Phil Jackson is the latest big and bold-faced name to see a multi-million-dollar carrot waved in his face by the Knicks and owner James Dolan, whose pockets are deep enough to meet anyone's price.
But -- and this is no disrespect to Mr. Eleven Rings -- if Jackson accepts a front-office job in New York, it will ultimately end up disastrous like all the others. That's what the Knicks' track record for this sort of thing says, anyway. It will end in an avalanche of empty promises and hopes and broken championship dreams for a franchise that hasn't thrown a ticker-tape parade in 40-plus years and counting.
It's a curse, the Knicks and their laudable yet laughable addiction to gain respectability by gunning for the biggest names in the game. On the surface it seems like a reasonable enough method: Find a proven winner, someone whose body of work is soaked in greatness, and simply ask him to do for them as he did elsewhere. With tremendous resources at the Knicks' disposal, something no other NBA franchise can touch, buying their way into a savior's heart and money-market fund is actually the easy part.
Several million dollars a year in salary? Big-city trappings? Luxurious fringe benefits? A chance to own (relatively-speaking) the Garden? Check, check and paycheck. One of the wonderful things about being wealthy and owning a team in the biggest market is getting the person you want, and that, more than anything else, is Dolan's greatest skill. Jackson will take Dolan's money because that's what the would-be saviors of the Knicks are chasing after, and they've been exceptional at becoming obscenely rich at Dolan's expense.
But after a few decades of seducing those who spent their best years elsewhere on other teams, what exactly has it gotten Dolan, anyway? Zero championships, lots of grief, a disgruntled fan base and, of course, an appetite to keep chasing big names at whatever cost.
Jackson wouldn't be the first to take advantage of the situation and the desperation and cash checks from Dolan, only the latest, and the line is longer than Carmelo Anthony's face following a blowout loss. Jackson has absolutely no experience in running a basketball team, and yet Dolan is anxious to put this train wreck of a franchise into the hands of a complete neophyte who never drafted a single player or negotiated a single contract or made a single trade. Jackson can break down the complexities of the triangle offense, but what does he know about the complexities of the salary cap or the sudden emphasis on analytics among NBA general managers?
It sounds like a romantic idea, bringing Jackson back to the city and to the team he helped win a championship under Red Holzman. It's the kind of splashy hire that will win the introductory press conference, and get the New York tabloids purring in approval at least for a while, and will even throw the starving fan base a meaty bone. Can't you see the gushing reaction? Jackson will restore the glow and show a new direction and inject some championship flavor into the Knicks. That's what the initial hit will say, anyway.
Meanwhile, Jackson isn't coaching the team and doesn't have Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen or Shaq or Kobe around to further build his reputation as a winner. He has Carmelo for the next several years -- we think -- and the chance to use his Zen to see what makes J.R. Smith tick.
Maybe Jackson will be the respectable and magnetic presence that gets the attention of free agents and keeps Carmelo from fleeing this summer, sort of the way Pat Riley has flexed his Lakers championship rings in Miami all these years and made that unlikely city the center of the basketball universe.
Or maybe Jackson will one day leave town in flames, without fulfilling all the hope and hype, a victim of the Dolan Curse, like these men before him:
Don Nelson. When Riley bolted the Knicks after a front-office power struggle and chased the smell of part-ownership and sunshine in Miami, the Knicks had the chance to promote Riley's loyal second-hand man, a hard-working grunt who paid his dues. Instead, they wanted a famous name, so Jeff Van Gundy had to wait his turn in favor of Don Nelson.
Nellie lasted all of 59 games. He lost Patrick Ewing in about 59 minutes. Plenty went wrong in his five months on the job, but first and foremost, Nellie wanted to run the offense through Anthony Mason, of all people. A mutiny, led by Ewing, caused Nellie to leave New York before his first season was up, and he took roughly $12 million for his troubles.
Magic Johnson. Ever since he retired and built a business empire, Magic has been a constant target of the Knicks, mainly through good friend Steve Mills, now in his second tour as team president. Rather than take Dolan's money, Magic persuaded Dolan to roll the dice on another Hall of Fame point guard who was thirsty for power. Which led to the Knicks hiring …
Isiah Thomas. When he was introduced as general manager, Thomas said he was unwilling to rebuild a team that was already growing old and expensive. He said New York wouldn't stand for a tear-down, echoing the unsubstantiated belief held by the owner, and no wonder Dolan loved Isiah so much. Isiah then swung a trade for a big name: Stephon Marbury.
Well, the rest, they say, is history.
Lenny Wilkens. Isiah wanted Marbury to learn from one of the game's great point guards, and so instead of hiring a hot young assistant coach, Isiah went retro (retread?) and got Wilkens, who couldn't make it through two seasons before the plug was yanked on that experiment.
Larry Brown. The all-time financial heist in NBA history was pulled off by Brown in a span of roughly 10 months. He received a hefty buyout from the Pistons in the summer of 2005 to become coach of the Knicks. And then, when his power was stripped by Isiah and his ego chopped down by Dolan, Brown limped away from that job richer by another $24 million. Two big paydays in less than a year. Nice work if you can get it.
Mike D'Antoni. The coaching vacancy in 2008 came down to two candidates: D'Antoni and Mark Jackson. D'Antoni had exciting teams in Phoenix and Jackson had no coaching experience, so the Knicks went for the big name and glitz. To be fair to Dolan, this was Donnie Walsh's hire. Walsh would have his power and authority stripped by Dolan just a few months later.
LeBron James. The Knicks went all-out to chase James in the summer of 2010, and this was one time when you couldn't blame their big-name addiction. Problem was, after years of mismanagement, the Knicks had nothing to offer him except money. And even that wasn't enough.
Carmelo Anthony. Walsh wanted the Knicks to wait until Anthony became a free agent in 2011, rather than swing a trade at midseason and surrender assets for him. Melo's people floated the idea of him signing in Brooklyn if the Knicks didn't make a trade -- Melo stood to make more money by signing immediately rather than in the summer -- and Dolan, fearful that a big name would slip away, over-ruled Walsh and pulled the trigger. The Knicks gave up a pair of starters (Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler) along with their 2014 first-rounder, which looks like a lottery pick in a deep draft (their 2016 pick is gone, too).
And now, the Knicks turn their desperate eyes to Jackson. He is 68 and might prefer to commute from L.A. He has championship recognition but not a GM's resume. He's not Rob Hennigan, who masterfully swung the Dwight Howard trade and put the Magic in great position to reap the rewards of that deal in the near future. Or Ryan McDonough, who re-tooled the once-hapless Suns almost overnight with young and inexpensive talent. Or Sam Hinkie, who convinced the Sixers to suffer now and draft well later. Or Masai Ujiri, the reigning executive of the year who's well on his way to making the Raptors, of all teams, respectable.
These GMs are all young and aggressive and were hired within the last few years, when the Knicks front office was in transition and needed direction. They served as apprentices, learned scouting skills and analytics, developed relationships with other GMs and agents and are now using that experience to gain positive reviews so far.
What none of them had at the time of their hiring, with the possible exception of Ujiri, was a robust profile. Which means they never made the Knicks' wish list.
Jackson will no doubt be motivated by the challenge of restoring glory to a franchise once coached by Holzman, his mentor, and the chance to call the shots instead of coaching. It's an opportunity he probably can't pass up.
He could be the one who finally breaks the mold and changes a disturbing trend in New York. And if he doesn't, the Knicks will once again endure a painful reality and reminder when it comes to big names: Nobody falls harder.