It has been all hugs and handshakes in and around Madison Square Garden this week. The New York Knicks have won seven straight games, breathing life into a nightmarish season once assumed to be dead as a doornail. And, more importantly for the long-term future of the franchise, the organization officially announced Phil Jackson has been hired as president of the basketball operations.
At the introductory press conference, owner Jim Dolan shockingly proclaimed that he would “willingly and gratefully” cede control to Jackson, and that Jackson will “be in charge of all basketball decisions.” It was sweet music to Knicks fans ears.
Nevertheless, once the applause dies down, Jackson will have to start the actual, arduous process of rebuilding the Knicks from league-wide laughingstock into legit contender. Listed below are the central issues Jackson will have to address during his first 100 days in office.
1. What to do with Carmelo Anthony?
Both Dolan and Jackson have voluntarily gone on record over the past couple of days as saying they want to keep Carmelo Anthony in a Knicks uniform. And part of the reason many Knicks fans celebrated the Jackson hiring was because they believe it increases the odds of Anthony re-signing with New York this summer.
However, as we have pointed out in this space previously, the argument could also be made that refusing to sign Carmelo to a max-contract would be in the Knicks’ best long-term interests. As a reminder, a max contract would pay Anthony a total of $129 million over five years, including an annual salary of $29.2 million during the 2018-19 season, when ‘Melo would be 34 years old. It’s clear to see that if New York did commit max money to Anthony, they would have a difficult time constructing a championship roster around him. And if the Knicks let him walk, or, better yet, move him in a sign-and-trade this summer, New York would have a ton of cap space to play with in the summer of 2015. With Jackson at the helm, the Knicks would likely have a better chance at landing one (or two) of the top-tier free agents available.
Yet, Anthony has repeatedly intimated that he would be willing to take less to stay in NYC. Just how much less is the key question. If Anthony is willing to settle for a deal starting at around $16 million, then it would be far easier for Jackson and company to pair Anthony with talented teammates.
Any way you slice, the impending decision on Anthony is the most pressing, important issue facing Jackson as he begins this journey.
2. Focus on clearing out cap space for the ‘Summer of 2015’
Regardless of how the Anthony negotiations go, July of 2015 should retain a prominent place in Jackson’s thought process.
If the Knicks do re-sign ‘Melo, then July of 2015 will be their first opportunity to shop for a star-studded supporting cast.
If Anthony walks, then July of 2015 is when Jackson will be able to truly re-create the franchise in his vision by completely rebuilding the entire roster from the ground up.
With this reality in mind, next season Jackson will have to avoid the temptation of trading expiring contracts of players such as Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire in exchange for players who would be an upgrade in immediate production, but whose contracts extend beyond the 2014-15 season. In addition, Jackson should be shopping J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton hard, as both have contracts that don’t expire until 2016.
The free agent class of 2015 will likely feature several elite-level all-stars. Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, Paul Millsap, Marc Gasol, Al Jefferson, Tony Parker, Goran Dragic, Roy Hibbert and DeAndre Jordan among others may be up for grabs as unrestricted free agents. And depending on how the Miami HEAT situation plays out this summer, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh may be added to that list as well.
Entering the summer of 2015 with as much cap space as possible should remain a primary focus.
3. Zero in on a head coach
Mike Woodson has been around the NBA a long time. He understands the nature of business. Once it was announced that Jackson would be hired, he could see the writing on the wall. Unfortunately for him, there is likely very little he can do to save his job at this point. Even if the Knicks weren’t in the midst of an incredibly disappointing season (even with their current seven-game win streak, New York is still 12 games under .500), Woodson would be an extreme long shot to be the coach of the Knicks on opening day next season.
Jackson, maybe more than other human being on the planet, understands the impact a head coach can have on a team’s success. Now that he is calling the shots, we can safely assume he will bring in a coach he is comfortable with, as well as one that is familiar with and eager to embrace his overall coaching philosophy. This goes beyond simple X’s and O’s (such as incorporating the triangle offense); Jackson will be looking for a coach who espouses similar a philosophical ideology.
Steve Kerr, Brian Shaw (currently under contract in Denver) and Kurt Rambis are just few names that have been mentioned as potential candidates.
4. Determine the actual level of autonomy
As noted above, Dolan has said all the right things over the past few days. He has gone above and beyond to loudly declare that he in no way plans to interfere.
“Phil would not be coming if he thought I was going to second-guess him,” Dolan said in a radio interview Tuesday afternoon. “He (Jackson) didn’t have to convince me to give up the authority. That was easy… I’m not qualified to do this.”
Now, we have to take these comments with a grain of salt, as Dolan’s history invites skepticism. Dolan has hired other respected, qualified basketball minds in the past, and Knicks fans have witnessed stalwarts such as Donnie Walsh and Larry Brown see their power usurped before exiting uncomfortably.
Is it possible Dolan has finally learned his lesson? Surely he is fully aware that the ‘old way’ was not working.
“I hope I will take more of a backseat than I have before,” Dolan explained.
He seemed genuinely humbled and relieved to pass on the pressures of making important basketball decisions. Will this reality exist once Jackson starts making moves? How will Dolan react if Jackson runs afoul of the omnipresent CAA?
Jackson, as independent and free-thinking as they come, will likely test the limits of his newfound authority relatively quickly, and will obviously keep a close eye on Dolan’s response.
5. Flesh out the rest of the managerial team
Considering Jackson’s physical limitations (he will spend at least some of the year in California) and his inexperience with this particular role, he will need to round out his management team with executives he can rely on.
Dolan has insisted that Steve Mills will be kept on, and maintain an important role within the organization. The futures of Allan Houston (recently named GM of the Knicks’ D-League affiliate) and Mark Warkentien are much less clear. Does Phil have a hand-selected cadre he plans to import?
Assuming he lacks an intense familiarity with advanced statistics, it will be interesting to see how heavily Jackson leans on the Knicks’ current, in-house analytic experts. In addition, due to the physical maladies that will limit his ability to travel extensively and scout prospects both at home and abroad, Jackson will have to familiarize himself with the Knicks’ advance scouting department. Will he look to clean house or keep the status quo?
These issues have not yet been addresses by Jackson, Dolan or Mills.
6. Initiate culture change
It is something that obviously won’t happen overnight, but the Garden needs to be disinfected. The mere presence of Jackson will do wonders, but the new head honcho needs to stay diligent.
Knicks players have continually embarrassed themselves both on and off the court. A lack of maturity and personal responsibility has allowed the Knicks’ “brand” to be tarnished.
In addition, the team’s toxic relationship with the media hasn’t benefited anyone.
Jackson has long preached about the importance of culture within an organization.
Well, the ‘Zen Master’ has his work cut out for him in New York.