Every summer is the most important summer for the Knicks. Every decision seems bigger when viewed through the magnifying glass of the New York media, every potential free-agent signing is second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-guessed before they even pick up a pen. Draft picks are hysterically panned, then morph into trade-him-what-are-you-insane assets within the same calendar year. New coaches—and there have been plenty of them—are the answer until they suddenly aren’t.
For a franchise that claims to be uninterested in rebuilding, the Knicks sure have done an awful lot of it. There are zero players on the current roster from the ‘09-10 team, which admittedly was supposed to be the last before LeBron came to save professional basketball in New York. They were all ultimately disposable—and disposed of. But just three remain from the following year—Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton. By next summer they could all be gone too. Professional basketball, barring the literal end of the world, will still be here.
This is what Phil Jackson got himself into when he signed on as team president in mid-March. Jackson’s hiring was seen as a major turning point for a franchise mired in a seemingly endless cycle of expensive folly, all at the behest of billionaire owner Jim Dolan, who was finally, absolutely, definitely, willingly ceding control. “By no means am I an expert in basketball,” Dolan said at Jackson’s introduction, confirming what thousands of Knicks fans had been saying—albeit in more profane terms—for years. A month later, a week after the end of the regular season, Jackson fired Mike Woodson and his entire coaching staff. This was just the start, as Mr. 11 Champ;ipnsikp[ Ringhs would no doubt begin to re-mold the long-suffering franchise in his own image.
We’re still waiting.
Maybe this is unfair. After all, it’s only just turned June, and the playoffs are still going on. Other lottery teams are still without coaches—although the Cavaliers and Jazz jobs don’t have the same caché as the Knicks—and Carmelo Anthony has until June 23rd to decide whether or not to opt out of the final year of his contract (which will pay him $23.5 million). The Knicks will find a coach. Carmelo will make a decision. And besides, rushing headlong into decisions has caused the Knicks more problems than it’s solved. Phil Jackson has never been one to rush, which in part is why his hiring represents such a potential shift.
But this seems like a slow start even for a real Zen master. Here is what Jackson has accomplished since firing Woodson in April: He’s had dinner with Carmelo. He got Steve Kerr to commit to becoming the next coach, then let him go when the Warriors came calling with a longer, richer deal and a much better roster. And he’s been fined $25,000 for tampering with Thunder guard and apparent second-choice coach Derek Fisher, who was busy playing in the Western Conference Finals at the time. (He’s apparently since spoken to him again.) And that’s pretty much it. We know Jackson wants to hire someone from his circle, although a first-time coach would also be welcome. And we know he doesn’t really want to coach himself, although it’s the position he’s probably best-suited for.
In Minnesota, Flip Saunders interviewed Vinny Del Negro for the head coaching job before deciding the best person for the position was Flip Saunders. And, in his prime at least, Jackson could outcoach both Saunders and Del Negro blindfolded. Given that much of Jackson’s commentary about the Knicks has revolved more around their style of play than their roster, it seems that those interests have not gone away. Hiring a young coach to be Jackson’s mouthpiece would serve Jackson’s needs, but what coach signs on for that? Win, and it’s Jackson’s system. Lose, and well, wrong coach for the system. Phil Jackson-led teams have always have had a fall guy, and since Jackson himself is in the front office, the coach will likely take the fall if things go wrong. Some job.
And what of Carmelo Anthony? Will Dolan simply let his prize acquisition walk?
And what of Carmelo Anthony? Four seasons ago, the Knicks traded away half of their roster and most of their draft picks to acquire him rather than wait for him to hit free agency. The presumption was a Melo-led team would excel, rendering the future picks less valuable. They’ve won one playoff series since then. Obviously changes are in order. But Anthony seems ill-suited to be the centerpiece of the triangle-type system Jackson envisions the Knicks running. There’s no shame in that, as he’s not a guard — he’s not a Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan type player, and shouldn’t be expected to be one — and he’s long thrived on one-on-one ball. He can become a better and more willing passer, but his main role is going to be primary scorer. It’s ridiculous to expect him to suddenly become Scottie Pippen. Something is going to have to give.
But what? Jackson seems to expect Anthony to both take a paycut and adapt to his system, encouraging him to opt in until next summer. That part at least seems reasonable from a financial standpoint — if Anthony were to sign with a ready-built contender like Chicago or Houston, his starting salary would likely be a lot less than the $23.5 million he’s due. And when Amar’e and Andrea Bargnani come off the books, there will finally be some financial flexibility. The question then becomes whether Anthony is willing to potentially squander another year of his career — he’s 30 and has already played nearly 30,000 minutes — waiting for a payoff that might never come. If Anthony’s real goal is a championship, better to sign with a team that already has another star in place — not to mention a coach — and skip yet another rebuilding period. And if he’s going to have to take a paycut eventually anyway, why not take one now with a contender?
Which leads to what is perhaps the biggest question: Will Dolan simply let his prize acquisition walk? After all, it was Dolan who commandeered the Anthony deal from then-GM Donnie Walsh, going all in in mid-season rather than waiting for the summer. No matter how much he reiterates that this is Jackson’s decision, it seems unlikely that Dolan would accept Anthony just signing elsewhere. The Knicks gutted their present and their future to land Anthony — letting him walk now would not only set the Knicks back years, it would greatly diminish the importance of Jackson’s own hiring. After all, what good is the superstar whisperer without any superstars? And, at 68, how long is he going to stick around to find the next one? Jackson’s hiring could wind up being the last high-priced, big-name gasp of an era that was filled with them. After him, there are no more cards left for the Knicks to play.
So for now there are many questions and so few answers: No coach, a superstar in limbo, the draft — in which the Knicks have no picks — less than a month away. In other words, it’s a typical Knicks summer. One that, with Jackson’s hiring, was at long last supposed to be different.
Follow me on Twitter @RussBengtson