U.S. News

03.12.14

The Knicks Aren't a Sports Team. They're a Reality Show, and Phil Jackson is Their Latest Star.

Hall of Famer Phil Jackson is set to become head of basketball operations for the New York Knicks. But can he box out owner James Dolan, and rebuild the team from scratch?

The New York Knicks will be holding a press conference on Tuesday at 11am, at which time they will formally announce that Phil Jackson, will be taking over as the team’s new president and Zen Master.

For long-suffering fans, this is presumably a moment to rejoice.

Jackson has a record 11 NBA championship rings to show for his tenure as a head coach with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, and garnered two more as a player over the course of his 13-year career. He also tops the list for career winning percentage for all coaches that have lasted ten years or more (.704), and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007.

More importantly, he’s also a New York icon—a living connection to the most beloved team in Knicks history, the Walt Frazier-Willis Reed-Dave DeBusschere-Red Holzman Knicks.

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In return for somehow, someway figuring out how to resurrect this bleakly sad excuse for a professional basketball franchise, Jackson will reportedly receive a record-high $15 million per year, plus a possible stake in team ownership. An article that ran earlier this week in the New York Daily News reported that his former teammate, ex-Senator Bill Bradley was involved in the negotiations. Bradley had previously encountered Madison Square Garden CEO James Dolan through the investment bank, Allen & Company at a conference that included Warren Buffett, Tony Blair, and Mark Zuckerberg.

So despite the Bilderberg Group-esque nature of the backroom deal, all is well and good in ‘Bocker-ville, yes? After fourteen-plus seasons of mainly execrable basketball emanating from what is still (even if, through barely stifled guffaws) known as the Mecca, the Prodigal Son returns. Basketball may once again be a cultural touchstone and point of civic pride in a way that hasn’t been the case since Patrick Ewing was extending his arms to heavens, Charles Oakley was hurtling into the stands and Pat Riley’s impenetrably slick, Armani suit-bedecked Gordon Gecko-ish persona was patrolling the sidelines.

There are, of course, a number of questions. And in a particularly Knick-ian fashion, each potential problem is linked to another problem, such that if you pull at the threads of one of them, you unfurl all the others that got the franchise in this Augean Stable of a mess in the first place, and made Jackson both less than a slam-dunk choice and at the same time, the only possible solution.

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So yes, the issues at hand.

One, for all of Jackson’s basketball acumen, he’s never…you know…actually served in a front office in any capacity. Yes, he’s doled out dusty, leather-bound books to the likes of Dennis Rodman, but he’s still wedded to a somewhat archaic system (the triangle) that emphasizes mid-range jumpers in today’s three point-happy NBA, has never navigated, the new, far more stringent collective bargaining agreement, and who knows how deeply he’s delved or if he’s delved at all into the reams of data that modern analytics are cranking out. Whether he possesses any of the skills (or, at age 68, has the will and desire to master a completely different aspect of the game) that are required to build a team from scratch in the year 2014 at all is a complete mystery.

Two, why the Knicks? Yes, Jackson has expressed a desire to return in the past, and there’s a certain symmetry in ending his career where it all began and cementing his legacy, but as recently as 2012, he was expressing grave doubts about the mismatched, cap-clogged roster.

“What if the Knicks' primary goal isn't winning? What if priority one for James Dolan and the Madison Square Garden Corporation is to make money?”

And then there’s the owner, James Dolan, largely viewed as the worst in the entire sporting world. He’s considered a buffoon at best and a tin pot, tin-eared, meddling, arrogant spoiled child-king at worst. He runs the Knicks with a degree of paranoia that would shame the most corrupt, choleric dictator of a former Soviet satellite and similarly crushes the will and spirit of any and all competent individuals (including the ones on the court) in his employ.

He’s dragooned well-thought of basketball minds to ply their trade at Madison Square Garden before, including (but not limited to): Larry Brown, Lenny Wilkins, Mike D’Antoni, Glen Grunwald and Donnie Walsh, the latter of whom found that his capacity to manage the team without interference wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.

It’s not clear what agreement is in place with regards to Jackson’s autonomy to make basketball decisions, but one has to assume that it’s absolutely, positively ironclad. Then again, so was Walsh’s, until it wasn’t.

There’s also the deeply embedded relationship that the organization as a whole has with the uber-agency, CAA.

They currently represent the Knicks’ star forward, Carmelo Anthony, former Sixth Man of the Year and mercurial (to put it lightly) guard J.R. Smith, Head Coach Mike Woodson (who reportedly was told to ditch his former agents as a condition for being rehired in 2012) Assistant general manager Allan Houston, Player Personnel director Mark Warkentien and possibly the ball boys and beer vendors.

In a recent ESPN.com article, one anonymous, disgruntled and non-CAA repped Knick confided: “You see how guys from CAA are treated differently. How they get away with saying certain things to coaches. How coaches talk to them differently than they talk to the other guys. It’s a problem.”

Phil Jackson, to be clear, will not be joining in on this merry bit of corporate synergy. In fact, he may find that the wishes of said agency may at times conflict with his chosen decisions with regards to the team, and it’ll be interesting (to say the least) to see what happens when these two notoriously stubborn forces find themselves at an impasse.

And then there’s the question of what will happen when someone attempts to get the notoriously garrulous, free-speaking Jackson to conform to team’s incredibly stringent, downright paranoid media strategy: i.e. that the media is the enemy and they must be avoided and distrusted at all costs. It’s not going to happen. At some point, Jackson will start riffing and Dolan will lose his bits.

And then there’s the roster itself, which is facing a massive decision with regards to Carmelo Anthony’s free agency. Does Jackson actually want to keep him at a salary-cap clogging 129 million over five years? Is Jackson’s signing just an attempt to placate Anthony?

Said roster is also still a festering sinkhole, littered with the bloated contracts of Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani. They have only two total draft picks over the next four years, there’s a serious deficiency in defensive-minded players and young, low-cost talent on the roster and on and on.

Augean Stables, indeed.

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It’s enough to make one wonder why, aside from the massive pile of ducats that are being exchanged, would Phil Jackson want to run the Knicks? It’s not like he’d be lacking for suitors if he started passing his resume around the league (though yes, there are few teams that could match the sum he’s going to earn in New York).

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Phil Jackson (18) of the New York Knickerbockers basketball team poses in a gymnasium in New York City on Sept. 15, 1970. (AP)

Well, despite the litany of issues at hand, this is an absolute win-win for Jackson. If he is able to come riding in to the World’s Most Famous Arena on a mythic stallion, bedecked in a ceremonial Native American-ish headdress that has been sanctified with Kobe Bryant’s tears and a few flecks of a psychotropic fungus, and take this team to the promised land, his status as the pre-eminent leader/guru in NBA history would be etched in granite.

And if he fails, shaking his head wistfully at the dysfunction, meddling, random firings, massive lawsuits and petty squabbles that have been the hallmark of Dolan’s reign, well, it certainly won’t be the Zen Master’s fault things didn’t work out. The blame will (possibly rightly so) fall on Jimmy’s fedora-d head, leaving Jackson’s sterling reputation once again blemish free.

Plus, he pockets at least eight figures and whatever he can get for selling his share of ownership• for his troubles and probably writes a tell-all book. So, yeah. Pretty sweet deal.

The larger question, though, is why are the Knicks shelling out enough money (and power) to make Croesus blush for Jackson?

Even discounting his lack of experience, by all accounts he’s still going to be spending vast amounts of time in his Montana manse and Los Angeles pied-a-terre. He will be hiring other individuals to do the actual grunt work, presumably while he uses Amazon drones to ship J.R. Smith his freshly minted copy of Infinite Jest.

The assumption is that Jackson will concentrate on the big-picture items, the “Culture of winning” and so on; that his mere aura and presence will be enough to change things.

Why is that worth moving heaven and earth for? Wouldn’t the shrewd decision be to bite the bullet, hire an up-and-coming, young, analytics-minded, hungry general manager and engage in a (yes, painful) rebuilding process? No one’s questioning Jackson’s basketball knowledge, but this seems like an odd and clumsy pairing at best.

The answer is that this is what the Knicks always do. In the 31 years since their last title-winning team—the one that Phil Jackson holds so near and dear to his heart—faded away, they have never actually rebuilt in the conventional sense. They don’t accumulate assets, acquire extra draft picks and endure a season or two (or a lot more) of losing.

They go get stars. They find a star that tickles their fancy and pay him, often more than he probably should be getting, and often when said player or coach or general manager isn’t really a star at all.

After moving heaven and earth to acquire said star they lack the cap space or the young talent to actually build a contending team. Then, after said star has predictable worn out his welcome, failed to produce, or lost luster, they begin moving on to the next “star.”

They tried it with Bob McAdoo and Spencer Haywood, then moved to Bernard King and Patrick Ewing, followed hard upon by Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Zach Randolph, Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and even Eddy Curry.

It’s a flawed strategy than cannot work unless the star in question happens to be a once-in-a-generation player, like LeBron James, and if you’ll recall, the one instance where they did attempt to clear cap space from 2008-10 wasn’t to really rebuild, but rather to net James. It didn’t work.

That’s why James Dolan is routinely called an incompetent hack and when the Knicks are a part of the national sporting conversation, it’s as a sad punch line.

The thing is, What if he isn’t a clown, though?

After you’ve recovered from fainting, hear me out. What if the Knicks’ primary goal isn’t necessarily winning? What if priority one for James Dolan and the Madison Square Garden Corporation is to make money? The owner wants to win; that’s not in question.

But what if winning is an ancillary goal to the financial health of the organization? In that light, he and they have succeeded wildly.

The Knicks are the most valuable franchise in the NBA, valued at $1.4 billion. According to Forbes, they finished last season with an operating profit of 96 million.

This ‘plan'—go for stars, never rebuild—when viewed in that light, works. The relationship with CAA, which seems foolish and dumb, makes a ton of sense when you look at the fact that MSG owns four additional music venues and Dolan is deeply invested in creating a multi-platform entertainment brand. As the CEO of Cablevision (Madison Square Garden used to be a part of the cable giant. They split into separate entities in 2009, but the board of both is still lined with the Dolan family. Think of them like the Medicis, but creepier. Dolan is working with Irving Azoff, the mega-music producer, to cement and expand upon this relationship.

As head of MSG and Cablevision, Dolan is well versed in all the various interests of AMM-MSG, save one: publishing. Asked what is intriguing to him about entering the performing rights space, Dolan says, “What intrigues me most about it is Irving thinks it’s a good idea, and when he thinks something is a good idea, that generally means it’s gonna make some money,” he says. “I will tell you that [with] this company, I feel we’re setting the tiger loose in Mr. Azoff. We’re going to be riding on his coattails, and that’s one of the big advantages of the way we’ve constructed this.”

In that light, it’s “logical” to throw money at a known knucklehead like CAA’s J.R. Smith, or even to guarantee a roster spot to Smith’s younger brother Chris, even if said brother isn’t an NBA-quality player.

Part of the reason they’re been such a financial success has to do with having a their own dedicated TV network and all the attendant advantages of being located in New York City, but the CAA mishegas works, just not in a way that’s at all conducive to winning basketball games.

In fact, their guaranteed profit is at odds with winning. They can’t and never will build a great team this way (again, LeBron is the exception that proves the rule).

As long as the Knicks are “interesting”, as long as they have a star to slap on the marquee, they can guarantee massive profits in perpetuity. Yes, an actual championship contender would probably reap even greater profits in the long term, but there’s no guarantee that they will succeed in building a winner. Rebuilding plans often fail miserably, and that might damage the team’s bottom line in the short term. It’s not like they can just snap their fingers and they’re the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Their star “strategy” (and yes Phil Jackson is fits perfectly as a part of this plan) guarantees serious profits year after year. Winning (and running a team the right way) potentially damages that.

Remember the lessons of the seminal HBO series The Wire. The police do want to catch criminals, but their primary goal (and this is the endgame for any large institution that confers money and/or power) is to promote and enrich and empower the individuals that work in the police department. If arresting the Barksdales impinges upon that goal, they won’t do it.

Feel free to think of Donnie Walsh as Jimmy McNulty; I certainly do.

So from an economic standpoint, what’s the incentive to change the way they do business? The fans, even notoriously impatient New York fans, would certainly be willing to lose for a year or two if it meant seeing a title in their lifetimes. But the big money comes not from pleasing the diehard fans that have stuck around and will continue to do so when the team operates in this manner, but in netting the casual fans, the ones that will tune in because it’s Carmelo Anthony sinking midrange jumpers or Phil Jackson gazing philosophically from a courtside seat.

Now, Jackson-as-savior might actually work. And if it does, great. But even if he flops miserably, the Knicks still achieve priority number one: getting people to pay attention to the Knicks, watch the games on TV and dole out insane wads of cash to attend in person. They will, because it’s Phil Freaking Jackson.

To be clear, I am still 100% on board with this decision. Phil Jackson may be just another glittery toy, but if he gets James Dolan’s grubby, meddling fingers out of the team’s day-to-day operations, it’s a major, major win. Phil Jackson is an imperfect solution to a possibly unsolvable problem, or rather a problem that the Knicks and Dolan aren’t really looking to solve. And in that, there’s hope.