This Sure Feels Like Phil Jackson’s New York Moment

Two years ago, Knicks fans were ecstatic.

Legendary NBA figure Phil Jackson had just signed on to be the team’s President, a position that would enable him to oversee personnel decisions along with General Manager Steve Mills, and to, more importantly, develop a “culture of winning,” as the Zen Master put it.

This was great for the Knicks, a team perceived by many, including it’s own fan base, to be run by a self-absorbed billionaire in James Dolan, who made ill-advised move after ill-advised move in hopes of pushing the Knicks toward competitiveness and relevancy. Jackson was finally, mercifully, going to be putting an end to the overreaching steps taken by Dolan far too often. Dolan would listen to Phil, and Dolan would shut up. Phil couldn’t have won 11 rings by accident. He had credibility, and Dolan was going to respect that. Things were going to change. And the Knicks were going to be good.

Well, things certainly did change, and quickly, as Phil Jackson made moves that shipped off guys like Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, and Tyson Chandler, the latter three being key parts in New York’s 56 win season in 2012–2013 under the recently fired Mike Woodson and Co. Talks with fellow Knicks fans centered around the same thought: Phil was making good on his promise to change the culture, and it started by rooting out these four bad apples in an otherwise good bunch. The winning, though? That was, and is, a completely different story.

The 2014–2015 season was a disastrous 17 win campaign, one that saw Derek Fisher flounder in his first year as coach, Carmelo Anthony undergo career-altering knee surgery, and guys like Lou Amundson starting at the 5. (No offense to Sweet Lou, I love the guy, but I think even he would admit he is not a starting 5 in the NBA) It was tough to watch at times, and the games were mostly ignored with the thought that this season was a sacrifice for good things to come, and future deep playoff runs.

The NBA draft didn’t yield much happiness either, as the Knicks used the #4 pick on a young Latvian who’s name we all know by now. Kristaps Porzingis was destined, or so it was declared on Twitter the moment the pick was announced, to be the classic Euro-bust that comes along every so often and completely blows up a team’s plan for the future. The pundits were out, not the least of which was Stephen A. Smith, a “native New Yorker” who claimed to be “completely disgusted” with the pick.

Thankfully, young KP proved the majority of us Knicks fans wrong when he went out and had a hell of a season, dazzling us with dunks, sinking deep 3 pointers, sometimes from Steph Curry Land, and going to the All Star game and putting up some great numbers in the admittedly completely offensive-focused affair. Unfortunately, like the rest of his team, Porzingis seemed to hit a wall of sorts, becoming less productive and energized as the calendar turned to February. Once at 22–22, the Knicks limped to a 32–50 record, which obviously meant no playoffs, and more questions.

KP’s stamina and Carmelo’s patience weren’t the only things that didn’t survive the season, as the Knicks (read Phil Jackson) decided to cut weight in the firing of Derek Fisher. Citing reasons like it being “time for a change” and an opportunity to “move forward” Jackson met with the media and installed interim head coach and triangle worshipper Kurt Rambis, who oversaw the final 2o or so games without any noticeable improvement. With the Knicks not engaging in playoff action, and being without a draft pick, the conversation surrounding the team has focused squarely on the huge head coaching decision on the table.

After two seasons of relative failure, many fans, myself included, are calling for another significant change, this time at the head coach position. After the disaster that was Derek Fisher, (who perhaps got a bit of a raw deal, but I digress) and the incompetence of Kurt Rambis , it feels like the right time for Phil to spring for a coach like Tom Thibodeau or Jeff Van Gundy, two disciplinarians focused on hard practices and motivating players, instead of more system focused basketball. Given Thib’s recent success with the Bulls, who became a mess this year without his guidance, many fans and writers are bullish on the idea of him coaching at MSG, with some reports that the Knicks job is the one he always wanted and that he would “crawl to Madison Square Garden” for it.  Some have even gone as far as claiming it’s time for Dolan to re-enter the fold and declare his wishes for a change, or for Melo to demand a trade if a competent and established coach isn’t hired.

In light of recent developments, including words directly from Phil Jackson’s mouth, it seems he has no desire to abandon the triangle offense, the system that rewarded him so handsomely for his loyalty, in favor of a popular move at the head coaching position. In closing press conferences last week, Phil expressed his desire for a “simpatico” relationship with his head coach, and his reinforcement of the “system” and its principles. Phil’s alleged phone call to (an uninterested) Luke Walton, a disciple of the Zen Master and ticket holder on the Golden State Express, confirms Phil’s words with actions, and further evidence came while this was being written, which said that Phil, Kurt Rambis, and about 4–6 players would meet to review “triangle offense principles.”  Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on one’s attitude, it seems like Phil will stick to his guns, and continue to hold the principles of the triangle close.

This situation has all the makings of a legacy defining moment for Phil Jackson’s New York experience. Will his staunch defending of the triangle offense prove correct and fruitful, or will his stubbornness to see what this team really needs lead to him being held in contempt with Knicks fans, his name muttered in the same breath with Isaiah Thomas and Stephon Marbury? While Phil seems to have made his decision, history has not.

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