Those that have either lived in a market occupied by legendary coach and current New York Knicks president Phil Jackson are prone to interpreting much of what he does and says a bit differently than others. Not that his sarcasm and dry, highbrow humor is any less apparent, but you tend to gain a certain understanding of his methods and tactics when you’re able to see him in action for any extended period of time.
“Tim Duncan making the salary he’s making after being a part of a dynasty – not a dynasty, I wouldn’t call San Antonio a dynasty – a force, a great force,” Jackson recently told members of the media. “They haven’t been able to win consecutive championships but they’ve always been there. San Antonio has had a wonderful run through Tim’s tenure there as a player. He’s agreed to take a salary cut so other players can play with him so they can be good. And that’s the beginning of team play.”
Jackson shamelessly earns and upholds the title of the ‘Zen Master,’ as he has been able to utilize the media perhaps more effectively than any coach in the history of professional sports. Whether making a point about the play of his own roster, sending a message regarding the way the game and particularly the opposing team would be officiated, or zinging a rival with hopes of gaining a psychological advantage for a later date, Jackson has expertly and routinely pulled the strings and cords in media sessions like a master puppeteer for the better part of 25 years.
Basketball Insiders was recently able to discuss that very subject with Roland Lazenby, the veteran NBA writer/historian and author of the upcoming Michael Jordan biography ‘Jordan, The Life.’ As a friend of Jackson’s longtime assistant Tex Winter, Lazenby has chronicled Jackson’s exploits since his very first days in Chicago.
“The [Spurs] comment shows Phil is absolutely unafraid to say what he thinks,” Lazenby said. “That’s the power of his position, of his cachet with 11 rings. I think it’s Phil’s cachet and his tendency to ‘rub it in’ as Tex Winter used to say. Tex told me other coaches didn’t like him because of that tendency to rub it in.”
This is precisely why his recent comments regarding the Spurs, Duncan’s career and financial decisions should come as no surprise. The comments, while a combination of both respect and a slight tweak at the same time, also serve as a veiled message aimed directly at his soon-to-be free agent player in Carmelo Anthony. While so many are depending upon him as the ‘savior’ of the Knicks, as calculated and measured as Jackson is, he must have entered the job knowing a bit of goodwill and fortune are realistically necessary to turn things around within the two- or three-year window they would likely have with an “in-prime’ Anthony even if he were to return.
“Sometimes it’s a mind game,” Lazenby said. “Sometimes it’s simply Phil’s hauteur. It all adds up to a brash package, certainly not the kind of approach one would expect from a ‘Zen Master.’ But that’s Phil’s pure naked, aggressive competitive nature. Phil was simply saying what he believed, and protecting a little territory at the same time.”
Put simply, without the benefit of a 2014 draft pick and with his Knicks in salary cap purgatory for what is likely to be another season (barring a drastic salary dump), Jackson realizes he needs Anthony to not only buy into the direction and plan he has in store for the Knicks, but also do it at a discounted rate closer to the extension Duncan signed with the Spurs just before last season than the $100 million+ deal he would be eligible for if he chooses to use the early termination clause of his current deal.
Jackson’s point about sacrifices throughout negotiations being the start of “team play” holds some validity, but that’s much easier said from his position. At this stage in Anthony’s career, he’s got more left in the tank than Duncan appeared to have when he agreed to his extension just before 2012-13. Some would say it is a dangerous game to even place Anthony’s current situation into those terms, but the realities of the financial ramifications of both their past dealings and the current CBA don’t leave Jackson or the Knicks much of a choice.
Anthony would likely receive far more per year on the open market, but Jackson’s main goal has to be to convince him of the merits of re-signing at (at least) a discounted rate so that he can place desirable pieces around him sooner rather than later. For the record, the ‘shot’ toward the Spurs and what Jackson deems as a highly successful non-dynasty, is not related to that message and is precisely what Lazenby is referring to with Jackson’s territorial nature. Even with all of the success he’s enjoyed, it is far from a coincidence that he specifically used his longtime rival in San Antonio for the example. Not only have they served as the perfect model for maintained excellence (16 seasons with 50+ win) during Duncan’s career, but to specifically lead in with the term “dynasty” only to retract it and identify them as something less could only be described as ‘vintage Phil Jackson.’
Even if you tend to agree with Jackson’s sentiments regarding what it takes to be considered a dynasty (consecutive titles to go along with the success), it is difficult to see those comments as anything other than a backhanded compliment with the future benefit of the Knicks in mind. Especially when said organization is led by a one-time rival coach fresh off being named the NBA’s Coach of the Year for the third time. Although we are certain Jackson would ultimately prefer his Finals success, the extremely competitive nature of the ultra-successful has to remind Jackson of how he inexplicably only received the award once (1995-96). Not to mention the imprint it places on the mind of players (potential free agents) to remind them of his ownership of the term “dynasty” when it comes to NBA basketball over the past quarter century.
Regardless of Jackson’s motives, his point regarding the restrictive nature of the current CBA is no less valid. If he is to have any chance at turning around this proud and once successful organization, he’ll have to break free from their current trend of trading away draft picks, and almost arbitrarily offering multiple bloated or max contracts. Jackson’s comments may have come with a bit of a forked tongue, but they were exactly right. For the Knicks to stand a chance at developing into a contender at some point over the next few seasons, sacrifices will have to be made by all parties.
Anthony, yet to publicly respond about Jackson’s comments, has made it clear his focus will be on finding the best opportunity to win when making his decision about his future in recent statements. Certain to have several teams (Bulls, Rockets, Lakers) vying for his services, Anthony will have to determine whether he believes in what Jackson is selling enough to sacrifice for the organization he fought to play for, or if greener pastures are ultimately more appealing.