Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 13, 2014

Knicks Fans And Jackson Need To Stop And Think

The New York Knickerbockers paid a visit to Boston’s TD Garden Wednesday night. There was a time when a matchup between the Knicks and the Celtics would have been a highly anticipated battle between two powers of the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Unfortunately for the current fans of both teams that time was nearly two generations ago, when the Knicks won their two most recent championships in 1970 and 1973, promptly followed by the Celtics winning a pair in 1974 and 1976. Both teams were a large part of any NBA discussion back then, when New York and Boston squared off in the Conference Finals three straight times.

It’s a decidedly different story for both franchises these days. This year the Celtics are dreadful, while the Knicks are merely bad. The outcome of this week’s game fit perfectly into those standards. New York never trailed, leading by 12 after one quarter and by 20 at the half before coasting to a 116-92 victory behind Carmelo Anthony’s 34 points. The win was the fifth straight for the Knicks, which happens to be the longest current winning streak in the Eastern Conference, trailing only the Los Angeles Clippers’ nine consecutive victories and the San Antonio Spurs’ eight for momentary excellence. It also kept New York within sight of the Atlanta Hawks for the final playoff spot in the East. The Celtics meanwhile are headed for the draft lottery, with a record better than only three other teams.

Of course Celtics fans have known all along that this was going to be a down year, which perhaps explains why more than 18,000 showed up to watch their team take yet another pasting. After last season Danny Ainge, Boston’s President of Basketball Operations, traded away what was left of the veteran core that won a championship in 2008, played for another in 2010, and took the Miami Heat to the limit in the Conference Finals just two years ago. He let head coach Doc Rivers depart for the Clippers, that team with nine straight wins, and gave a lengthy contract to college wunderkind Brad Stevens. All those moves proclaimed to the TD Garden faithful that Boston was entering a rebuilding phase.

The Knicks on the other hand were supposed to be very, very good. Coming off a 54-28 campaign in which they displaced Boston atop the Atlantic Division and finished second to Miami in the conference, the Knicks were promising enormous things for the current NBA season. Instead the only thing enormous about the Knicks this year has been the degree of disappointment they have generated among the fans who pay ridiculous prices for seats at the newly remodeled Madison Square Garden.

So it is that the little bursts of excitement in the New York media about the sudden win streak are almost laughable. After it the Knicks are just 26-40. Their only way to finish the season with a winning record is to run the table over their final sixteen games. The fact that they have any shot at making the playoffs is merely a reminder of the weakness of the Eastern Conference, where two teams with losing records are among the eight playoff-eligible squads going into Thursday’s play. In the West Dallas is holding onto the final playoff spot. With their 39-27 record the Mavericks would be in line for the number three seed if they played in the East.

Not even the most loyal of their fans can be deluded into thinking that if the Knicks somehow slip past the Hawks and into the postseason that their stay there will be anything but brief. The only person with a solid reason for hoping the team makes the playoffs is owner James Dolan, since a few more home games would allow him to overcharge for thousands more seats.  Perhaps that explains why even in the midst of their winning streak and the sometimes breathless reporting about it, most of the focus around the Knicks this week has been on a man who has no association with the team. In Gotham the question rages, will Dolan somehow be able to convince Phil Jackson to fly east and take an as-yet undefined front office job with New York?

As NBA fans know Jackson has a compelling New York connection. He was the Knicks’ second round draft pick in 1967 and played his home games for all but two seasons of his NBA career at Madison Square Garden. He was the key sixth man on that 1973 squad that won New York’s most recent title. But the Zen Master’s fame, and the reason Knicks fans suddenly see him as a potential savior for their long beleaguered franchise, stems not from anything he did wearing a uniform on a basketball court but rather from what he has done dressed in a suit and tie standing next to one.

In a twenty-year head coaching career divided between the Bulls and the Lakers, the genius of the triangle offense compiled a .704 winning percentage. His teams were nearly as good in the playoffs, winning at a .688 clip. A Jackson-coached team never failed to make the playoffs, and eleven won titles. No head coach in the league’s history has won more championships; not one has a higher winning percentage. Since his retirement three years ago, no one has been mentioned more often whenever a high visibility coaching or front office position has become available.

But Jackson has made it clear that he is not interested in a return to coaching, and so one must ask; should Knicks fans be salivating so in anticipation of him taking a front office role? And should Jackson, who needs neither more money nor increased fame, want one with this franchise? Cutting through the hoopla and hype of the moment, the answer to both questions sounds a lot like no.

Every sport is filled with stories of people who excelled at one role but failed at another. That long list is heavily populated with great coaches who firmly believed they would be outstanding general managers. But the two roles are fundamentally different, and Jackson’s proven ability to instruct and motivate players, and to build a winning and cohesive unit on the court year after year, doesn’t really say anything about his ability to assess teenage one-and-done college freshman turned NBA draft candidates. Jackson might excel in a different role than the one that made him fame and fortune, but there are no guarantees.

As for Jackson himself, perhaps in the end an excess of hubris will cause him to ignore the obvious question, but let’s ask it anyway. The Knicks, James Dolan’s franchise? The owner may be whispering all sorts of promises in Jackson’s ear, but the recent history of this team is one of a controlling owner who is more than ready to step in at any time and assume command, ignoring the counsel of those with actual knowledge or experience in the game.

Not so long ago NBA front-office veteran Donnie Walsh was brought in to revive the Knicks, and his careful rebuilding plan was well underway; at least until Dolan stepped in and traded away much of Walsh’s team for the gifted but selfish Anthony. Today Walsh is a front office consultant to the Indiana Pacers, who sit atop the Eastern Conference standings, and the Knicks are, well, the Knicks.  So before their fans get too excited, and before Phil Jackson listens too closely to the whispers in his ear, all involved might want to remember the old adage that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

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