Phil Jackson was back in his familiar spot Tuesday night, a few rows deep at Madison Square Garden, taking in another loss. The Knicks have been collecting them like dust bunnies this season, as opponents exploit them from the perimeter and in the lane and from all spots in between.
Jackson, nine months into his job as team president, is unaccustomed to ceding control, but he has largely left Coach Derek Fisher to fend for himself with a patchwork roster barreling toward records for futility. Sure, there are regular meetings and strategy sessions. But Jackson tends not to interfere. The day-to-day stuff is Fisher’s domain, for better or worse.
Even as both men grapple with the grim reality — an embarrassing start to the season with little evidence that the Knicks will approach respectability — Jackson sits and watches. In fairness, those may be the only things he can do.
Hamstrung by the handiwork of previous regimes, Jackson appears determined to wait it out until next summer, when the Knicks will dip well below the salary cap and finally have money to spend. The team’s most valuable assets are its expiring contracts, nine in all.
So Jackson continues to preach patience as his grace period limps toward the finish. It is a high-stakes waiting game, after all. There are no guarantees, not in free agency and not in the draft. But what choice does Jackson have? The future will hinge on the off-season.
Stu Jackson, a former Knicks coach who has also worked as a league executive, said Phil Jackson would be wise to stick with his long-term vision. Losing is no fun. Neither is dealing with mounting pressure from fans (and from Charles Barkley) to repair the assortment of mismatched parts that takes the court each game.
But his perspective must be different now, Stu Jackson said. As a coach, Phil Jackson sought daily solutions. As an executive, especially one who is trying to build something out of rubble, he has to resist the urge to placate the public’s desire for immediate results. The Knicks have made rash decisions before.
“It’s difficult,” said Stu Jackson, an analyst for NBA TV. “But if you believe in your plan and your plan is sound, and the people that you work with believe in your plan, then you have to stick with it even in the face of negative feedback from people outside the organization.”
Phil Jackson is aware of the criticism. On Thursday, he went on Twitter and responded to a reporter who had posted a link to an article that panned the Tyson Chandler trade. Jackson wrote, in part, that he was O.K. with the deal, that Chandler fit with the Dallas Mavericks and that Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert and Shane Larkin — three of the players the Knicks acquired from Dallas — were “on the court.”
If it did not come off as a full-throated endorsement of those three players, Jackson added that the team had gotten off to a poor start because of injuries and that Chandler would not have “changed the outcome.” Jackson went on to write that trades required time to evaluate: “Just relax … and be patient.”
That notion has become a familiar one around the team. In response to an interview request, the owner James L. Dolan released a statement through a spokesman: “Nothing has changed at all since we brought Phil back to NY. We appreciate the patience of our fans as Phil implements his plan.”
The 2014-15 season now revolves around those twin concepts: patience and the plan. Nearly every player on the roster is expendable, and if Jackson can make deals that include receiving draft picks or players who fit his vision, or both, then he probably will. But he is not working with much. Few teams are salivating for J. R. Smith.
Regardless, the Knicks will have deep pockets this summer. But building through free agency has its challenges.
Already, potential targets have moved on to new destinations. Kevin Love, playing in the final year of his deal, has indicated that he would prefer to stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers, while leaving the door ajar. On Thursday, the Mavericks acquired Rajon Rondo from the Boston Celtics. He seems very likely to stay with Dallas.
A shrinking market is bad enough. But there is another concern for Jackson: whether the Knicks’ general dysfunction this season will dissuade free agents from wanting to go anywhere near this hazmat site. Jackson acknowledged as much this month in one of his semiregular news conferences with reporters who cover the team.
“I’m not happy about that,” he said, adding that he wanted the players to “consistently perform at a level in this system of offense to demonstrate that they’re progressing, what the advantages are to what we’re doing.” In other words, he had hoped that the current roster would be an advertisement for the triangle. It has not gone so well.
“If you’re going to be a high-profile free agent who signs for a lot of money, you’re going to be expected to win,” said Reggie Miller, a former player and an analyst for Turner Sports. “So it would be nice for Derek and Phil to have a foundation to pitch to those guys: ‘Hey, this is how we play.’ So sure, it could have an effect.”
Jackson has made other miscalculations. When he sent Chandler to the Mavericks as part of a multiplayer deal over the summer, Jackson cited chemistry issues. But after a season during which he was hindered by injuries and frustrated by the team’s defensive system, Chandler has re-emerged as a force for the Mavericks. The Knicks, meanwhile, were left without a rim protector. Their defense has more holes than a pasta strainer.
Jackson also predicted that the Knicks would be a playoff team.
On the bright side, barring a miraculous turnaround, the Knicks are bound for the draft lottery. They also have all those expiring contracts, onerous ones that belong to players like Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani. Remember him? Bargnani last appeared in a game on Jan. 22 — nearly a year ago.
And while Bargnani will be gone by the summer, his presence will linger. As part of their deal for him with the Toronto Raptors in 2013, the Knicks gave up their 2016 first-round pick.
Add one more obstacle to the list. Jackson inherited this mess, but it is his problem now.
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