The tricky thing about a dumpster fire is the smoke. You can’t see what’s burning or what damage has been done. It’s all obscured behind the haze.
Phil Jackson walked away from Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, leaving behind a smoldering pile of false hopes and broken promises. He was not the first exec to leave under a noxious cloud. He likely will not be the last.
For as long as James L. Dolan has owned the franchise, the Knicks have operated in a near-constant state of emergency—a perpetual conflagration of scandal and controversy and self-inflicted humiliation.
Sometimes, the fire rages (see 2005-07). Sometimes, it merely fouls the air.
The Jackson era was indisputably messy: two head coaching hires, dozens of players, provocative quotes, mystifying tweets, pointless conflicts with the franchise star and a near-religious devotion to a possibly obsolete offensive system.
But this is no inferno. Cut through the haze and the charred relationships and what you’ll find is a franchise that’s in surprisingly solid shape—and arguably in better condition than it was when Jackson arrived.
The team Jackson inherited in March 2014 was spiraling toward a 37-45 finish, behind a tired, aging core with no room to grow. The Knicks had no first-round pick that spring, no salary-cap room that summer and no youth to build around.
Whatever mistakes Jackson made over the last three years—and yes, there were many, all well-chronicled elsewhere—he at least put the franchise on firmer footing.
In Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks now have a blossoming young star to build around. The roster is dotted with cheap young players with upside, including rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina. They control all of their future first-round picks. They will have at least $20 million in salary-cap room when free agency opens July 1—and possibly more in 2018. They still have the opportunity to deal (with his consent) for additional assets.
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This is not to diminish the damage done or the torture that Knicks fans have endured these last few years. The Knicks were mostly horrible under Jackson’s watch, sometimes comically and sometimes tragically so. They are likely years away from contention.
Nor is this to excuse Jackson’s ill-advised public barbs at Anthony, or the ill-advised contract he gave .
But the Jackson era was not the unmitigated disaster being portrayed in some quarters—and really, not even the worst era in recent Knicks lore.
Or has everyone forgotten Isiah Thomas, Larry Brown, Stephon Marbury, Penny Hardaway, Eddy Curry, Steve Francis, Jerome James, the Knicks- brawl, the Anucha Browne Sanders lawsuit and Commissioner David Stern declaring the Knicks were “not a model of intelligent management”?
When Thomas was fired as team president in 2008, the Knicks were capped out into oblivion, with an unwieldy roster and no way forward. In his four-plus years at the helm, Thomas traded away four first-round picks or pick swaps (2004, 2006, 2007 and 2010), three in the Top 10, in deals for Marbury and Curry, leaving the Knicks without a future.
It took Donnie Walsh, who followed Thomas as Knicks president, a two-year roster teardown just to restore sanity and flexibility.
In the years that followed, under Walsh and then Glen Grunwald, the Knicks surrendered three more first-round picks (2012, 2014, 2016)—one to help clear cap room, one to acquire Anthony and one to acquire Andrea Bargnani (at Dolan’s insistence).
The lost picks could have become (2006), Noah (2007), (2010), Zach LaVine (2014) and Jamal Murray (2016).
Jackson never did pick a consistent direction, lurching from “win now” to “rebuild methodically” to “win now” again. Yet he never traded a first-round pick, never mortgaged the future for the sake of a quick fix. The Noah contract (four years, $72 million) represented a massive misjudgment, but it’s the only truly bad contract on the books.
Mary Altaffer/Associated Press
“He did his best to leave the team in a better position long term,” one Knicks insider said. “He worked harder than people thought.”
The next team president, , will have talent to work with, picks to spend and a manageable payroll. He will inherit a better situation than Jackson did, or than Walsh did, for that matter. (Yes, that’s a low bar, but this is the Knicks after all.)
It’s clear that Jackson, though brilliant as a coach, was ill-suited to run a team. But some perspective here is worthwhile, too. Between June 2012 and March 2015, six other teams hired a new head of basketball operations, of various backgrounds: (Rob Hennigan), (Ryan McDonough), Denver (Tim Connelly), (Stan Van Gundy), (Rich Cho) and (Vlade Divac).
None of those teams made the playoffs this spring. The point? Building a winner is hard, period.
For all of Jackson’s missteps, his tenure might have unfolded much differently had Steve Kerr, his first choice for coach, accepted the job three years ago. His second choice, Derek Fisher, was a reach, putting the Knicks on a calamitous path.
Had Jackson not caved to Anthony’s wishes for a no-trade clause in 2014, he surely would have traded him by now—thus averting the tension that led the franchise to this point. If that happens, maybe Jackson is still running the show.
The good news for Knicks fans is that Dolan—an unrepentant meddler for most of his tenure—generally stayed out of Jackson’s way. (“Dolan was good to him,” the same source said.) That bodes well for the next person to take the team presidency and for the Knicks’ chances of landing an elite exec like Ujiri.
With Jackson gone, coach Jeff Hornacek will be free to install whatever offense he thinks suits the roster. There will be less confusion, and perhaps more enthusiasm, on the court.
Richard Drew/Associated Press
So, yes, there’s reason for hope, though admittedly hope is a dangerous drug around here.
For all the oddities and flare-ups of the last few years, the situation today is not nearly as bad as it was in 2005, or 2008, or even 2014. By Knicks standards, that’s worth celebrating.
Howard Beck covers the for Bleacher Report and BR Mag. He also co-hosts The Full 48 podcast, . Follow him on Twitter, .