Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 29, 2017

Long On Chaos, Short On Enlightenment

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be attending the U.S. Senior Open in Peabody, Massachusetts this weekend.  Sunday’s post will likely be delayed until Monday.

Penn Station, Gotham’s decidedly unloved transit hub, is the gateway to the city for hundreds of thousands of commuters and tourists every single day. The aging rail station, with its low ceilings and warren of seemingly endless underground passageways, has always been uninviting. Now the experience of passing though it is going to get even worse, with Amtrak about to embark on an eight-week track maintenance project in the very middle of the summer travel season.

But the chaos that will soon be the hallmark of arriving or departing New York via Penn Station is no match for the ongoing maelstrom at Madison Square Garden, the self-styled “World’s Most Famous Arena,” that sits on top of the railroad terminal. Several stories above the train tracks, in the executive offices of the New York Knicks, chaos has been the order of the day for most of the more than two decades of James Dolan’s ownership of the NBA franchise.

Knicks fans love to savage Dolan, and given the fact that during his tenure the team hasn’t won a championship, has been to the NBA Finals just once, and has advanced past the first round of the playoffs only one time in this century while missing the postseason altogether now four years and counting, that hardly surprising. But it is unfair to suggest that Dolan doesn’t want his team to win. Dolan also owns the New York Rangers, and while that club hasn’t captured a Stanley Cup under Dolan’s ownership it has enjoyed considerably greater success than its basketball cousin. The difference is that Dolan has always been much more personally involved in the management of the Knicks, and while his desire may well be true his execution has always been faulty. James Dolan is but one more reminder that owners of professional sports franchises rarely make good general managers. He just happens to have demonstrated that fact on the biggest stage with the brightest lights in the country.

But now one must ask if perhaps all along the problem hasn’t been Dolan, but something intrinsic to the Knicks. Perhaps there’s something in the water at MSG, or some sort of virus lurking in the ducts of the building’s HVAC system. Because once again the Knicks are a team spinning out of control, only this time James Dolan has not been the source of the madness.

It was three years and three months ago that a happily smiling Dolan announced to the world that he had coaxed the Zen Master out of retirement, hiring legendary coach Phil Jackson as president of the Knicks. With more championship rings than fingers after his career guiding first the Chicago Bulls then the Los Angeles Lakers to title after title, as well as another two rings from his days as a strong defensive player for the Knicks, Jackson was coming home to MSG to take on an executive role for the first time in his basketball career. He was lauded by fans and many pundits as a savior, even more so because Dolan promised that he was “willingly and gratefully” ceding responsibility to Jackson.

At the time doubt was expressed in this space about Dolan’s ability to keep that promise. After years of overriding the decisions of various GMs and team presidents the chances of his being able to do so seemed long. Perhaps, it was suggested here, Jackson saw the situation as having no downside. If he managed to resurrect the team’s fortunes he’d be a hero, and if he failed the fans, so long accustomed to blaming Dolan, would revert to form and do so once again.

If that was the case then it was the first mistake Jackson made in what turned out to be an error-filled debacle. On Wednesday, with almost two years remaining in his five-year $60 million contract, Dolan and the Knicks parted ways with Jackson. But through what was an increasingly bizarre and dysfunctional three years, Dolan managed to keep his promise to stop meddling in basketball decisions. He made news by engaging in public arguments with fans and former players, but as he promised he would Dolan let Jackson run the Knicks. The result was that by the time the denouement came this week, the very same fans and scribes who cheered Jackson’s arrival were hailing Dolan for finally giving him the boot.

Jackson’s first big test as a basketball executive was hiring a head coach. He wooed Steve Kerr, who had played for Jackson on the Bulls. But Jackson made it plain that he wanted the Knicks to run the triangle offense, the scheme that Jackson had perfected when he roamed the sidelines. Kerr ultimately chose greater autonomy by turning down Jackson and accepting an offer from the Golden State Warriors. A pair of championships and counting later, it’s fair to say he made the right call. Jackson then turned to Derek Fisher, later Kurt Rambis, and finally Jeff Hornacek, tasking each with running an offensive system that Knicks’ players didn’t like.

Next up for Jackson was the free agency of Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks biggest draw. He gave Anthony $124 million over five years and included a no-trade clause in the contract, even though Anthony had turned 30 and showed little interest in running the triangle. The huge outlay also limited the Knicks’ ability to sign other free agents. New York finished the 2014-15 season at 17-65, the worst record in team history.

The Knicks improved their record the next year, but still finished far out of the playoffs. Before the season started Jackson was castigated by fans for drafting 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth overall pick in the next year’s draft, though this is one move that actually is starting to look promising for the team.

As Anthony’s disaffection with the triangle offense became evident, Jackson turned on his star, using both surrogates and his increasingly rare public utterances to urge Anthony to waive the very no-trade clause that Jackson had agreed to include in his contract.

He also traded for Derrick Rose and signed free agent Joakim Noah. The play of both has been but a faint memory of their one-time ability. Then after the Knicks again failed to make the playoffs this year, finishing 31-51, Jackson publicly flirted with trading Porzingis, who once doubtful fans have come to love.

Jackson’s dangling of a player capable of growing into a star appeared born out of pique over Porzingis skipping his exit interview and going home to Latvia, which was apparently the player’s way of expressing his displeasure with the constant turmoil at MSG. Such a petulant and potentially team-wrecking move on Jackson’s part may have been what finally spurred Dolan, who only recently had expressed his confidence in the Zen Master.

So now Jackson is out, having gone from savior to triangle-obsessed pariah in just three seasons. In the end, he only proved that the Knicks’ permanent state of dysfunction isn’t just James Dolan’s fault. New York has promise in Porzingis, but also an aging Anthony and three more years of Noah. Sometime this summer Dolan will introduce his next savior, and the hopes of fans will rise, as they always do. Knicks fans are optimists at heart, which is the kindest word one can use to describe people who willingly pay to watch their team repeatedly fail.

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