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Time and again over the past few years, Phil Jackson has shot down the idea of returning to an NBA bench. And yet, with the New York Knicks team he was hired to overhaul trudging toward a third straight sub-.500 finish amid a fresh batch of the same old dysfunction, a new report suggests the legendary bench boss who led the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to 11 NBA championships might be changing his tune ... or, at least, half of it.
From ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne's piece on Jackson's "sense of urgency" about the Knicks' rebuild:
He and the Knicks have a mutual out clause after next season, meaning there is precious little time for him to start producing results. [...]
If next season could be his last in this role, Jackson should at least say what he wanted to say. [Interim head coach Kurt] Rambis would let him speak and do as he pleased. There was no worry of stepping on toes or stunting a young coach's growth. In the month since he made the change, Jackson has traveled with the team and interjected his thoughts and opinions more than he did the entire time Fisher coached the team.
Those close to him say Jackson seems more energized these days. He has lost about 20 pounds of the 30 he gained during his first two years on the job. Even Kobe Bryant noticed, remarking after Sunday's game in Los Angeles that, "He looks great. Physically he looks good. I'm happy for him."
There's even talk Jackson could offer to coach home games next season, with Rambis coaching the road games. It's an offer the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss once flatly rejected, but it could be an interesting compromise to hiring Rambis as the head coach next season.
Well, that would certainly be one way around the challenge Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical laid down last month: "Unless he wants to coach the Knicks himself, he ought to let someone else do it his way." Ah, but what if I do it part of the time, and then let someone else do it my way the rest of the time! Genius!
"There's even talk" is an intentionally comfy bit of couching, but let's play along. For starters, a home/road coaching platoon would be unprecedented. Yes, we've seen sitting coaches cede control to assistants for extended periods before — the most recent and notable example being Luke Walton leading the Golden State Warriors for this season's first 43 games while Steve Kerr recovered following offseason back surgery — but one coach running the club in one location while another takes over elsewhere would be, um, new.
The idea of the 70-year-old Jackson going back to coaching in any capacity represents a substantial shift from his own messaging in recent years ... although the famously tough-to-pin-down and wordplay-loving Zen Master has always built wiggle room into his past declarations.
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Jackson said in 2012 the chances he'd return to the bench following his 2011 swan song in L.A. were "slim and none" ... and yet, he was on the verge of rejoining the Lakers in the fall of 2012 before Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak changed course and hired Mike D'Antoni. He said he had "no intention of ever coaching again" in 2013 ... which, again, left the door open should "intentions" change.
His hiring as the Knicks' president of basketball operations began with an inquiry about his interest in coaching, owner James Dolan said in 2014, but "we quickly moved on from there," because Jackson wanted to run the team instead. A week earlier, though, Shelburne had reported that Phil would be "open to the possibility of coaching for a short period of time if it was necessary in a transition period for a franchise with championship aspirations." (Which, y'know, sounds exactly like the Knicks in 2016.)
Asked about the prospect of taking the Knicks' reins soon after his hire, Jackson said, "I can't do it ... it's part of my physical capabilites" following hip and knee replacement surgeries, among other procedures, in recent years. After firing hand-picked protege Derek Fisher (for one reason or another) last month, Jackson said he hadn't given a single second of thought to taking over himself, citing the same physical ailments. Eliminating the cross-country travel and road-trip aspects of working on the bench, though, would figure to significantly reduce the physical toll of the job.
Now, having established how odd this would be and its relationship to Jackson's prior pronouncements ... this seems like it would be a really, really bad idea.
Removing the interim tag and keeping Rambis — who went 32-132 in two years as the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who famously elected to keep a young power forward named Kevin Love on the bench behind former Providence College standout Ryan Gomes for, um, reasons?, and whose 14-game tenure since taking over for Fisher has resulted in an untenable uptick in minutes for Carmelo Anthony and a decrease in burn for rookie Kristaps Porzingis — is bad on its own. Keeping him largely because he affords you the opportunity to facilitate a "work half the season" plan is even worse.
Moreover, the Knicks would be keeping Rambis to serve as a seat-filler, but he's an individual with free will and agency. While Jackson and Rambis clearly share a basketball philosophy and a commitment to the triangle offense, it's impossible to imagine they'll in lock-step at every turn and that they'd always make the same choices when they have custody of the Knicks. (There's a reason the Warriors didn't have Kerr coach just some games when he felt up to it and have Walton move up a seat on the nights he didn't.) Creating an environment in which players, assistant coaches and other team personnel have to weigh one coach's directive against the other's seems like a surefire recipe for misfires, miscommunication and dissension. The Knicks don't need any extra help creating that.
Plus, any time Jackson spends actively coaching the Knicks is time he's not spending acting as the team's lead front-office decision-maker. While reasonable people can differ in their opinions of the work he's done as the team's basketball ops chief thus far, it's hard to imagine him spending more time focusing on game prep, Xs-and-Os, practices and the rest of the NBA quotidian, and less time on scouting, talking with other teams and agents, and working on the Knicks' big-picture issues would be beneficial. Coaching is really hard, even when you spend all your time on it, and so is running a team. Forty-one games of an attention-divided Phil doesn't seem like it'd improve things on either side of the coach/exec wall.
Longtime Phil observers might view his presence on the bench as a clear draw for free agents — though perhaps not point guards — but it would also be a major change from what the Knicks' current top gun, with whom Jackson reportedly just had a nice long (and perhaps overdue) chat, expects to take place.
“Phil’s not coming down,” Anthony said last month, according to Steve Popper of The Record. “He’s not sitting on that sideline. Those days are long gone.”
Melo echoed those sentiments Tuesday:
Carmelo isn't buying this theory of Phil coaching only home games. Says it wouldn't be accepted. Carmelo is a wise man.
— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) March 15, 2016
Melo on Phil coaching only home games: "Nah, nah, nah. I don't think that should be accepted. I wouldn't accept that if that was the case."
— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) March 15, 2016
That seems like the most reasonable approach, and as Seth Rosenthal of Posting and Toasting notes, perhaps the most likely one: "Since joining the Knicks [...] Jackson's had a habit of doing something simple and practical after months of speculation otherwise." It was true in making the trades that kickstarted New York's rebuilding process last season, it was true in drafting Porzingis with 2015's fourth overall pick rather than a player initially believed to be more immediately helpful, and it was true in a round of free-agent signings heavier on function than flash that, through the first half of this season, helped the Knicks look like an actual NBA team.
And yet, those decisions all fell in line with Jackson's oft-stated goal of creating a culture built around his system of basketball. In this case, doubling down on that effort by taking a greater role in the Knicks' day-to-day on-court operations seems more thematically appropriate than flouting his philosophy by sitting tight and pursuing a coaching candidate beyond his own sphere of influence. It's a choice that might make sense within the context of Jackson's worldview, but it's one that seems impossible to imagine happening in any healthy, stable organization in professional sports.
If Jackson does make this "offer," Dolan should respectfully decline and insist that Phil remain focused on the job he's paid handsomely to do: find a capable head coaching candidate who could conceivably lead the next competitive iteration of the Knicks, and keep working to find the players who will make up that team. And if he doesn't ... well, at least Phil got us riled up one more time. It's Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf all over again!
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