Phil’s First Year Has Provided No Reason For Optimism

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One year ago today, New York Knicks owner James Dolan served the team’s long-suffering fan base the latest version of his favorite dish, hope, with a side of nostalgia, when he hired Phil Jackson as team President.

Sure, Jackson did not have any front office experience, but as Dolan was quick to point out, he won two rings as a player with the Knicks and 11 more as a coach. Knicks fans were optimistic that Jackson’s gravitas could hold the meddlesome owner away from basketball decisions, while simultaneously attracting big-name free agents to the Garden.

One year into the job, that hope has faded.

Surprisingly, it is not the Knicks’ league-worst 14-53 record that has Knicks fans worried. Contrary to popular belief, New Yorkers are willing to endure a rebuilding process, and are excited about the prospect of a top-three draft pick for the first time since the team selected Patrick Ewing first overall in 1985.

The concern is Jackson, who has yet to demonstrate that he is capable of running a front office, evaluating talent or making shrewd personnel moves. In fact, all signs point to the contrary.

The Zen Master inherited a capped-out roster with Carmelo Anthony expected to opt out of his contract and just three additional assets to work with, Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr.

Jackson initially appeared willing to play hardball with Anthony, publicly challenging the star forward to accept less than a maximum-salary contract in order to help the Knicks build a contender. But the President of the Knicks soon caved.

New York signed Anthony to a five-year, $124 million deal, just $5 million below the maximum, and still $28 million more than any other team could offer.

New York Knicks v Toronto Raptors

Anthony is a sensational scorer, though merely average at just about every other facet of the game. He is a major piece of a puzzle, not the pillar of a franchise. You only sign a player of his caliber with 11 NBA seasons under his belt to an essentially maximum-salary contract if you believe your team is close to contending.

That points to Jackson’s first major miscalculation. His initial impression of the Knicks, which he expressed during his introductory press conference and again in the preseason, was that the team could compete for the playoffs this season. Following a competitive 2014-15 campaign, Jackson would use the cap space at his disposal in the summer of 2015 to turn the roster into a contender.

The hall-of-fame coach should have known that it was unrealistic to expect a collection of players who were not in the team’s long term plans to buy into an offensive system (The Triangle) which was a poor fit for their individual styles of play and takes years to master.

The result has been the worst season in franchise history. To make matters worse, Anthony underwent season-ending knee surgery in February.

Jackson is now caught between maximizing the elite years of a star on a “win-now” contract and a team that desperately needs to rebuild. One also has to wonder if Anthony, a shot-happy forward on the wrong side of 30, will help or hinder Jackson’s recruiting efforts over the next two summers.

As for those three assets Jackson inherited, Chandler and Shumpert were traded and Hardaway’s value has all but disappeared. All Jackson has to show for them is Cleanthony Early, Thanasis Antetokounmpo and a future second-round draft pick.

Jackson received virtually nothing in return for Chandler and Shumpert.
Jackson received virtually nothing in return for Chandler and Shumpert.

Jackson packaged Chandler in a trade with the Dallas Mavericks designed to dump Raymond Felton. The Knicks received two second-round picks (which they used on Early and Antetokounmpo), Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin and Wayne Ellington. Compare that to the two first-round picks the Denver Nuggets received for center Timofey Mozgov, who is inferior to Chandler on both ends of the floor, in January.

Chandler is averaging 10.4 points and 11.5 rebounds for a playoff team. New York declined the third-year option on Larkin, traded Ellington immediately, and released Dalembert in January. Early is shooting 34 percent from the field in an injury-plagued rookie year, and Antetokounmpo has yet to earn a call-up from the D-League.

Calderon has been so disappointing that Jackson reportedly tried to deal him before the trade deadline, via Ian Begley of The Spaniard is scheduled to make $15 million over the next two seasons. New York would be better off with Felton, whose contract expires in 2016.

In January, Jackson used Shumpert to entice the Cleveland Cavaliers to take J.R. Smith off his hands, receiving a future second-round pick in return. Both Shumpert and Smith are key contributors on a Cavs team that has had the best record in the league over the past two months.

Hardaway looked like a future starting 2-guard after an impressive rookie season and was an attractive commodity last summer. His shooting percentage has plummeted to 39 percent this season, as seen in the chart below, via Considering that he does not pass, rebound or defend, he carries little value for the Knicks or any other team.


New York’s personnel decisions are indicative of a franchise that lacks experience and structure in the front office. Jackson is a novice executive, and general manager Steve Mills had not worked in basketball operations before last year. Neither has the type of connections around the league that facilitate deals.

Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck reported in January that one Western Conference executive said, “No one has Steve Mills’ phone number.” Another executive indicated that unlike most teams, the Knicks have no one who regularly calls around to gauge the value of players, or to get a sense of who is available.

Jackson has accepted blame for the team’s horrid season. The Zen Master issued a mea culpa following the Shumpert/Smith trade. “I take responsibility for it,” he said, via Al Iannazzone of

Jackson continued, “Now I have to do the job that I was brought here to do.”

There is still an opportunity for him to build a contender in New York. He has Carmelo Anthony, a top draft pick this year and a ton of cap space over the next two summers to work with.

But, tearing down a roster was supposed to be the easy part. Jackson has not provided any reason to believe that he can build one.

Not Even a Ring

It came as no surprise when the Knicks officially removed the interim tag from head coach Mike Woodson’s title. The players responded to Woodson, finishing the season with an 18-6 record after he replaced the departed Mike D’Antoni, and his stars, most notably Carmelo Anthony, publicly backed him after the Knicks first-round playoff exit.

Curiously, the Knicks, who are always looking to make a splash, decided to wait until after 5:00 PM on a Friday evening before a holiday weekend to announce Woodson’s new contract. It was as if they were trying to slip something past the media and fan base, which of course, they were.

Phil Jackson, the most successful coach in N.B.A. history, is healthy, unemployed and interested in returning to coaching and Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald didn’t even so much as make a phone call to gauge his interest in coaching his former team.

“I think Woody earned the right to be the first person we talked to and turned out to be the only person we talked to,” Grunwald said.

“Obviously, there are some great coaches out there that, had we opened up the search, would have been called. Namely Phil Jackson, who was the most successful coach in the NBA history. We felt Woody was our guy and he showed it during the season and in our discussions after the season.”

I don’t mean to take anything away from Woodson. His Hawks team improved during each of his six seasons coaching in Atlanta and he salvaged what was quickly descending into a lost season for the Knicks. He holds players accountable, especially on the defensive end and he convinced the disjointed Knicks to buy into an offensive system geared towards the strengths of their best scorers.

There’s something to be said for continuity within a franchise, especially after a disastrous decade and a particularly tumultuous season. Grunwald was also wise not to open a full scale search for a head coach, which based on the recent history of the franchise and owner James Dolan’s reputation would have been more embarrassing than fruitful and would have undermined the team’s confidence in Woodson, who would likely have landed the job eventually anyway.

Neither of the Van Gundy boys, both of whom are considered better coaches than Woodson would have taken the job. Jeff coached for Dolan once before and I doubt there’s a number high enough to convince him to leave the ESPN booth and do it again. Stan wasn’t about to walk into Dolan’s den after his year of turmoil in Orlando.

Woody was a safer choice than sentimental favorite Patrick Ewing and flashy Kentucky coach John Calipari, neither of whom have had any success as a head coach in the NBA. And as great a coach as Jerry Sloan is, his inability to coral Deron Williams in Utah, had to raise questions for the Knicks brass as to whether he and his ball-movement offense could co-exist with Anthony in New York.

With 13 championship rings (11 as a coach and two as a player for the Knicks), Phil Jackson is in a class of his own. Grunwald could have reached out to him and still hired Woodson in the event that Jackson wasn’t interested or the two sides failed to work out a deal, without Woodson losing face. Jackson also has experience coaching superstars and the cachet to bring Anthony on board.

Grunwald didn’t explain his unwillingness to contact Jackson, other than to state that Woodson had the first shot at the job and he blew Grunwald and Dolan away during his interview. So, are we to believe that based on 24 games and an interview that Woodson is more qualified to lead this Knicks team to a championship than Jackson?

Grunwald’s history with Woodson had to factor into his decision. The two were teammates at Indian University under Bobby Knight. From a more sinister perspective, it’s natural to wonder if another former Indiana Hoosier and Dolan adviser, Isiah Thomas, was involved with the decision. Is it merely a coincidence that the two men who replaced him as the Knicks coach and general manager were ultimately forced out in favor of two IU grads?

It’s also conceivable that Dolan was turned off by Jackson’s personality and/or price tag. The Knicks owner is fanatical about controlling the flow of information out of the franchise and the Zen Master is known to speak his mind about various league, team and player issues. Jackson also would have likely demanded at least $10 million a year, $6 million per year more than the Knicks are paying Woodson. Though, money has never been an issue for Dolan before and he couldn’t have known Jackson’s price tag without reaching out to him.

It’s not clear whether Jackson would have been interested in the job if the Knicks did call. Sources close to him, including his girlfriend Jeanie Buss, have stated that he’s interested in coaching. Even if he does want to return to the sidelines, it’s questionable whether he’d be intrigued by the Knicks job. Earlier in his coaching career he hinted that he was interested in following in the footsteps of his mentor Red Holzman, but the Knicks personnel doesn’t fit his modus operandi, a young squad built around two superstars who have yet to hit their prime.

Bill Simmons of stated during a podcast last week that he “knows for a fact” that Jackson was interested in the Knicks job. Yet, Phil’s former Knicks teammates, Bill Bradley, Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier, gave MSG Network’s Alan Hahn the impression that the Jackson wasn’t interested in the job.

Of course, the Knicks will never know. The 11-time championship coach may have been chomping at the bit for a shot to return his former team to glory, but without even inquiring as to his services the Knicks opted for Mike Woodson instead. Not even a ring.