New York

Jackson gone, bringing end to Knicks error

He had 2 years, $24 million remaining on contract
Phil Jackson, the New York Knicks’ ousted president, holds an end-of-season news conference April 14, 2017.
Phil Jackson, the New York Knicks’ ousted president, holds an end-of-season news conference April 14, 2017.

NEW YORK — When Phil Jackson rejoined the New York Knicks as their president in 2014, he brought considerable bona fides with him: his record 11 championships as the coach of the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. At his introductory news conference he pledged to “create a team that loves each other and plays for each other.”

Jackson had other things going for him, too. He was already enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and he had long been an iconic figure for New York fans, who remembered his contributions as a player in the team’s glory days in the early 1970s. By recruiting Jackson, the Knicks were dipping into their past in hopes of building their future.

And who better than Jackson to end the franchise’s ragged run of underachievement and dysfunction? The fact that Jackson, over the decades, had cultivated a Zen master image only made his return more intriguing.

But after three years of mismanagement and miscalculations, and after many cryptic tweets and mangled relationships, the Jackson era in New York came to a sputtering, unceremonious end on Wednesday when the Knicks announced that he was out as team president.

In the end, not even a legendary winner could shape the Knicks into one.

“After careful thought and consideration, we mutually agreed that the Knicks will be going in a different direction,” the team’s owner, James L. Dolan, said in a statement.

It could turn out to be the end of a decorated NBA career for the 71-year-old Jackson, who first came to the Knicks in 1967 as a long-limbed, scraggly haired forward. In the decades that followed, Jackson overcame all manner of opponents but he could not fix — and, in fact, only added to — the epic mayhem of the Knicks’ franchise.

Then again, it was a challenge that has defied other big-name, would-be reformers, including Isiah Thomas, Donnie Walsh, Mike D’Antoni, Larry Brown and Lenny Wilkens, all of whom left the Knicks in defeat during the last dozen years.

Jackson’s ability to coach a team was never questioned, as his success with the Lakers and the Bulls testified. But he had never been a front-office executive until he joined the Knicks, and the job turned out to a more complex puzzle than he perhaps anticipated, and one he did not come close to solving.

“The New York Knicks will always hold a special place in my heart,” he said in a statement. “This team and this town launched my NBA career. I will forever be indebted to them.”

Jackson was wedded to the triangle offense — an on-court strategy that few teams still subscribe to — while being dismissive of the more up-tempo schemes prevalent in the league. Despite continual criticism that he needed to adjust to the times, he was unwilling to do so.

In 2015, with his Knicks club an utter mess, he griped about how teams across the league were relying too much on the 3-point shot.

“NBA analysts give me some diagnostics on how 3pt oriented teams are faring this playoffs,” he wrote on Twitter. “Seriously, how’s it goink?”

That one tweet and its resident typo — goink — seemed to encapsulate so much of what was going awry for Jackson. At the time, the Knicks were just weeks removed from their worst season in franchise history, having staggered to a 17-65 record. And yet Jackson criticized more successful teams from his armchair.

Making the whole matter more embarrassing was that one of the teams Jackson was implicitly attacking was the Golden State Warriors, who went on to win the 2015 title, won it again this spring and now seem poised to become an NBA dynasty.

In their three full seasons under Jackson, the Knicks stumbled to a combined record of 80-166 and never sniffed the postseason. By the end, Jackson had also alienated his two best players — Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis — a development that greased his premature exit, which came with Jackson still having two years and $24 million left on his contract.

“I had hoped, of course, to bring another NBA championship to the Garden,” Jackson said in his statement. “As someone who treasures winning, I am deeply disappointed that we weren’t able to do that. New York fans deserve nothing less. I wish them and the Knicks’ organization all the best — today and always.”

During the past season, as it became clear that the team was not improving, Jackson began lobbying in various ways for Anthony to waive the no-trade clause that Jackson had given him when he re-signed him to a five-year contract worth $124 million in 2014. Anthony refused to budge, saying he wanted to stay in New York.

More problems were brewing for Jackson in the form of an unexpected feud with Porzingis. A 7-foot-3 forward from Latvia, Porzingis was selected by the Knicks with the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft and came to represent Jackson’s one significant triumph as a Knicks executive.

But this past April, at the end of his second season as a Knick, Porzingis skipped his exit interview with Jackson. It was Porzingis’ way of broadcasting his frustration with the direction of the franchise. He left for Latvia, and his estrangement from the team grew. In an odd power play, Jackson declined to renew the contract of Josh Longstaff, one of Porzingis’ favorite assistant coaches.

Then, on the eve of last Thursday’s NBA draft, Jackson appeared on the team’s MSG Network to confirm that he had made Porzingis available in trade talks.

The Knicks’ fan base had a collective meltdown. For many, Porzingis was one of the few sources of optimism on a club that had so much wrong with it — including the four-year $72 million contract Jackson had awarded to Joakim Noah, the chronically injured center — and yet Jackson was willing to ship Porzingis elsewhere.

While Jackson defended himself in that MSG interview — “I think we know what we’re doing,” he said at one point — few others were in his corner. Even Dolan was relinquishing his support.

In recent days, according to a person in basketball with knowledge of the situation, there had been discussions within the Knicks’ organization about the wisdom of buying out the remaining $54 million on Anthony’s contract.

That it had come to this, that the Knicks would talk about paying an enormous sum for Anthony to play somewhere else and get nothing in return, was a reflection of the frustration Jackson felt over the situation. But it was also a problem of Jackson’s own making because of the no-trade clause he had handed Anthony, and now it is Jackson who is leaving, and not his aging star forward.

The timing of Jackson’s departure was not ideal, coming days after the draft and less than a week from the start of the NBA’s free agency period. Dolan said that Steve Mills, the team’s general manager, would lead the team’s day-to-day operations for now and that he had enlisted Tim Leiweke, a longtime sports executive, to advise Mills on an interim basis and “help develop a go-forward plan.”

Dolan, frequently meddlesome in the past, reiterated that he would stay out of the team’s basketball decisions.

But while Dolan is believed to be interested in targeting Masai Ujiri, the Toronto Raptors’ president for basketball operations, to replace Jackson, Ujiri signed a lucrative, long-term extension with the Raptors last year. The Knicks would probably need to offer the Raptors major compensation to land Ujiri, and it is unclear if he is even interested in the job.

Another potential candidate to become team president is David Griffin, whose contract as general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers was not renewed this month. Under Griffin (and LeBron James), the Cavaliers have made three straight trips to the NBA Finals and won the title in 2016.

On Wednesday, Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek, whom Jackson hired last summer, gave a brief statement after the team’s summer-league practice in Orlando, Florida.

“It’s a tough day for us,” he said, “but really our focus is to get this team better.”

Jackson failed profoundly in that effort, and now someone else will try.

Categories: -Sports-

Leave a Reply