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For all his strengths as a head coach, Phil Jackson has not impressed so far in his role as president of the New York Knicks. That's not so much for the moves he has made to overhaul the roster — this team was always going to run into some issues on the way back to respectability — but for his many confusing comments regarding the state of the downtrodden Knicks and the contemporary NBA in general. Jackson makes a habit of broadcasting his proud defiance of basketball's prevailing trends and shows no sign of letting up soon, even when it makes him look very silly.
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The Zen Master's latest outburst is notable mostly because it is virtually indistinguishable from the complaints of a 70-year-old college basketball fan with a strong distaste for pro ball. In a new profile by Howard Beck of Bleacher Report, Jackson makes it clear that he does not like the style of today's game. Or at least what he perceives that style to be:
What Jackson did talk about at length was his belief in "a structure" or "a format" that involves all five players and emphasizes ball and player movement, whether it's the triangle or another system. He cited the Spurs and Warriors and Hawks as teams that exemplified the ideal.
But he disdains much of what he sees: an endless series of pick-and-roll plays, one setting up the next, until someone gets a layup or a three-pointer.
"The game actually has some beauty to it, and we've kind of taken some of that out of it to make it individualized," Jackson said. "It's a lot of who we are as a country, individualized stuff."
Indeed, Jackson seems much less concerned with validating the triangle than with the state of the game itself.
"When I watch some of these playoff games, and I look at what's being run out there, as what people call an offense, it's really quite remarkable to see how far our game has fallen from a team game," Jackson said. "Four guys stand around watching one guy dribble a basketball."
The lack of structure extends even to the basic tenets of the game, Jackson said.
"I watch LeBron James, for example," he said. "He might [travel] every other time he catches the basketball if he's off the ball. He catches the ball, moves both his feet. You see it happen all the time. There's no structure, there's no discipline, there's no 'How do we play this game' type of attitude. And it goes all the way through the game. To the point where now guys don't screen—they push guys off with their hands."
He concluded: "It struck me: How can we get so far away from the real truth of what we're trying to do? And if you give people structure, just like a jazz musician—he's gotta learn melody, and he's gotta learn the basic parts of music—and then he can learn how to improvise. And that's basically what team play is all about."
Beck does not quote Jackson as stating that the college game has better fundamentals, but we can only assume it was part of the same rant.
The lack of self-awareness is staggering. If we allow Jackson some room for hyperbole, then his point about LeBron's traveling carries some merit, if only because the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar does often have such moves go unwhistled. But opposing fans always said the same about Jackson-coached stars like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, to say nothing of the pushing and shoving employed by Shaquille O'Neal to get position. This complaint bounds from league-defining to league-defining superstar across the years, less an identification of mistake-making than a substitute for acknowledging genius. It's as if the only way to reconcile the greatness of LeBron, Kobe, or Shaq is to insist that they hold some unfair advantage over everyone else.
Yet the insistence that LeBron travels is less offensive than its implication — that the best player of his generation (and by extension his peers) doesn't understand basketball as a team game. While injuries forced James to take on an undue source of the shot-creation load in the NBA Finals, anyone familiar with his career knows that LeBron prefers to serve as a facilitator. For that matter, he has a genius-level basketball intellect, to the point where he doesn't view basketball as a team game so much as an interdependent world unto itself. Jackson's comments register as a collection buzzwords and not an honest assessment of the contemporary NBA.
It's a bizarre line of attack for a man who just had many of his philosophies justified and confirmed by the Golden State Warriors' impressive championship run. As Jackson spent most of the postseason watching hockey and complaining about three-point shooting, the Warriors used an offense predicated on five-man ball movement and cohesive defensive action to storm through the 2014-15 playoffs. Although Jackson singles out the Warriors and two other teams for praise, he does not mention that Golden State and the San Antonio Spurs are the new benchmark for the rest of the league, not outliers as much as lofty standards. The fact is that the NBA in 2015 features more teams focused on team ball than the league that existed during Jackson's most successful coaching stints with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Yes, teams mostly start with a pick-and-roll and end up shooting three-pointers or taking lay-ups, but there are usually many passes to link them.
Perhaps Jackson does not see or acknowledge these trends because he is more concerned with moralizing than the details of basketball. Beck's feature includes several bizarre notes about the state of this country, from the "individualized stuff" quoted above to the idea that the current NBA has "fallen" from some prior state of grace. Jackson even goes so far as to say elsewhere that he took the Knicks job not for the $12-per-year salary, but because winning a championship can inspire a city to do great things, and New Yorkers now lead a "doleful" existence.
These comments have little to do with turning the Knicks into a functional basketball team. It's fine for a lead personnel executive to have an overarching philosophy to building a team, and valuing an aesthetically pleasing style of play is perfectly acceptable. But Jackson's comments rarely relate to building a quality NBA team, because we know that such work requires far more scouting and negotiation than it does vague theorizing.
Rather, these are moralistic vagaries from a highly successful man who refuses to admit that there could be some way of doing things apart from the practices that allowed him his greatest successes. Jackson's claim here is not just that he has identified a way of playing that works, but that he is the only sane man in a world gone wrong. If his assessments of the NBA feel irrelevant, it's probably because he appears to have trouble viewing anything in the league beyond its immediate relation to his own legacy. Unfortunately for the Knicks, the franchise has more pressing concerns.
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