The New York Knicks officially introduced Phil Jackson as their new team president on Tuesday at a press conference that featured celebratory links to the franchise's past, honest assessment of the team's present and cautious optimism about the future of an organization that has spent much of the past 13 years paying penthouse prices to occupy the NBA's basement.
"As we go forward, we have a great chance and a great opportunity," Jackson said during the unveiling at Madison Square Garden. "This is the best place to play basketball."
That hasn't been the case for quite a long time. No Knicks team has won an NBA title in 41 years, and New York finished nine straight seasons with losing records between 2001 and 2010. After breaking through last season with a 54-28 campaign, an Atlantic Division title and a playoff series victory for the first time in 13 years, the Knicks have once again cratered this year to a 27-40 mark that leaves them four games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the dreadful Eastern Conference with 15 games remaining in the regular season, despite sporting the league's second-highest payroll.
This is the mess that Jackson, a legendary coach who won an all-time-high 11 championship rings during a career on the bench with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, has been imported to clean up. Both he and owner James Dolan seem to acknowledge that it could take a while.
Jackson said Tuesday he has signed a five-year contract, which will reportedly pay him at least $12 million per year, to take the reins of the organization where he won two NBA championships as a player in 1970 and 1973. He will "be in charge of all basketball decisions," with executive Steve Mils — whom Dolan tapped to replace fired general manager Glen Grunwald in September — retained as the team's general manager, and with Dolan "willingly and gratefully" ceding authority over basketball operations to the incoming "Zen Master."
Jackson termed the introductory press conference — which was attended by former teammates Walt "Clyde" Frazier and Dick Barnett, featured video screens broadcasting highlight-reel clips of Jackson's time in a Knicks uniform, and included laudatory statements offered by former Knicks captain Willis Reed and the daughter of Knicks coach and Jackson mentor Red Holzman — "an auspicious beginning, to say the least."
After an introduction from Dolan, Jackson spoke "from the cuff" about the approach he plans to take to overhauling the Knicks organization, which he said will emphasize the brand of "team basketball" that the carried the Knicks teams on which he played to the first, and only, championships in franchise history.
"The idea of developing a 'culture' is an overwrought word in the NBA right now, but that's the cachet, I think, that brought me here," he said.
Jackson emphasized ensuring that Knicks players feel secure in the knowledge "that they're going to be supported by the organization and the coaching staff," as well as the importance of "developing a health record in which injuries are limited [and] developing a mindset in which focus is a capability." And then, of course, there's the matter of determining a style of play on the court: "developing the system so that balls are moved, and passes are made, and people make cuts to create open opportunities for teammates."
"I know you all know about the vaunted Triangle offense, and it's been maligned in the past few years, but I believe in system basketball," Jackson said. "Steve Mills came out of Princeton. I came out of a system that we ran here in New York in which team ball was an important aspect of playing, and we believe that’s what we want to get accomplished as we go forward from here."
Defining and developing that culture will take time. As for the here and now, Jackson said he plans to visit with the Knicks before they take on the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday at the Garden, where the team will look to win its seventh straight game.
"I've had a conversation with [Knicks head coach] Mike Woodson, supporting him and going forward to try to make the playoffs this year," Jackson said. "The team has had a little run, and we're anticipating that it's going to be a good one, and that they'll get into the playoffs."
After this season ends, though, the onus will be on Jackson to begin laying the groundwork for the franchise reboot. Dolan said Tuesday he will stay out of Jackson's and Mills' way as they go about their business. (And if that's not good enough news, Knicks fans, Dolan also said the team won't raise ticket prices next year: "Instead, we'll have a great year next year at the same price, and hopefully, everybody will find that that product is more valuable. And, probably after that, we'll raise ticket prices.")
"The two gentlemen to my left here are the experts in basketball — I am by no means an expert in basketball," Dolan said, leaving a great many Knicks fans and basketball writers beside themselves. "I'm a fan, but my expertise lies in managing companies and businesses. You know, I think I'm a little out of my element when it comes to the team."
Dolan said he "found myself in a position where I needed to be more a part of the decision-making for a while," presumably referring to the period after personnel boss Donnie Walsh left the franchise in the summer of 2011. "It wasn't necessarily something that I wanted to do, but as the chairman of the company, I felt obligated to do," he said. (There are those who would call this revisionist history.)
"I am happy now that we have a team of Phil and Steve to do that, and my whole job now is about supporting them in winning a championship," Dolan said. "That's a lot easier than what I've had to do in the past."
Asked whether he was relieved to hear Dolan say he'd "willingly and gratefully" let him take the wheel, Jackson said it was an elemental principle the two had long since agreed upon.
"We had this discussion, I think in January, about this particular aspect, because Jim knew that I wasn't going to come if this didn't happen," Jackson said. "There's no reason for him not to have said it; otherwise, I wouldn't be here."
With the question of control clarified, Jackson is here, and Dolan celebrated the coup of luring the most decorated coach in NBA history to lead the franchise where he once toiled as a defensive-minded forward.
"This is someone who knows about winning, about the importance of a clear vision, and how to install a culture that ensures a team wins, like his team did when he played for the Knicks," Dolan said. "Today, that clear vision and winning culture have come back to New York.
"Regardless of our record, when you have a chance to get Phil Jackson to run your team, you do it, plain and simple," Dolan added. "Welcome home, Phil."
The process of bringing Jackson onboard began before Christmas, according to Dolan, with a meeting in Los Angeles brokered by Irving Azoff, a "mutual friend," the longtime manager of Dolan faves/tour-mates the Eagles, and Dolan's business partner in a $300 million entertainment venture launched last September. (Dolan repeatedly emphasized Azoff's role in brokering the deal — including the negotiation of Jackson's contract — during his public remarks Tuesday, but just couldn't resist making things weird in giving Azoff thanks: "And if this doesn't go well, we'll blame you, OK? But I know it will.")
Dolan acknowledged that things began with a coaching inquiry: "We started off there. We quickly moved on from there." As Jackson put it, "Jim came to me with this opportunity of, 'Pick a position you'd like to take.'" One meeting begat another, and another, and eventually Dolan brought Mills into the mix to discuss "strategy, philosophy and culture," and to figure out precisely how a juggled front-office arrangement would work. The broad strokes, according to the owner?
"In his role as president, Phil will be in charge of all basketball decisions," Dolan said, leaning heavily on the last three words. "Steve, as general manager, will support his efforts to build a consistently winning franchise."
The full scope of that "support" will be sketched out over time, but it seems like one thing Jackson will rely on Mills for is ... um ... lying to the press.
"I really will, hopefully, have an open attitude toward speaking," Jackson said in response to a question about MSG's famed longtime freeze-out of reporters covering the team. "But [...] this is a position where at one time, when I was asked if I ever wanted to be a general manager, I said, I hate prevarication. It's a term I don't like, and to prevaricate is something I don't want to have to do as a general manager.
"I'll leave that job up to Steve," he said with a small laugh, before adding: "I will not lie."
Mills didn't say a word during the press conference.
(In a broader sense, Jackson said he will be both "accessible" and "removed," and while he plans to "establish himself" in a new home in New York, he'll also "be moving back and forth," citing "some medical things that I have to continue to have in L.A." and the presence of his family in California. He also said he wants to "develop relationships with people here," noting the somewhat adversarial relationship the Knicks have had with the media, one of the things that's rankled the organizers of the fan protest scheduled to take place outside the Garden before Wednesday's game.)
One matter on which Jackson made clear that he wasn't prevaricating or equivocating — hey, that might make a decent Clyde-ism — was on his attitude toward the future of star scorer Carmelo Anthony.
The All-Star forward can exercise an early termination option in his contract at the end of the season and become an unrestricted free agent; he has said this season that he's interested in testing the waters of free agency, and that he'd want to meet with Jackson to discuss the future before making any long-term decisions. He has also, however, called the recruitment of Jackson to run the front office a "power move" and that he'd be willing to change his game if Jackson called for it and he believed that it would help get the Knicks closer to a championship.
For his part, Jackson responded to a question as to how Anthony might fit in the Triangle and if retaining Anthony — whether on the full maximum five-year, $129-million deal the Knicks could tender the 29-year-old scoring champ, or at a somewhat discounted level — was at the forefront of his roster-building plans quickly, and in the affirmative.
"There's no doubt about Carmelo being one of the top scorers in the league and maybe the best individual isolation player in the game — I have no problems with committing to saying Carmelo is in the future plans," Jackson said. "I think there are a number of things I see Carmelo doing as he moves forward, and I said — I think I was on record a year ago — that I think Carmelo, as great a player as he is, still has another level he can go to. Together, with the team we create, he can get there."
Creating that team, of course, figures to be Jackson's greatest challenge. The Knicks already have nearly $92 million in salary on the books for next year before factoring in a free-agent re-up raise for Anthony, will be without first-round draft picks this coming summer (as a result of the original Melo deal) and in 2016 (via the Andrea Bargnani trade) and will also give away four second-round picks between now and 2017.
With precious little cap flexibility next season and limited access to the kinds of acquisition-aiding exceptions built into the league's collective bargaining agreement due to their status as a luxury-tax payer, there aren't very many ways for Jackson to add transformational talent to the Knicks roster. This, perhaps, is why he's thinking small.
"We're going to have to go out and work the bushes for players this next year, and we're going to have to work them in the coming years as we go forward and we do get draft picks and have a chance to build this team," he said. "Those are the things I think are really important — to attract, and to also ferret out, players that want to play the type of ball that we want to exhibit here in Madison Square Garden [...] There are players that are on benches, that are on teams, that are going to be available — maybe not on high-priced contracts — that'll come in and help and assist in building a team."
The Knicks' books are poised to clear considerably in the summer of 2015, though, when the eight-figure deals of Bargnani, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler come off the books. Depending on how the Knicks manage their assets over the next 16 or so months, Jackson could be in position to make New York a player in free agency at a time when a bunch of interesting players — like Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge and, depending on how this summer shakes out, the Miami Heat troika of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the grandaddy of them all, LeBron James — could be available to pair with Anthony.
"Steve and I are going to work on how to manage the roster and our financials so that we can have an impact in that area" in 2015, Jackson said. "I think we know that we need another solid contributor, someone that can score to help Carmelo go along, and contribute to this team and their winning experience. We're looking forward to it, but we're not losing sight of the fact that we're in a game-to-game basis in this business, that we want to provide a team that's talented, that people want to come and watch, and a team that's truly competitive."
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