The New York Knicks are an organization that, even when things fall their way, still find a way to screw up. They had a once-in-a-generation PR windfall in Jeremy Lin -- one who, not for nothing, was the perfect point guard for then-coach Mike D'Antoni's offense -- and subsequently let him leave because of political infighting. Carmelo Anthony, an all-NBA player in his prime, made it clear he wanted to sign with the team, but the front office, over the protests of its general manager, went ahead and gutted the roster to trade for him anyway, leaving the Knicks with nothing to surround Anthony. They draft one of the most exciting young players in the sport and have his rights for the next five years, and then they irritate him with organizational dysfunction and spend a whole draft cycle flirting with trading him.
And even when they make the right decision, like at last walking away from Phil Jackson after a truly disastrous three-plus years as president of the Knicks, they do it at the worst possible time. Just two months ago, the Knicks had the option to not pick up the last two years of Jackson's five-year, $60 million contract, but they picked it up anyway. Then they let Jackson run the team's draft -- and almost trade away Porzingis -- which is pretty much the most important thing a team president does. And now they fire him and have to pay him the next two years anyway. The Knicks are the only team you half expect to fire a guy the day they give him an extension.
That Jackson had to go, however, was becoming increasingly obvious. Jackson's constant stumbling in his handling of the Carmelo Anthony situation -- the specific situation he was brought in to handle in the first place; remember when the theory was that Jackson was the only executive with the "stature" to allow the Knicks to walk away from Anthony, back before Jackson gave him the ill-fated no-trade-clause-laden contract? -- was embarrassing, but ultimately not that relevant to the Knicks' long-term future. Maybe Jackson would figure out how to trade him, maybe they'd buy him out, maybe he'd stick around, it all didn't matter all that much because this was going to be over in two years (when Anthony's contract finally ended) and the Knicks weren't winning anything in the next two years anyway. That was Jackson's personal cross to bear, but as a Knicks fan, it was sort of harmless tabloid fodder. But when Jackson started floating the idea of trading Kristaps Porzingis -- the only good thing the Knicks have going, precisely the sort of player you build around in today's NBA -- it was time to be alarmed: Jackson was going to burn down the barn and kill all the cattle. It was one thing to fight so much about Carmelo; it was quite another to set the whole franchise on fire for a decade to come.
Of course, this being the Knicks, it was ultimately the Carmelo situation -- not the drunk-walk idea of trading Porzingis -- that pushed Phil out. According to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne, owner James Dolan's decision not to buy out the $54 million on Carmelo's contract led to the parting of ways. This was the logical result of the "he goes or I go" stance that both Jackson and Carmelo had spent the past few months publicly posing in the front of various mirrors doing, and, at the age of 71, Jackson may have finally learned the lesson everyone else in the modern NBA already knows: The players run everything because they players are the ones with the talent. When the choice is between an old executive insisting on running a specific, arguably outdated system and an aging superstar with a no-trade clause who's immensely popular among players throughout the league, all of whom were hearing about how awful of a place the Knicks are to work for, well, there is no choice at all. This decision surely should have been made in April. But the relief is that it was made at all.
There's still plenty of damage done, particularly Jackson's decision (just last week!) to draft Frank Ntilikina -- who was thought to be a better fit for a triangle system that is now safely assumed to be shortly abandoned -- rather than Dennis Smith Jr., considered by some to be one of the most fascinating athletic point guards in the draft. But that's small beans compared to what would have happened had Jackson traded Porzingis. Jackson did not blow up the whole enterprise.
In fact, an argument could be made -- Jackson made this exact argument last week, in fact -- that Jackson is leaving whoever takes over for him (Dolan is reportedly targeting Toronto's Masai Ujiri, the guy who fleeced the Knicks on the Andrea Bargnani trade so badly that Dolan hired Jackson in the first place) some actual legitimate pieces to build around. There's Porzingis, of course, but also useful young players like Willy Hernangomez, Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Justin Holiday and Lance Thomas. There aren't any stars there, other than Porzingis, but they are useful rotation players at a cheap, team-controlled rate. This isn't the Timberwolves or anything, but Jackson isn't leaving the Knicks in total disarray like, say, Isiah Thomas did. Isiah made such a mess of the Knicks roster that it took Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni more than three years to undo everything Thomas mucked up, and by the time they did, Dolan was so impatient he forced them to trade most of the assets they compiled to go after Carmelo, which led to Walsh leaving and this situation ultimately getting out of control. (Remember, the Knicks just wanted to hold onto all the players they had and then sign Carmelo in the offseason. When Dolan refused to wait, Walsh, his roster gutted, left. And here we are.)
It will not require three years to undo all of Jackson's errors the way the Knicks had to do with Thomas. Maybe Carmelo, with Phil vanquished, decides he's OK letting go of his no-trade clause, or maybe he doesn't, and he just plays out two losing seasons with the Knicks and everybody shakes hands and moves on. Either way, he's not a part of the Knicks' long-term plans anyway. The true damage Jackson could have caused has been avoided. Now the Knicks can just move forward like a normal team.
They won't, of course: They're still owned by Jim Dolan after all. If the Knicks are able to talk Ujiri, or another similarly new-wave general manager, into coming (and there's a case to be made for the job), they will never truly know if the plan they put into motion will be allowed to follow through to its conclusion. (Ask Walsh.) Dolan is always out there looming. He is the common denominator of all these chaotic Knicks eras. Firing Phil Jackson isn't going to change that.
But again: Once Jackson started talking about trading Kristaps Porzingis, it was obvious that he was gonna have to go. It is safe to assume that whoever takes over for him will not want to trade Porzingis, because no sane human being would want to trade Porzingis. Which means even though the Knicks are still the Knicks, and Jim Dolan is still Jim Dolan, this move is still a step forward. This had to be done.
Jackson's legacy, such as it is, should still be fine. He's a Hall of Famer, and he'll still go down in history as the coach with 11 championship rings, not as the guy with the ugly coda in New York. All told, he didn't entirely torch the franchise like Thomas did. The Knicks got rid of him just in time. Knicks fans have to take small pleasures in tiny victories. Phil Jackson does, in fact, leave the Knicks in better shape than he found them, if you can believe it. But that was not the way this was trending. They got him out of there before he could turn into Isiah Thomas. Small pleasures, tiny victories, we will take what we can get, before the next inevitable disaster comes.
* * *
Subscribe to Will's weekly newsletter and email him at email@example.com