Phil Jackson has taken on a difficult job in rebuilding the storied Knicks franchise. He could easily have stayed in retirement and continued his reign as the best coach who ever lived. But he chose, instead, to return to his pro basketball roots and repair the team that gave him his start.
Yes, the money is outrageously good. But he already has more money than he needs. I believe that he believes he is on a larger mission - and he was willing to put his untarnished reputation at risk. For a man in his position as the pinnacle of his profession this is a huge gamble, and worthy of careful reading of his actions (and results). So as the draft and free agency are upon us, I will be wishing him well.
Phil has gotten bloodied by the NY press during his first year. Even The Logo, Jerry West, took a shot at him. An inauspicious start, to be sure. But here is the thing - it is too early to judge. You could argue that he didn't get enough back for the trades of Chandler and Shumpert & Smith. Fair enough. But you can't claim that those guys were the building blocks of a championship team.
Here, in no particular order, are some of my thoughts as we head into the rebuilding part of the tear-down-and-rebuild program he signed up for.
1. Team culture matters. Phil is practically reverential when talking about the concept of Team. The idea that 12 guys, plus coaches, are all on the same page, with a purity of purpose, and a single focus on a goal. This is his starting point, his bedrock value. If he thinks you are not with the program - are can't be brought around to be a part of it - he has no use for you. And it is not just that you won't be a contributor - he understands that negative energy is a destructive force and needs to be exorcised. Show me any successful organization and I will show you a culture that fosters success. Let's be honest: the Knicks he inherited were a disaster in the culture department. Changing the culture is as good a place as any to begin the process.
2. He supports his coach. Phil took a big gamble on bringing in Derek Fisher as his coach. Fisher, who was not Phil's first choice, had never a coached a game at any level, and he was taking a huge risk in this most important hire. And this turned out to be a most difficult year for the new coach. But, I believe, that Phil made some of his moves - most notably getting rid of J.R. Smith - to send a clear message that Derek Fisher was in charge. I think Phil's radar is very highly tuned and can see quite clearly the guys who are not buying in (see point #1 above). He could have chosen to salvage a few more wins by sticking with the guys he knew were not part of the long term, but he chose to jettison them. I believe the team got the message loud and clear: buy into what Derek Fisher is doing or you will be gone. This is an outstanding move as an executive and should pay dividends as the rebuilding begins.
3. Carmelo Anthony. It will be interesting to watch the development of Carmelo Anthony under the mentorship of The Zen Master. Melo re-upped with the Knicks knowing full well that it would be years before they contended. He is on record as saying that he believes in what Phil is doing. But it's more than Faith. Carmelo needs to evolve his game to become the catalyst for a new team. Everyone knows he can score - and he will still need to do that. But he needs to be the guy "who makes everyone better." I think that Melo has the talent to be that guy. I think he wants to be that guy. And with Phil whispering in his ear, he has a chance to be that guy. This will be really interesting to watch.
4. The System. The elephant in the room is Phil's devotion to The Triangle. I think people over-rotate on the name and forget the fundamentals that it represents. First, any successful team needs "a system". You can't just roll the ball out on the floor and expect talent to win. Last year's Spurs win over the Heat should put that to rest forever. Phil's system is based on ball movement and player movement and emphasizes an aesthetic quality that is sometime missing from today's iso-heavy play. I will agree with Phil when he says that this is the way that basketball is meant to be played. Second, although everyone focuses on the offensive philosophy of the Triangle, Phils system emphasizes defense. It is a complete context for a basketball game. Third, the criticism that the game has moved on and passed the Triangle by is a red herring. The teams that emphasize "system" have incorporated aspects of the Triangle, although they don't call it by that name. The Spurs, in particular, have a system of interchangeable parts that, no matter who is on the floor, functions like a well-oiled machine. This, at its heart, is what the Triangle is all about. And the recent emphasis on the 3 point shot? Well, Phil addressed that the other day. I look forward to the Knicks playing with passion, focus and the attention to detail that successful professional basketball demands.
The NBA Draft is on Thursday. Free Agency begins on July 1. Let the games begin.