New York Knicks: Will Phil Jackson’s Coaching Mastery Translate To Front Office Success?

Apr 2, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Phil Jackson looks on as the jersey of Los Angeles Lakers former player Shaquille O
Apr 2, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Phil Jackson looks on as the jersey of Los Angeles Lakers former player Shaquille O /

Here we go again.

Another grand plan by the New York Knicks has fallen apart, so the Knicks address it the best way they know how.

Get the big name. Make the biggest splash.

Steal the back pages and talk show fodder by the signing the marquee choice for an ultra-expensive Manhattan price — especially during the year in which Knicks owner James Dolan expected an NBA title, only to see his severely underachieving club win a season-high six straight games, merely to arrive at 13 games under the .500 mark.

Next, make sure to do so when the crosstown Brooklyn Nets are no longer tucked away in anonymity in the swamps of the New Jersey Meadowlands, and instead, have an equally spendthrift owner that sees his team closer (three games) to the division title New York won last year than this year’s Knicks currently sit (four games) from an eighth and final playoff spot during one of the weakest seasons in the history of the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

And then blindly hope for the best. Just as before.

Of course, last year, when New York was winning 54 games and its first division crown in 19 years, there was no focus at all on changing the Knicks’ front office.

However, with New York, in mid-March, having only half of last season’s win total, it’s suddenly the perfect time to officially return a basketball legend back to where his professional career began — even if he lacks the experience that might be required to turn his old team around again.

Today’s press conference for former Knick forward Phil Jackson will initially excite the Knicks’ fan base, their players (for as long as many of them will remain in New York under Jackson’s tenure) and the NBA’s biggest media market.

But eventually, it will be time to get to work, and for Jackson to earn the reported $12 million per year, for five years that Dolan will generously fork over for making him the Knicks’ new president of basketball operations.

What we don’t know yet, and what will take a lot of hard work to prove, is if Jackson — the two-time NBA champion as a Knicks player, and the league’s most successful head coach ever (with an NBA-record 11 titles) — can pick up the pieces of New York’s latest failed experiment and become the architect of a team that can deliver what New York City has been waiting for since Jackson’s old teams were the last to produce a Knicks title more than four decades ago.

The reason that probability remains such a mystery is simple — Jackson’s never been in that position, at any level.

That’s not to say he can’t lead New York back to the NBA’s promised land. But it will take a lot more than simply being the face of a franchise with a name that resonates (even if it does so among other big names, such as potential star free agents or possible trade acquisitions).

There are two things we do know: 1) a brilliant basketball mind is a brilliant basketball mind; and 2) it’s been done before.

After coming within a single game — even a mere shot (Hakeem Olajuwon’s block on John Starks, to end Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals) — of guiding the Knicks to a league championship as their head coach, Pat Riley eventually became the NBA Executive of the Year with the Miami Heat, in 2011, before celebrating consecutive titles league titles with the Heat in each of the next two years.

While Riley might get a little too much credit for that (since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh starting planning an NBA union as early 2008, shortly after they were Olympic teammates), one year later, Larry Bird became the only person ever to be named the league’s Most Valuable Player, Coach of the Year (1998) and Executive of the Year.

However, even with Bird’s front office success, he’s still searching for his first NBA title in that role with the Indiana Pacers — who as Jackson is well aware, are in much better shape than the team Jackson will be inheriting.

Bird (and Riley) also don’t have a hands-on, often meddling owner like Dolan. Nor do they have the questionable hierarchical layers to sift through that Jackson might have.

Will Dolan allow Jackson to do his thing? If so, what would the role of current executive vice president and general manager Steve Mills be? And where would New York’s assistant general manager Allan Houston (who has been rumored to be groomed for becoming the team’s general manager) fit in?

Those are just some of Jackson’s potential obstacles, long before the more tangible issues of whether or not Jackson wants to re-sign Carmelo Anthony and build around him; and if he does, who he might be able to put in place around Anthony without sufficient salary cap space until two summers from now, and sans moveable assets (in the form of enough young, tradable talent or desirable draft picks).

Then there’s the issue of what to do with head coach Mike Woodson and who to replace him with if he is let go as is the popular consensus.

NBA television analyst Steve Kerr, who contributed to four of Jackson’s coaching titles, could be on that list. But like Jackson as an executive, Kerr has no experience as a head coach.

Speaking of guys named Jackson and of those going from no coaching experience to becoming an NBA head coach for the first time, ex-Knick All-Star Mark Jackson could also be plucked from the fine job he’s doing in his third year as the Golden State Warriors head coach.

However, that Jackson is also a reminder of another time when Dolan opted for shelling out a bunch of money for the big name over a more sound choice, only to have it backfire (when Jackson was passed over for Mike D’Antoni to coach the Knicks) in 2008.

Prior to that, was the debacle of the Isiah Thomas era. It went down as one of the worst in club history — whether evaluating the job Thomas did for New York as a head coach or in the front office — despite the big-time pedigree Thomas brought with him as a player at both the college and professional levels.

Donnie Walsh, an actual, true, longtime basketball executive, was brought in to clean up Thomas’ mess, and for the most part, did a great job to get the Knicks back on track, before Walsh’s relationship with Dolan dissolved.

So, now it’s back to the big name again, after a solid executive like Walsh (and another, like Glen Grunwald) had already been in place.

If the failures of D’Antoni and Thomas aren’t enough to open Dolan’s eyes, he needs only to look at his other major tenant at Madison Square Garden to know that the big name doesn’t always work, especially at Thomas’ level.

Despite winning five Stanley Cups as a president and general manager and head coach with the Edmonton Oilers, Glen Sather has yet to bring the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup Finals series since he arrived in New York in 2000.

Sticking with basketball, even Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest player of all-time, has by his own admission and as evidenced through his executive decisions to draft disappointing busts, found it extremely difficult to keep the Charlotte Bobcats competitive, let alone make them Eastern Conference contenders.

Phil Jackson may soon find out that end of the business is a lot different than coaching — especially for a man who when given past opportunities to coach in less than ideal situations, turned the offers down, only waiting until Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were in place in Los Angeles, just the way Jordan and Scottie Pippen were in Chicago.

Taking the reins of today’s Knicks (for as much as Dolan will allow him to) will mark the first time Jackson will be faced with a trial of such a magnitude.

The coattails of the likes of Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, Earl Monroe or Dick Barnett won’t be there to ride on as they were when Jackson played.

And it’s one thing to coach Jordan, Pippen, Kobe or Shaq. It’s something entirely different to acquire and assemble that type of championship-caliber talent — particularly while learning to do so on the job, and specifically for someone who as a coach, was never up to accepting the challenge of walking into anything other than a utopian situation.

With the current state the Knicks are in, Jackson will have to create that condition first, even if he keeps Anthony.

Perhaps he’ll figure it all out quickly; how to deal with the salary cap and other team’s executives who will have a huge head start on Jackson with experience.  And maybe it won’t take that long for Jackson to implement a much-needed culture change throughout the Knicks’ organization.

There’s a feeling around the league that the cache of Jackson’s name and image alone could attract significant help for Anthony, who as the first domino in the rebuilding process, seems willing to work with Jackson (should Anthony choose to stay in New York).

A chess player, Anthony called Jackson coming on board “a power move.”

But cap-strapped until the summer of 2015, the Knicks might remain at a stalemate even with Jackson running things.

Still, the show will go on with Tuesday’s press conference. The portrayal will be akin to that of Jackson riding into the big city, on his white horse, all the way from his ranch in his native Montana (or perhaps the Zen Master will fly in on a magic carpet) to save the day.

And once again, the Knicks will have successfully landed their big name.

Yet the question that will take some time to answer is: like others before him, will Phil Jackson help the Knicks in name only?