The Zen Master of Puppets: What Phil Jackson Can Do and the Knicks Must Do to Succeed

There are other Ryan McDonoughs out there. That’s not to diminish McDonough’s skills, or the insta-rebuild he has helped along in Phoenix. McDonough has done fantastically at his job, in part because he was fantastically prepared for it — the bounty of an adult life spent scouting, learning the salary cap, wading into analytics, and working with people who modeled the stamina and skill set it takes to succeed in the NBA.

There are more of those guys, and they cost considerably less than $15 million per season. The Knicks don’t necessarily need a starry name. They need normalcy. They need a top-down shift in priorities and temperament, which is not the same thing as saying they need massive turnover in their front office and scouting staff. The Knicks are a national punch line, a caricature — the bumbling fat cat blowing someone else’s fortune on irrationally exuberant purchases that never work. But here’s the dirty little secret about the Knicks: They’re not dumb.

There are a lot of smart basketball minds who work for the team, even some that owner James Dolan hasn’t yet banished at awkward times for unclear reasons. They have mostly drafted well in the bottom half of the first round, even dating to the tenure of He Who Shall Not Be Named. They were among the first half-dozen teams to enter into a single-affiliation arrangement in the D-League, and they’ll own their own team in White Plains, N.Y., starting next season. They were an early adopter of the SportVU data-tracking camera system, and they have smart people who want to use it in smart ways. They check off a lot of the clichéd “smart team” boxes we use to lionize the Spurs and Thunder. They gave Jeremy Lin his NBA chance. There is an infrastructure here.

They have undermined that infrastructure with panicked decision-making that has mostly prioritized immediate winning and the fattening up of Creative Artists Agency clients at the expense of everything else. They are like a person who makes a lot of smart investment decisions, cashes out, and spends everything on delicious cookies.

It is very hard to exceed the salary cap by $30 million, play in this Eastern Conference, and somehow find yourself at 26-40 hoping to snag perhaps the least competitive playoff spot in modern sports history. To do that after sacrificing two future first-round picks, a pile of second-rounders, and any hope of cap flexibility before the summer of 2015 is damn near a piece of modern American art.

The Knicks need normalcy, and to empower the sorts of normal basketball grunts who can restore it. They need to replenish their trove of assets, which means that when Oklahoma City calls offering a 2014 first-round pick for the enervated body of Iman Shumpert, the basketball people have an open discussion and make the final call without the owner vetoing it in a tiff over Raymond Felton’s salary. It means that they don’t give up three draft picks, including a first-rounder, for a very clearly damaging player in Andrea Bargnani simply because CAA preferred it, per Howard Beck.

They need to empower the kinds of people who would have quietly gauged the trade market for Carmelo Anthony a year ago, instead of having ownership preempt the discussion as if Anthony were LeBron James. They need to stand up to agents instead of kowtowing to them. Do you think Danny Ainge sits up at night, worried about what Rajon Rondo’s agent wants? Do you think R.C. Buford loses sleep over agent demands?

Hiring Phil Jackson for $15 million — ending a 30-year, off-and-on, two-way flirtation dating back to Jackson’s time in the CBA — doesn’t preclude the Knicks from doing any of those things. They already have some of the in-house brainpower. Jackson’s salary doesn’t count against the cap or tax, either. It doesn’t hurt to have Phil Jackson around. But the Knicks will only maximize the bang for their buck if they make other wholesale organizational priority shifts.

Henry Abbott of ESPN.com is surely right that Jackson doesn’t know the nuances of the new cap-and-tax regime, or exactly what sorts of data he might able to glean from SportVU and the general use of advanced analytics. And that’s fine! The Knicks already have people who can do most of those things, and they have the money to hire many more. Hell, they could hire about 150 such people with the cash they’re paying the Zen Master. They need to make those people matter more than James Dolan in the basketball decision-making process — now, tomorrow, and forever. That has proven the unconquerable challenge. Part of Knicks exceptionalism is the internal view that normal rebuilding procedures and timelines do not apply to New York.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets - Game Four

Speaking of exceptionalism, a brief aside: Kobe Bryant is far too smart to really believe, as he stated Wednesday in a Jackson-related press conference, that the Lakers can rebuild themselves into a contender next season by waving a magic Lakery wand shaped like Flea. The Lakers will have only about $20 million in cap space once you account for Kobe’s ridiculous extension, a likely top-six pick, Steve Nash’s salary, and charges for empty roster spots. That doesn’t include cap holds for outgoing free agents, including Pau Gasol, who remains a valuable player. The Lakers might not even be able to fit Anthony’s max salary should he become a free agent this summer, let alone multiple star-level players.

And if the Lakers do sign a star free agent this summer, they’d have to acquire essentially $0 in 2015-16 salary over the next two years in order to have enough room for the elusive second free-agency star in the more robust 2015 class — a group that could include LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, and others. The Lakers have had a charmed history, and they are a lock to land at least one desirable free agent in the next two summers. And there are other ways to skin the free-agency cat — trades conducted at gunpoint, sign-and-trade deals, or even trades this summer involving the Lakers’ first-rounder.

But this isn’t going to be angel food cake for the Lakers, and Kobe should know that. A revitalized Dwight Howard was their easiest ticket to another dominant era, and he got the hell out of town the minute he could. And by the way: I keep reading about how everyone but the Magic lost the Howard mega-deal. That’s true in a literal sense. But look at the Magic, and look at what the Lakers gave up for Howard. Orlando is going through what might be a half-decade of pain that comes with losing a top-10 overall player — which is precisely Howard’s status now that he’s back near full health. The Lakers gave up Andrew Bynum, Christian Eyenga, Josh McRoberts, a second-round pick, and one measly first-round pick. That is a freaking home run. If the downside of the deal is the chance Howard walks for less money in free agency, you make that deal 100 times out of 100.

But Howard did walk, and the recovery process might not be as easy as Bryant thinks it should be. End of aside!

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Bringing Jackson in is more complex, and much more expensive, than the Warriors bringing in Jerry West. Jackson brings the triangle offense, a beautiful and complex machine he will likely try to impose upon the team — a process that could take years until mastery. Some league observers think Jackson would be willing to bend on the triangle — to permit a hybrid offense that incorporates some of its principles, but allows for other stuff that caters to New York’s players.

But I’m not convinced, nor are others familiar with Jackson’s thinking. Just read the guy’s books. The triangle isn’t just a system to him. It is the on-court representation of his philosophical ideals — companionship, teamwork, compassion for others, and the elevation of the whole over the individual. He speaks of the triangle in spiritual terms. So does rumored Jackson coaching candidate Steve Kerr, by the way, as one of the most prominent player voices in Jackson’s recent book Eleven Rings.

Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson of the Chicago Bu

This is a guy who once paid all his players on the Albany Patroons the same salary to emphasize the notion of team over self. He used to beat a Native American drum and summon players to the Bulls’ “tribal room” for important meetings. He made teams practice in the dark to acclimate them to chaos. In preseason, he lined his players up along the baseline and spoke to them: “God has ordained me to coach you young men, and I embrace the role I’ve been given. If you wish to accept the game I embrace and follow my coaching, as a sign of your commitment, step across that line.”

There is no irony in any of this. Basketball contains larger truths for Jackson, and the triangle is the key to unlocking those truths. Any team that hires him should be prepared to install it and commit to it.

Anthony is a beautiful scorer, an underrated passer/cutter, and a viciously dangerous catch-and-shoot player. He has the all-around skill set for the triangle, with its cuts, dribble handoffs, and instant reads. He can fit into the Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant pinch post role, directing the offense and making reads from the spot at which those guys made their scoring careers.

The rest of the roster is an awkward triangle fit. Jackson loves big guards, and though neither Tim Hardaway Jr. nor Shumpert is especially huge, both are rangy. Hardaway needs to learn NBA-level defense rather urgently, and every player in the triangle must be able to dribble, pass, and cut in at a level he hasn’t yet shown in a promising rookie year. Shumpert is fascinating in this regard. I’ve often thought about how he might look today had the draft plopped him into Houston’s free-flowing pick-and-roll machine rather than New York’s iso-heavy Melo-centered slogfest. Shumpert has been an uneven ball handler who rarely has a chance to do so, and either handles the ball timidly or at the opposite extreme — in pursuit of a highlight play. It would be interesting to see if he could find a creative middle ground in the triangle.

There isn’t a prototypical triangle big man on the roster, though any team could use a defensive presence like Tyson Chandler. Could the Knicks, armed with only the small taxpayer midlevel exception, persuade Gasol to reunite with Jackson on the cheap next season? Probably not. But a new Jackson-picked coach would at least revamp the Knicks’ broken defense. New York ranks 24th in points allowed per possession after finishing 19th last season, and the team just hasn’t been able to execute Mike Woodson’s complex and switch-heavy schemes. They yield a ton of 3s, foul a lot, and go through periods in which they have zero coherence. They often seem, frankly, poorly prepared for their opponent’s pet sets.

This current five-game winning streak that has vaulted them back into the playoff picture has been nice, and has included some ball movement reminiscent of their best games last season, but it has come against mostly horrible teams, and should carry no weight in determining the franchise’s course after April.

All of this assumes, of course, that Anthony comes back — either for one year under the terms of his player option, via a five-year/$130 million max-level contract, or, in perhaps the happiest scenario for New York, on a new deal that carries a small discount. An extra few million could absolutely matter as the Knicks clear the Bargnani, Chandler, and Amar’e Stoudemire contracts off their books in the summer of 2015 and hungrily look to replenish.

And this is where Jackson’s great value might lie — as a Pat Riley–style free-agency magnet. The NBA is, in some ways, becoming a free-agency league. Contracts are shorter, and more teams are carrying max-level cap room into each summer. What happened in July 2010, the summer of LeBron, is normal now.

The new normal doesn’t apply as much to star players, even acknowledging what Howard did in bolting L.A. for Houston. Stars sign the longest contracts, which means they don’t hit the open market as often, and they have the most incentive to stay with their incumbent teams — extra money, and an extra guaranteed year.

But it applies at least a little. Stars want to play with other stars. They want to win, and reap the fame and critical praise that come with winning. They might even take a tad less money, as the Heatles did in their starting salaries, to make it happen. If the Wolves were a perennial 50-win team with 60-win potential, and Ricky Rubio had made as much progress by now as the franchise had hoped, we would not be hearing constant rumblings that Kevin Love has one foot out the door.

Jackson will figure into the free-agency calculus, and New York, by sheer geographic dumb luck, already starts ahead of almost everyone. But it’s not a fail-safe. If Anthony gets the full max, finding two star-level players in the summer of 2015 will be very difficult and perhaps impossible — even if the Knicks find a way to dump both Felton and J.R. Smith, or at least use the stretch provision on them, in the lead-up to that free-agency bonanza.

And the consolation prize often isn’t very exciting. Some of those mega-stars will stay home, because they’re comfortable on winning teams, and because the collective bargaining agreement incentivizes it. The pool will get thinner than it looks now. If you don’t get that summer’s LeBron, you might have to choose between rolling over the cap space, spending it on a couple of merely “good” players, or splurging on that summer’s Stoudemire. Those are dicey choices made inside the hothouse of free agency. Mistakes can set a franchise back years.

Finishing third or fourth in the free-agency derby generally doesn’t lead to spectacular outcomes. Teams in that spot need to nail everything else — draft picks, savvy trades, international signings, and sub-star free agency. They need Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D. That is where the Knicks have consistently failed.

Jackson alone isn’t going to bring the stuff that helps you nail Plans B-Z in the team-building process. (Note: Chris Smith is Plan Z.) But he could help immensely with Plan A, and if he hires the right coach and empowers the right basketball thinkers, he could enable an important transformation of the team’s on-court culture. He is a big get — a revered legend in the game.

But to really win in the new NBA, the Knicks need to keep investing in the underlying machinery, and somehow get the owner to let that machinery do its proper work.

Filed Under: NBA, Phil Jackson, New York Knicks, Carmelo Anthony, SportVU, Kevin Love, Kobe Bryant, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA