It was March 17 this past spring when Phil Jackson entered a new era of his life. After many rumors and speculation, the 11-time champion head coach had become team president of the New York Knicks. Considering the legend had never taken part of an executive position in the NBA, no one knew what he was capable of and what his strategy would be. Phil Jackson’s strategy was obvious early on though — he wanted people on his team that he was comfortable working with and who knew his system well. Whether this is the correct strategy is very questionable for Jackson, who, in order to become a success as an executive, may need to venture outside of his comfort zone.
One thing Phil Jackson has always preached in his multiple-decade coaching career is the triangle offense. He used it in Chicago. He used it in Los Angeles during two runs as coach. It is hard to argue with Jackson’s success. His 11 championships and 13 NBA Finals appearances, not to mention a 1155-485 career record proves alone that he knows what works in the NBA. As such, it is understandable that Jackson wants a system in place that he is comfortable with; however, just because it worked in his time as coach, does not mean it can work for the Knicks. Additionally, just because he has an ex-player in Derrick Fisher as head coach and a former assistant in Kurt Rambis, does not mean the triangle offense will be implemented efficiently. Jackson was, arguably, one of the best coaches in the history of the NBA. The triangle offense was just a portion of that. More importantly, he was more skilled than about anyone in terms of managing egos and making good or great players better.
Nobody knows what Derrick Fisher is capable of. He will serve as the leader on a team that was mismanaged, had no strategy and, most significantly, had one of the most dysfunctional locker rooms in the NBA last year. Between the unpredictable antics of J.R. Smith, their former coach electing not to use timeouts or a team that did not play like a team, there is significant work that needs to be done before they can even fathom being championship contenders. Moreover, no one knows if Fisher can be a great teacher of the system like his mentor was. More significantly is that no one knows if these are players are even capable of mastering a system as complex as the triangle offense.
Jackson may have made a mistake. Fisher may very well be a good coach down the line, but he is unproven and in a market that demands success. Secondly, with coaches that were available like Lionel Hollins, Jeff and Stan Van Gundy, Mark Jackson, etc., there were many more successful candidates with proven track records. The problem is that Jackson does not want to deviate from what has worked for him in the past.
The triangle offense is not the only questionable strategy in Jackson’s takeover of New York. Not just has he brought in former associates such as Fisher and Rambis, but he also seems to want to bring in players he has coached. This, of course, began curiously at the end of this last season when he signed Lamar Odom to a non-guaranteed contract in hopes that he could bring the troubled player back to prominence. As the world found out over the past few weeks, Odom was waived due to Jackson stating that the former sixth man of the year was “unable to uphold the standards to return as an NBA player.”
One would think that after the Odom situation that Jackson would begin to realize that bringing in his former players is not necessarily the best step in rebuilding the Knicks. However, within the last few days it has been reported that New York has extended an offer to Metta World Piece (formerly Ron Artest) who not only played for Jackson in Los Angeles but, at least temporarily, was a Knick last season before being waived after lackluster production and limited minutes. While it can be argued that the former defensive specialist was unfairly dismissed, bringing Peace on board is not going to salvage the Knicks. Currently, the quirky forward is coming up on 35 years of age, where injuries have begun to slow him down and his effectiveness has also waned. It is smart to only extend an invite to the forward, but simply the notion that Jackson is thinking of bringing Peace on board is concerning of a trend that Jackson has put in place during his brief run as team president, in not being able to venture outside of his comfort zone.
While he does not want to, Jackson needs to think outside of the box. He needs to find players that will work well with the cornerstone of the Knicks, Carmelo Anthony, in addition to up and comers such as Andrea Bargnani and the surging Tim Hardaway Jr. His trade earlier this summer in which he moved Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton for Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert was questionable. It may have helped them at the point guard position, but it may hurt New York even further underneath the basket, particularly on the defensive end by losing Chandler. Jackson needs to focus less on implementing his triangle offense and, instead, to upgrade the weaknesses of the Knicks. In other words, he needs to overhaul their defense.
Not all hope is lost for Jackson and the Knicks. In the trade for Chandler and Felton, the Knicks did receive several draft picks in this year’s draft, which should help in developing a future squad. This is where Jackson needs to go with the Knicks. He needs to realize that New York need to grow as a team and that they, simply, are not anywhere near a championship level. No longer can he rely on the old guard with players such as Odom and Peace or even the declining Amaŕe Stoudemire. In order to succeed, Jackson needs to take a deeper look at the players around the league, and he needs to build a core that gels. Whether this means signing developing players to smaller contracts, trading for role players or waiting for next year’s offseason, Jackson needs to do it. Unfortunately for the Knicks, while there is promise, it looks like Jackson’s priority is to implement a system that he is not going to be able to fully control like he used to on his previous teams.
There is no doubt that Jackson has one of the best basketball minds in the history of the NBA. However, it is a risky proposition to bring on his cohorts from his teams in Chicago and Los Angeles, particularly, untested coaches or broken down players. The only way for Phil Jackson to succeed, in other words, is he needs to take risks and venture outside of his comfort zone. There are many more talented people than he has brought to New York, and just because someone does not know the triangle offense is not a reason for Jackson to get cold feet. He has forever wanted to be in this position as an executive, particularly where he is back with his initial team in New York. However, if his strategy of bringing in his conspirators and triangle offense does not succeed, this experiment will blow up in Phil Jackson’s face.
Commentary by Simon Mounsey