It’s sometimes unwise to read too much into Phil Jackson’s often cryptic comments (as he has been known to say one thing and do another), but his season-ending press conference this week was worrisome.
When asked about who he might bring in to interview for the Knicks head coaching gig, Jackson intimated he would only consider those candidates he’s familiar with and those that are as enthusiastic and dedicated to ‘The Triangle’ as he is.
“Only people I probably know will be in the interview process,’’ Jackson told reporters on Thursday.
When a reporter questioned whether Jackson was still ardently committed to the Triangle, despite the changing landscape throughout the league and the Knicks lack of success since Jackson arrived, Phil scoffed at a suggestion he would consider altering his approach simply because a few foolish naysayers have the audacity to question the Triangle. “Who are these people? Why would people even say that? Do they have 11 championships to talk about?” said Jackson. “That’s what I was brought here for — to install a system.’’
Despite Phil’s unwavering assuredness, question remains. Is The Triangle still capable of succeeding in 2016 and beyond? Phil last won a championship in 2009-10, and that was with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in their primes. The NBA has changed a great deal since then. Furthermore, Jackson’s former disciples have found great difficulty in successfully incorporating Jackson’ system elsewhere. The combined NBA head coaching record of Kurt Rambis, Brian Shaw, Bill Cartwright, Derek Fisher, Frank Hamblen and Jim Cleamons is a putrid 264-577. That’s a .313 winning percentage. Brian Shaw, who is 29 games below .500 for his career, has the best record of the bunch.
Many other teams and NBA executives throughout the league subscribe to various overriding philosophies that serve as guideposts to how they operate as an organization. Yet few coaches/GM’s seem as strident in defense and adherence to a particular system as Jackson.
This intransigence and inflexibility is concerning, especially when the early returns have not been promising. As a prideful competitor, Phil obviously badly wants to re-shape the Knicks into a championship contender; but he seems almost equally focused on proving that his beloved Triangle is still relevant, despite data which suggests otherwise.
On Thursday, Jackson revealed that only one candidate was currently scheduled for an interview: Kurt Rambis.
Being friendly with the boss and logging years as a loyal lieutenant eager to acquiesce to Phil’s marching orders should not be the primary criteria for a job applicant.
The Knicks are lucky to have an owner that is willing to spend an exorbitant amount of money in order to finance a winning basketball team. Jackson himself is being paid a whopping $12 million per season, more than any other executive in the league. Consequently, it’s safe to assume Dolan would pay top dollar for preeminent coach as well. There are currently a handful of quality/intriguing free agents coaches available, including Tom Thibodeau, Jeff Van Gundy and Ettore Messina.
Van Gundy has coached and won big in New York. Thibodeau, who has let it be known he would love to coach the Knicks, served as Knicks assistant coach for seven years and has a Coach of the Year award on his resume.
For Jackson to not deem it worth his time to even interview these respected coaching candidates is baffling. Maybe JVG and/or Thibs are not the right fit, but what would possibly be the harm in bringing qualified candidates for a quick pow-wow to see if philosophies might actually align? The hiring of a head coach is an incredibly important decision for an NBA team. If Jackson is, in fact, content to limit his search based on such constrictive criteria, that is something that should give owner Jim Dolan great pause.
On a related note, Jeff Van Gundy was a guest on ESPN’s Zach Lowe Podcast last week and offered an interesting perspective when asked about the Sam Hinkie fiasco in Philadelphia. “If I was an organization right now, I would try to get him on the phone and have him be the contrarian to whatever my plan was, whether it’s a paid position or just free advice,” said Van Gundy.
Many of the best executives from all different industries (not just those running professional sports teams) have spoken in depth about the importance of having contrasting and conflicting opinions within an organization. According to a recent study by consulting and professional services company Deloitte, cultivating “diversity of thought” can bring an organization the following benefits: It helps guard against groupthink and expert overconfidence, as well as helping organizations identify the right employees who can best tackle their most pressing problems.
The study also suggests two crucial ways organizations can increase diversity of thought among their workforce:
- Hire differently. The job description and interview process should contain competencies and questions designed to help identify and select a cognitively diverse organization. Organizations also need to recruit top talent—even if it means shaking up the status quo with opinionated employees.
- Manage differently. Instead of seeking consensus as an end goal, managers should encourage task-focused conflict that can push their teams to new levels of creativity and productivity
On Thursday, when asked about his narrow coaching search, Jackson said he would look for “someone who has compatibility with what I do as a leader would have to be in sync with what we do.’’ Jackson continued: “I’ve seen lot of situations where coaches end up coming in without simpatico with the general manager, and those things don’t work well.”
Well, I can think of one situation where a prominent head coach achieved great success despite frequent clashes with management. The Chicago Bulls won six NBA titles over an eight-year span in 1990’s. The coach of those Bulls teams, Phil Jackson, famously quarreled frequently with Chicago’s General Manager, Jerry Krause. Jackson and Krause certainly weren’t always on the same page when it came to basketball decisions, but they tolerated each other, and in the process they dominated the NBA for a better part of a decade. In fact, it could be argued that the tension and conflict between coach and GM was ultimately beneficial, considering the two of them presided over one of the more impressive dynasties in recent sports history.
Ironically, published reports in the New York Post have asserted Jackson won’t even consider Tom Thibodeau, because of Thibodeau’s inability to get along with his bosses in Chicago. Not because Thibs can’t coach, but rather because he wasn’t “simpatico” with Bulls front office (Gar Forman and John Paxson). Imagine that, a coach in Chicago not being “buddy buddy” with the GM. Adding to the absurdity, the folks over BBallBreakdown have produced in-depth videos highlighting just how frequently Thibodeau ran the Triangle offense while in Chicago. “During his tenure running the Bulls, Thibodeau had his teams run the pure Triangle Offense on an estimated 25% of their half court possessions.”
No one can question Phil Jackson as an NBA head coach. His success speaks for itself. He won consistently adhering to a specific system and a philosophy. However, running an organization as President of Basketball Operations is a different task that requires a different skill set.
When making the decision to hire the Knicks next head coach, Jackson should at least consider bringing in a voice and opinions that don’t parrot his own. It’s time Jackson considers thinking outside the box; or, perhaps more appropriately in this case, the triangle.
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