Michael Jordan is indebted to Phil Jackson, but it’s also safe to say that Jordan more or less had his act together by the time the two partnered up on the Chicago Bulls. Jackson, the New York Knicks most recent savior and technical President, was hired as an assistant coach in Chicago after Jordan’s third year in 1987, one that saw him average over 37 points per game. After then-Chicago coach Doug Collins failed in his attempts to weave Jordan into a less predictable Bulls attack, even desperately even playing MJ at point guard for long stretches of the 1988-89 season, Jackson took over as head coach and eventually won six titles with Jordan before the pairing was unceremoniously goaded into splitting up after the 1997-98 season.
Jordan moved on to play for the Washington Wizards, and has served as both the general manager and eventually the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. Jackson enjoyed two championship-rich stints as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, before tiring of the retired life and glomming on to take James Dolan’s money in New York. And, in an interview published Monday at ESPN, Jordan talked up why he thinks Jackson will succeed where so many others have failed in New York:
"Phil can do some good things with them because he's gifted," Jordan told ESPN's Stephen A. Smith on Monday. "Phil is fantastic at managing egos and personalities, getting everyone on the same page and maxing out whatever potential is there for what should be the common and ultimate goal.
"Just because he's never been an executive before doesn't mean he can't do that. He's wanted to do it for a while now, and I know he can do it ... so long as he has the necessary pieces in place."
Jordan went on to point out that the other 29 NBA personnel chiefs that Jackson will be squarin’ and negotiatin’ with won’t exactly be falling over themselves attempting to hand him the assets the Knicks badly need in order to turn into championship contenders:
"The only problem is none of us will be willing to give up great players or draft picks to do that. That's the part of the job all of us have found pretty difficult, me included. But I wish him luck. I believe in him, and I'm confident anything he does will work eventually."
It is worth wondering if Jackson will be able to weave the same sort of magic that sometimes had his Bulls and Lakers teams on the same page in the New York front office. For one, those Chicago and Los Angeles teams weren’t always as harmonious as Wikipedia pages would have you believe – from superstar to middling starter to role player, many of Jackson’s players complained about playing time, shot selection, and his decision-making as coach. Even in the championship years, there was tumult.
Secondly, owning a system like the triangle offense may work as a fallback on the court, but even the most celebrated of front office ideals can’t be counted on to produce great players and eventually great teams. Luck plays a part, in terms of timing with signings and trades and especially in the NBA draft, and as Jordan pointed out, there is still that nagging issue about needing two to tango when it comes to negotiating with other teams. There’s that whole part about having to give something back, when competing and talking with potential trade partners, something that doesn’t really come up when you’re diagramming a play spun in order to kick another team’s butt.
Of course, Jackson doesn’t really have much to give back to other teams at this point. And in this interim moment we don’t even know who will be his actual GM. Dolan’s current GM Steve Mills, he of the CAA-connections and precious little basketball-only experience, is currently in place, but nobody is sure about whether or not Jackson will be able to dethrone Mills and hire his own guy to do the dirty cap and cold call work.
It’s just one of many questions surrounding Jackson’s ascent to a throne that doesn’t have a clearly defined degree of power. Even if he were in a king of the world situation – as Jordan is in Charlotte, owning the team with his hand-picked GM doing the grunt work while MJ gets final approval – there’s no guarantee that Jackson will be able to implement the managerial skills that served him so well as a coach, there’s no guarantee that he will able to develop a beneficial working relationship with 29 other personnel bosses, and there’s certainly no guarantee that things will turn out just fine even if the moves are on point.
And that’s excluding James Dolan’s influence. Which, for the last 13 years, has created a toxic situation at Madison Square Garden. All full of wasted millions and losing seasons. There was a sexual harassment suit tossed in there, too.
Former Knicks boss Donnie Walsh, even cleaning up after the Isiah Thomas era, didn’t have things as bad as Jackson will have them in New York. The team is bereft of draft picks, devoid of tradeable assets, and the squad’s 2015 cap space will be utilized in direct competition with several other squads working with similar room under the cap. And all this will be run by a neophyte front office guy who admittedly didn’t even pick up NBA League Pass until midway through the 2013-14 season.
There’s no telling if Phil Jackson will become the Michael Jordan of NBA Presidents. At best, right now he’s only hoping to emulate Michael Jordan the executive, and put together a team on its way to the seventh seed in the Eastern playoff bracket. The 2013-14 Charlotte Bobcats are the ideal, which is sort of how it works when you have to start over.
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