It has come to the point of the Phil Jackson era at Madison Square Garden where even James Dolan must know that the celebrated and costly hire grades out to an error. To such a low point where one previously odious regime must now become part of the evaluation process, the qualitative standard by which Jackson can and should be judged.
Bad is bad, and Jackson’s Knicks have been Isiah Thomas bad.
In passing one another inside those hallowed but equally haunted Garden halls, do Jackson and Thomas wink at each other in sheepish acknowledgement of their epic failures in running a downtrodden and demoralized Knicks franchise? Three years in for Jackson, the comparative numbers don’t lie.
They actually favor Thomas, who co-habitats the building as president of the WNBA’s Liberty.
Thomas was hired by Dolan, the ever-blundering owner, in late December 2003, and seven games later reshaped the Knicks in his image with a blockbuster trade for Stephon Marbury. Post-deal, he owns the remainder of that season – a 28-25 run that concluded with a four-game sweep by the Nets in the first round – before two horrific seasons resulted in Dolan dismissively ordering Thomas to the bench to coach his mess, demanding “evident progress,” or else.
Jackson merely observed the final 15 games of the 2013-14 season after his hiring, a 10-5 spurt that fell short of the playoffs and concluded with the firing of coach Mike Woodson. Strike that from Jackson’s executive résumé and what you are left with, heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Pacers, is a 75-156 debacle, or nine wins short of Thomas’ 84 (against 133 losses), despite an additional 14 games.
With the understanding that Jackson’s reign has been no more stable or watchable than Thomas’, isn’t this where Dolan calls him into his office and tells him he can have a better seat for home games while offering him the opportunity to generate thousands of hotel club points to go along with his $12 million-a-year salary?
During his catastrophic public-relations attempt at cleaning up the Charles Oakley oil spill, Dolan went on record saying that Jackson’s job is safe for the remainder of his five-year contract. He never promised not to apply the same approach he took with Thomas. Now that another Jackson edition of the Knicks has essentially quit on its coach, and in no small part thanks to Jackson making Jeff Hornacek’s life untenable with his triangulation tactics, it would seem that Dolan has the perfect excuse to box Jackson in.
Coach or quit, an edict that would make far more sense than it did with Thomas, given Jackson’s record 11 coaching rings claimed in Chicago and Los Angeles, and his insistence of running an offense that he, alone, is totally committed to.
Not long ago, one legendary NBA coach was asked what he made of Jackson’s big-foot fiasco in New York, first experienced by Derek Fisher and now by Hornacek. Requesting anonymity less out of respect for Jackson and more because he wasn’t comfortable with public criticism, he sighed and said: “If you hire someone, let him do what he does best. If you want him to do what you do best, get your ass down there and do it yourself.”
Jackson, 71, has said he is physically incapable of the grinding travel involved in coaching. Fair enough. But the Knicks don’t work for him, he works for them. The current situation isn’t working for anyone.
Let’s take Dolan at his word that he doesn’t want to meddle anymore. Good for him. That doesn’t mean he can’t apply proprietary logic to presidential illogic.
What does Jackson think he is accomplishing – besides usurping his coach – with his occasional triangle clinics when he’s bound to turn over at least half his roster again next season? If he manages to persuade Carmelo Anthony to waive his no-trade clause and a rebuild finally begins in earnest, who better than Jackson to work daily with the cast of young players if his beloved triangle is going to be imbedded into their brains?
Go all in, or get out of the triangle business. If not out of town.
Understand that NBA teams do not travel like the rest of us. They charter in splendor. They don’t lug around bags. If Jackson needs an occasional trip off, basketball soul mate and current associate head coach Kurt Rambis could coach in his absence. With Anthony gone, along with the tensions created by the sands of his career hourglass slipping away, the focus would shift away from immediate gratification to the development of Kristaps Porzingis, Willy Hernangomez and the coming 2017 first-round pick. They would be too young and without leverage to resist.
In a recent interview, Pat Riley said, of President Jackson, “I think he can get that turned around. It just takes two or three moves.”
Could still happen. Or maybe Jackson was never suited to the conversion from Hall of Fame coach to front-office emperor. Riley was a career-prime 50 when he moved from coaching the Knicks to running the show and coaching in Miami. Maybe Jackson just waited too long, to a point in life where he has become too stubborn, set in his ways, operating in a bubble that doesn’t allow for conceptual change.
As Knicks president, he has alienated the New York media, the league’s best player (LeBron James) and his best player, Anthony, proving himself an equal-opportunity antagonist. Most disappointing for those who have known him longest is how little humility he has shown, how little in touch he seems to be with the old Albany Patroons coach, whose primary mid-1980s perk was driving the team van on the road because that seat provided extra leg room.
Now Jackson, who once threw his organizational superior, the great Jerry West, out of the Lakers’ locker room because “it has always been what I’ve done any time it got intimate or personal,” helicopters into Hornacek’s practice when the coach is desperately trying to hold onto his team.
A prideful, no-nonsense man, Hornacek knows he can’t win under these conditions any more than Fisher could. No one can. Which is why it’s time for Jackson to go all in, or get out.
Thomas inherited one coach, Don Chaney, and hired and fired Lenny Wilkens and Larry Brown. Jackson has done likewise with Woodson and Fisher, and seems to be doing his best to undermine Hornacek.
Thomas didn’t rate or get another hire. Based on Thomas’ record and his own, Jackson deserves to be treated by Dolan with the same disrespect.
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