There is no bigger joke franchise in professional sports than the New York Knicks. Or more irrelevant one. It is not just because of what the Knicks have become over the past 17 years, during which they have won a grand total of one playoff series and lost more games than anybody else in the NBA except the Minnesota Timberwolves. It is because of what they once were, and what they once meant in New York, and in their sport.
Once they played as beautiful a game of basketball as any pro team has ever played, when they were Clyde Frazier and Willis Reed and Earl (The Pearl) Monroe and Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere, and coached by Red Holzman. It was a basketball team that Pete Hamill once called the Count Basie band of basketball. That team won two titles, the last in 1973. The Knicks still sell that old glory, hard, and somehow get by with still selling Madison Square Garden as the "mecca" of basketball.
Maybe it is a mecca of bad basketball, and bad ownership, and bad management. But it is no shrine to anything except dysfunction, and mostly has been for a long time. Now the owner, James Dolan, asks Phil Jackson to leave as team president. Jackson's official record as team president was 80-166. Jackson has tried to blame the failures of the Knicks on just about everybody himself, as if the money he has spent has spent itself, and if the players on this team have traded for themselves and signed themselves and drafted themselves.
Jackson, the Zen Master of disaster, wanted this to be Carmelo Anthony's fault, even though Anthony has done more for the New York Knicks as a player than Jackson was ever going to as team president. A few years ago, a Knicks team built around Anthony, coached by Mike Woodson, won 54 games and the Atlantic Division title, and not only won a playoff series but was a couple of plays away -- most notable a block by Roy Hibbert on Anthony in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semis -- from going back to the conference finals. Anthony finished third that year in the MVP voting.
But Jackson really did want to blame him for what the Knicks are and what they have become, even though Anthony is a lot closer to his best game than Jackson is to being at the top of his own game as a coach. Only Phil didn't want to coach the Knicks, except from the eighth row of the stands. He wanted to tell them all about it, about a triangle offense that worked great when the ball ended up in the hands of Michael or Kobe, from up there. It was another way of remaining above it all. Maybe things would have gone differently if he had coached. But he did not. Ultimately the skill that got Dolan to pay him $60 million for five years did not travel those eight rows from the bench to him.
He criticized Anthony in public. He still hasn't gotten over the fact that Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks' exciting young star, blew off an exit meeting a couple of months ago. Then we saw stories about how maybe he could get Dolan to eat the last $54 million of Anthony's contract. He floated the idea of trading Porzingis, one player Knicks fans who keep filling the seats at the Garden and paying Garden prices still want to watch, through more dreary losing seasons. Finally Dolan had enough. He decided he would rather write a check to Jackson, as a way of making Jackson go away, than to Anthony or anybody else. After watching the Knicks draft an 18-year-old kid, Frank Ntilikina, one of the reasons being that he thought this kid might really fit the triangle offense. Jackson seemed more fixed than ever about European players, and ones who wouldn't ignore exit meetings. And the triangle. Look out, Golden State Warriors.
Three sides to the triangle. Three years for Phil at the Garden. And goodbye. As one smart, veteran league guy said to me a few months ago, "All (Phil is) doing is taking a rich man's money." He takes a little more on his way out the door. Maybe now Dolan could actually look to the future and go after somebody like Masai Ujiri of the Raptors, one of the bright young minds in the sport, and somebody I have been saying the Knicks should look at for years.
This is what I wrote about Ujiri last February when the Lakers made their own star hire with Magic Johnson:
Ujiri may not have a team good enough to beat LeBron. But still: Look at the team he has assembled in Toronto. He has done it without big names, or being a big name himself, even in a star-driven league. Ujiri is no rookie, even if he is still just 46. He is also not the past in the NBA. Just the present and the future.
Phil Jackson was the past. Officially is relegated to the past now. This has nothing to do with his brilliance as a coach, and all the winning he did, and that means winning more titles than Red Auerbach did. This is in no way meant to diminish any of that, or to suggest that you could understand why Dolan brought him back to New York. He was an old Knick, one who had come off the bench. He had played in the glory years, and played for Red Holzman. And won those 11 titles. He was an even bigger star than Isiah Thomas was when Dolan hired him to run the Knicks (into the ground). He was a bigger coaching star than Larry Brown, another big-ticket hire for Dolan. He was…….Phil! He was not just going to be the one to bring the Knicks back, he was going to do something even better for James Dolan:
Provide cover for him.
But even that wasn't enough to save him in the end. And here is the thing about the Knicks, as passionate as their fans remain about them in New York: They truly have become irrelevant to the rest of the league. And a joke to the rest of the league. You want to ask other executives what they think about the Knicks, but here is the sad truth: They don't think about them. The Knicks are not taken seriously. It was almost sad listening to Ntilikina talk about the Knicks' championship history after the Knicks took him with the eighth pick of the draft. He sounded like somebody who studied up for a pop quiz on dinosaurs.
The Knicks hired the past to try to make a better future. It didn't work. Phil didn't work nearly hard enough. He goes now. He kept acting as if he had all the time in the world. Finally ran out of time. About time.