone by, another time and place?

This much is true. The Knicks have had a bad 40 years. They have hit rock bottom this year, they have dug a ditch and are lower than they have been in a long time. So it is not a surprise or a news flash that they are searching for glue and they are searching for unconditional love from a hero. The barbarians are at the gate, desperate, embarrassed, disgusted. The tabloids eviscerate them daily. Dragged into the reality of their own sorrow, the Knicks recognize their most basic flaw. They need a savior. They need a front man. They need an organizer. They need someone with ideas. They need arrogance because arrogance is pride and arrogance is confidence. They need a bridge from all that has happened. With the Nets in town it all seems a little worse. In the NBA winning is hard and to do so you have to have a clear advantage over everyone else. The Phil Jackson advantage is exactly what it says it is. It is the Knicks last hope at respectability.