Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 20, 2014

A New Era, Or More Empty Promises?

I was stunned of course, as surely every regular reader must have been, to learn that Phil Jackson was ignoring the sage counsel of On Sports and Life to weigh carefully the many risks of succumbing to whatever enticements Knicks’ owner James Dolan was dangling in his effort to convince Jackson, the NBA’s most celebrated head coach, to take command of New York’s front office. Perhaps the owner of eleven championship rings won pacing the sidelines in Chicago and Los Angeles to supplement his two earned on the court at Madison Square Garden was so tied up in negotiations with Dolan that Jackson wasn’t aware of the cautionary words that appeared in this space one week ago. Or something like that.

In any event there they were on Tuesday on a stage in the Garden’s lobby. Dolan and Jackson, announcing that the man the fans loved as Action Jackson during his playing days with the Knicks in the 1970s was returning as team president. Presumably to symbolize the importance of Jackson’s vaunted triangle offense, the two were joined by a third person, general manager Steve Mills. At least there was no other apparent reason for Mills to be there, since he spoke not a word and was asked not a single question.

As the saying goes, Dolan gave Jackson sixty million reasons to come out of retirement and take the executive reins of the struggling franchise. Perhaps it was the money that persuaded the Zen Master to abandon Playa del Rey, California, though given Dolan’s history it can only be the most optimistic of Knicks fans who believe that Jackson will be around for the full five-year term of his contract to collect the full $60 million.

Sports talk radio has been filled with amateur psychoanalysts concluding that Jackson wants to match his old coaching rival Pat Riley. The eternally intense Riley has always been something of a counterpoint to the laid back Jackson. But while Jackson may be the epitome of cool, it’s the fiery Riley who has supplemented his one championship as a player with the Lakers and five as a coach in Los Angeles and Miami with two more in 2012 and 2013 while serving in a front office role as president of the Heat.

There are also the wags who suggest that Jackson figured out Dolan’s offer amounted to a no-lose proposition. If he somehow revives the franchise he’ll be the toast of the town, and if it all goes wrong Knicks fans will be far more inclined to blame Dolan than Jackson. Or perhaps Jackson just thought it would be interesting to be one-half of what is most likely the first two president household in any major sport. His long-time romantic interest Jeanie Buss is both president and a part-owner of the Lakers, so she is now both Jackson’s fiancé and professional rival.

Whatever the reason Dolan got his man after a three month pursuit, and the reaction of most of the team’s fans as well as the New York media seemed to range from happiness to euphoria. But after Tuesday’s little set piece in the lobby off of 34th Street and 7th Avenue down in Gotham, and especially after reading the comments of devoted Knicks fans to the news of Jackson’s return to the team whose uniform he once wore, one can’t help but return to the notes of doubt and caution expressed here just one week ago.

Knicks fans need to realize that even if Phil Jackson proves to be every bit as great an executive as he was a coach, there will be no quick fix for this franchise. New York has eight players under contract for next season. Just three of them, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, and Andre Bargnani, will be paid a combined $50 million. Those three contracts alone will push the Knicks towards the salary cap, giving even the most imaginative executive limited flexibility to quickly remake the roster.

Then there is Carmelo Anthony, the team’s one true star who has announced his intention to test the free agent market. If Jackson lets Anthony walk he admits that his new boss’s impetuous decision to trade a raft of promising young players for Melo in 2011 was a short-sighted failure. If he finds a way and the money to keep Anthony he commits to building his team around a player whose shoot first history doesn’t seem like a natural fit for Jackson’s team before self approach.

If the challenges on the court aren’t sufficiently daunting, Jackson almost certainly must find a new head coach as well as make changes to a front office staff that thought it was a smart move to sign the woefully unqualified Chris Smith for no other reason than he was the younger brother team member and ten-year veteran J. R. Smith.

Finally one can’t help but wonder just how long an owner like James Dolan will be able to stay quietly in the new role that he assigned to himself on Tuesday. It would be unfair to call Dolan the worst owner in sports, if only because there are so many bad ones. But on the list of owners fans love to hate Dolan certainly ranks near the top. He shares certain attributes with the others on that list, like the owners of the baseball teams in Miami and Queens, or the owner of Washington’s NFL franchise, to cite but a few. They all spout the required rhetoric about the importance of their respective team’s fan base, while regularly shaking down those same fans for higher and higher ticket prices while putting an inferior product on the field or court. And far too often, they treat their franchise as a personal plaything, undercutting coaches and executives while ignoring the years of allegiance which many fans have given. Dolan has been a classic example of the latter; a man with no particular knowledge of professional basketball dictating trades and other roster moves.

On Tuesday Dolan promised those days were in the past, saying that he was “willingly and gratefully” ceding responsibility to Jackson. For his part the legendary coach said he wouldn’t have left sunny southern California without assurances that he would have complete autonomy. So perhaps it will all work out, and glory days will soon return to the recently renovated arena that sits atop Penn Station. But in every corner of the land there are fans of franchises in various sports who know all too well the high price of a bad and meddling owner, and who have heard such promises before. With one voice those fans send their happy Knicks compatriots not just best wishes, but also a simple reminder. Don’t count on it.

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Responses

  1. Nice, objective analysis. I can’t understand why they didn’t heed your previous advice, though? Guess they didn’t get the memo. 🙂
    As always, very fine writing.
    -Bill


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