“Get your head out of your ass, Marc!”
The phrase above was directed at referee Marc Davis on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. It came down from the stands, which, in and of itself, is not all that surprising. Fans at sporting events yell at referees all the time.
What made this unusual was that the person yelling at Davis wasn’t some die-hard Knicks fan upset over a call. It was team president Phil Jackson, yelling down from his seat about 10 rows from the court.
People within earshot of Jackson say that it’s fairly common to hear Jackson yelling at refs. Those in Jackson’s corner would point to this as evidence that the coach with 11 NBA championships is still fiery and competitive.
“Phil is meticulous and thorough and cares deeply about what he does,” says former Bulls center Luc Longley, who visited with Jackson last week in New York. “And he’s not the kind of guy that’s going to give up. So I suspect that it will pay off in the long run [in New York]. … I’m sure that he’ll find a way to make it all click. You’ve got to break a few eggs to make an omelet, right?”
It’s been three years since the Knicks hired Jackson to run their franchise. He still has a chance to make a pretty good omelet, but it’s fair to say he’s made a mess in the kitchen thus far. Since Jackson’s first full season as team president, New York is 76-157.
Jackson, of course, hit a home run in drafting Kristaps Porzingis in 2015 and did well in acquiring Willy Hernangomez in the same draft. He has resisted the urge to trade New York’s future first-round picks. But Jackson’s résumé as team president also includes trades and signings that haven’t worked out well for one reason or another, and the odd self-inflicted controversy.
Despite all of the losing and off-court drama, the Knicks are in a position to build a solid team going forward. New York may have nearly $25 million in cap space this summer, depending on what it decides to do with free agent Derrick Rose. And the Knicks have their first-round pick in June’s draft, as well as two second-round picks.
But there are underlying issues that lead people inside and outside the organization to wonder if Jackson is the right person to lead them forward. He didn’t say it directly, but Porzingis gave a voice to some of those concerns last week when he spoke of the confusion in the organization at the moment “from top to bottom.”
Part of the confusion stems from the Knicks’ offense. Earlier in the season, coach Jeff Hornacek de-emphasized the triangle offense, preferring to play a more open offense that featured pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop options. Since the All-Star break, the Knicks have re-emphasized the triangle, which is Jackson’s preferred offense.
Jackson may eventually be able to find players who excel in — and appreciate — the triangle. But the majority of current Knicks aren’t comfortable in — and don’t care for — the offense, according to sources.
These players often point to the amount of midrange shots the offense produces (the Knicks lead the league in midrange attempts, per NBA.com) and the tight spacing, which makes it difficult to drive. They also question the amount of contested shots taken (New York ranks in the top 10 in contested 2-point field goals, per NBA.com).
Some Knicks also feel that the offense is easy to defend. Opposing players have told the Knicks that they can predict where they’ll be when running the triangle, and one Eastern Conference coach last season told friends that defending the triangle was one of the easiest assignments in the league because of that.
The return to the triangle is one reason why several veterans have started to lose faith in Hornacek recently, sources say.
Now, it’s certainly possible that Jackson’s offense works with a new group of players on the roster, but what happens when Jackson’s presidency ends?
It’s almost certain that the Knicks’ next president won’t be implementing the triangle. So will the Knicks’ young core (Porzingis, Hernangomez et al) be stuck learning a new offense after spending the past three seasons getting used to the triangle?
That’s a factor that opposing executives have pointed to when talking about the Knicks’ future.
Offense aside, the biggest task Jackson faces in the near future is reshaping the roster this summer. The Knicks should have a top-10 pick in June’s draft. Some players on the Knicks’ radar at the moment include French guard Frank Ntilikina and Kentucky’s Malik Monk, per sources.
On the free-agency front, the Knicks have to first decide what to do with Rose, who has shown that he can get to the basket at will but has struggled on the defensive end. He has a cap hold of $30 million, so the Knicks will need to renounce his rights this summer before they can make any significant signings.
Based on how they dangled Rose in trade talks at the deadline, it would seem as if they are ready to move on from the former MVP. But according to league sources familiar with the matter, the Knicks haven’t ruled out the possibility of re-signing Rose at this point.
There are members of the organization who also see Jrue Holiday and Jeff Teague as free-agent targets. At the deadline, some discussed the idea of revisiting trade talks for Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio as well.
And there’s always the triangle factor. In the summer of 2015, some members of the organization were concerned that the offense would be a deterrent to potential free agents. Despite Hornacek’s comments the other day, that concern still remains in some corners of the organization, according to sources familiar with the matter.
The biggest issue surrounding the Knicks this summer and going forward is Carmelo Anthony‘s future with the club. The Knicks shopped Anthony in trade talks before the deadline and, barring an unforeseen change of course, remain committed to moving Anthony in the offseason, per sources.
Anthony, of course, has a no-trade clause, so he controls his future. The market for Anthony this summer is unclear at the moment, but before the deadline, some members of the Los Angeles Clippers organization expressed confidence that they could trade for Anthony over the summer, per sources.
If the Knicks move Anthony, the club will build in earnest around Porzingis. The Knicks are encouraged by other young pieces on the roster such as Hernangomez, Justin Holiday, Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Ron Baker and Chasson Randle. One potential issue is how the drama surrounding the franchise may impact some of these players.
If the dysfunction continues, no one should be surprised if Porzingis and Hernangomez leave the franchise in free agency. That, of course, would be the biggest black eye of Jackson’s presidency.
Jackson and the Knicks have a mutual option after this season, and owner James Dolan has said that he will honor the final two years of Jackson’s contract. But some around Dolan had been pushing him to consider making a change in recent months, according to sources.
Those close to Jackson preach patience when talking about the Knicks’ future. They believe Jackson will be able to get the organization on the right footing going forward. In one of his rare interviews this season, Jackson made it clear that he remains committed to seeing things through in New York.
“This is what I was hired to do,” Jackson told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan. “I’m going to follow the plan, and if it doesn’t work out, it will be evident.”
Three years after Dolan officially hired Jackson, you wonder how much evidence he needs before he feels compelled to make an adjustment. The owner expected to make the playoffs this season, just as he expected to last year. He didn’t think he would be staring at three years of playoff-free basketball when he hired Jackson.
Barring a miracle, the Knicks will miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. And they’ve showed no evidence that they can create that miracle.
So, no, this certainly isn’t a happy anniversary for Jackson, Dolan and the rest of the people who care about the Knicks.