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Phil Jackson and the Knicks Part Ways

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Three years ago, Phil Jackson was hired to run the Knicks and heralded as a savior.

For owner James Dolan, bringing in Jackson was largely an act of self-preservation. After years of dysfunction, losing and an utter lack of hope, many Knicks fans were nearing a breaking point. Some were organizing protests aimed at forcing Dolan to sell the team. Fans were storming the gates, and the mere presence of Phil Jackson de-escalated the situation and soothed the maddened masses.

It was a worthwhile gamble by Dolan. However, the relationship between Jackson, the team and the city got off to a rocky start and never truly stabilized. By the end, the organization was once again enveloped by the all-too-familiar combination of chaos and confusion. Jackson had alienated his two most important players, Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. Knicks fans were once again in full-fledged panic mode. An untenable situation had reached the point of no return. On Wednesday afternoon, the team announced that Jackson and the Knicks had “mutually agreed to part company.”

Expect Jackson to get pounded by pundits and New York City tabloids over the next few days. He made some trades that ended up backfiring and a very costly mistake in free agency. The Knicks finished with an 80-166 record during his three years at the helm, and that bottom line will be attached to him when we look back at his time in New York.

However, before we judge his tenure as an abject failure, it’s important to look at the big picture. The reality is that Jackson, unlike many of his previous predecessors in New York, did not leave the cupboard bare. For starters, Phil deserves credit for refusing to unnecessarily part with picks. The Knicks currently own all of their future first round selections. This is big news, and a rarity in New York. Last week, the Knicks made a pick in both the first and second rounds of the same draft for the first time since 2005!

As far as future cap space is concerned, the team is in fine shape. Yes, the Joakim Noah contract is an absolute albatross, but that’s the only bad contract on the books. Other than Noah (and Melo’s player option), there are only three other players on the roster with guaranteed contracts that extend beyond next season. Courtney Lee is locked in at approximately $12 million annually through 2020, which is below market value. Lance Thomas has two guaranteed years and $13.7 million left on his deal, which is palatable. Lastly, Willy Hernangomez, who made the All-Rookie team during his debut campaign in NYC, is locked into an incredible contract. Amazingly, Willy will make just $1.4 million next season, $1.5 million in 2018-19 and $1.7 million in 2019-20. That qualifies as one of the NBA’s best values.

If the Knicks can somehow find a way to move Melo, or if Anthony opts out next summer, New York would be looking at well north of $30 million in cap space to lavish on free agents in July of 2018.

Furthermore, Phil made his most important decision as president of the Knicks on June 25th, 2015, selecting Kristaps Porzingis fourth overall in the 2015 draft. The Knicks desperately needed to hit a home run, and Phil slugged a grand slam. In that same draft, New York also snagged Hernangomez in the second round, via a trade with Philadelphia. Hernangomez wouldn’t debut until the 2016-17 season, but the early returns on him have been positive. We’ll see how the selection of this year’s first-round pick, Frank Ntilikina, looks a few years down the road.

However, Phil’s work on the margins of the roster was unsuccessful. And although he finally committed to a rebuild, he arrived at that logical conclusion a year too late, after he had already handed Noah $72 million.

Worse yet, Jackson allowed his ego, arrogance and unyielding commitment to the Triangle Offense to sabotage any hope of prosperity. Phil experienced his greatest success at a time when star players could be bullied, and analytics could be ignored. He was either unable or unwilling to adapt to the changing landscape of today’s NBA. Players around the league came to view New York as a toxic environment that should be avoided at all costs. Phil’s public handling of the Carmelo Anthony situation was deplorable, and his escalating and unnecessary feud with Porzingis was an unforgivable sin in the eyes of many Knicks fans.

Thus, the decision to part ways may have come in the “knick” of time. New York’s future is tied directly to that of Porzingis. He is the foundation upon which this revamped organization will be built. The odds of Porzingis eventually signing a long-term extension in New York is far greater today than it was yesterday, and that alone should have made Dolan’s decision an easy one. As an added bonus, we’ll get to see what kind of player KP can develop into playing within the constructs of a modern offense that can focus on accentuating his unique skillset.

Now that the team has stripped away the recent sound and fury stirred up by Jackson, the organization can focus on the building blocks of the future. They have three promising young players, all their future first-round picks and cap space flexibility going forward.

Still, the Knicks obviously have a long way to go before they are even respectable, let alone competitive. The next, crucial step in the process is hiring a competent executive to oversee the rebuild. During his reign in New York, Dolan has hired numerous GM’s and presidents, from famous former players to anonymous number-crunchers. Eventually, they all left in disappointing fashion. The common denominators in New York since the turn of the century has been dysfunction and defeats. As a result, pessimism amongst New Yorkers is expected, and understandable.

Encouragingly, Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical is reporting that Dolan is targeting Toronto’s Masai Ujiri to replace Jackson. This would be an enormous coup for the Knicks. If they can land Ujiri and allow him to run the show, it’s nearly impossible to overstate how important that would be for the long-term health of the franchise. The Knicks have not handed a respected, qualified executive the reigns and left him in charge of all day-to-day operations since the 1990’s, which coincides with the last time the team was successful. If Ujiri can’t be pried away from Toronto, former Cavs GM David Griffin would be an attractive candidate as well.

Due to the circus they’ve become, the Knicks are not an easy sell. However, Dolan may be able to make a compelling case. To begin with, Dolan can take credit for not meddling in basketball decisions during Jackson’s tenure, just as Dolan had promised when he hired Phil. Dolan had developed a reputation for nudging his way into trade negotiations in the past, but stayed true to his word and gave Phil and his staff complete autonomy.

Secondly, Dolan should emphasize the fact that expectations in New York City will never be lower. For instance, Raptors fans ended the season disappointed that their team ONLY made it to the second round of the playoffs. Knicks fans would build of statue of Masai Ujiri outside of the Garden if he built a Knicks team that won 107 games and three playoff series over a two-year span. (The Knicks have won a total of one playoff series since 2000 and have won more than 50 games in a season just once over that same timespan.) In addition, Ujiri must recognize that the path to title contention over the next few years is blocked by the Warriors and Cavs. There would be no pressure to compete with super teams while smartly and methodically rebuilding in New York.

The last aspect of Dolan’s sales pitch would center around salary. Jackson was the league’s highest-paid executive, at $12 million per season. It’s safe to assume Dolan would be willing to offer Ujiri riches unavailable anywhere else. Despite the constant losing, the Knicks have continued to be an absolute money machine for the Dolan family. Forbes recently ranked the Knicks the seventh-most valuable sports franchise in the world, just behind Manchester United and the New England Patriots. Forbes valued the Knicks at a cool $3 billion.

So, yes, the Knicks have their work cut out for them, but Phil is now in the rear-view mirror and there is reason to believe that future may be a bit brighter than the past.

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About Tommy Beer

Tommy Beer

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.