NEW YORK – It has been a little more than three years since Knicks owner James Dolan pointed to Phil Jackson and declared the future of one of the NBA’s flagship franchises in good hands, and just as long since anyone believed him. Coaching – which Jackson is good at – and running an NBA team – which he is not – are comparable in the same way boxing is to mixed martial arts. Same family but, as seemingly everyone outside of the Cablevision universe understood, requiring very different skills.
The Knicks parted ways with Jackson on Wednesday, ending an abysmal stretch that has seen the team sink to an unprecedented level of irrelevance. Jackson’s tenure will be remembered for bad free-agent signings (Joakim Noah, Brandon Jennings) and a puzzling addiction to the triangle offense, for re-signing Carmelo Anthony and waging a very public war with him, for drafting Kristaps Porzingis and nearly trading him two years later. So head-scratching was Jackson’s decision to open the door to a Porzingis trade last week that rival executives wondered if Jackson was trying to provoke Dolan, to force an owner who recommitted to giving Jackson full autonomy last season to send him packing.
Dolan did, and only an arrogant billionaire could have been surprised. For years, Dolan’s obsession with winning the news conference trumped any understanding of what it took to win games. He hired Isiah Thomas, whose experience was headlined by a brief stint as a top executive in Toronto and a cratering of the CBA. He brought in veteran executive Donnie Walsh, only to force Walsh out after overruling him on the Anthony trade. He hired Jackson, whose skills in the coaching box never translated to the executive suite.
Not all of this is on Jackson – someone offers you a five-year, $60 million deal to run a marquee team, you would take it, too. But Jackson earned his coaching stripes. Years spent bussing in and out of Albany in the CBA led to an assistant coaching job with the Bulls. Countless hours with Tex Winter hardened Jackson’s belief in the triangle. The 11 championship rings headline Jackson’s résumé, but it was the work he put in early in his career that built the foundation for him to get there.
As an executive, there was no such base. Jackson believed his basketball mind was enough to make it unnecessary, and it wasn’t. Running an NBA-team has become a 24/7 gig. The basketball world has gotten bigger, the salary cap more complicated, the lure of the major market less appealing. Today’s GMs need the work ethic of an intern. Jackson simply didn’t have it.
New York’s next move is critical, and, no, it won’t be Dolan following Jackson out the door. The Knicks are a money-printing machine, a $3.3 billion franchise per Forbes’ most recent estimations, and no number of altercations with Knicks legends will ever force NBA commissioner Adam Silver to consider attempting to yank Dolan’s team away from him. Dolan is too powerful, and the NBA’s appetite for that kind of fight is nonexistent.
Dolan will hire Jackson’s replacement, and the stakes have never been higher. A resolution must be reached with Anthony, a relationship with Porzingis must be repaired and a situation player agents have vowed to steer high-profile clients away from needs to be stabilized. The Knicks need experience. They need savvy. They need a leader built to run a team in the pressure cooker of New York.
In short: They need Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri.
This is not pie-in-the-sky dot-connecting here. Dolan has a deep respect for Ujiri, league sources told The Vertical, and well he should. It was Ujiri who fleeced the Knicks in the Anthony deal when he was in Denver and again when he extracted a lottery pick for Andrea Bargnani as the Raptors’ top exec two years later. Ujiri signed a contract extension with Toronto last year, but the Raptors’ situation is unstable. Kyle Lowry’s future with the team is uncertain, Serge Ibaka’s maybe more so, and even if everyone returns, it’s still a team Cleveland mopped the floor with in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The timing could be right, for everyone. Ujiri is the type of executive for whom you fork over compensation. Money, a draft pick – whatever. He has the vision to build a winner, as he did in Denver and Toronto, and the personality to build goodwill. Winning over the media isn’t a GM’s job requirement, but in a city like New York, where toxic doesn’t begin to touch how nasty the relationship between the Knicks and the media has become, Ujiri’s engaging personality would go a long way.
Yet this is where Dolan is unpredictable. He’s as likely to hire Clyde Frazier as he is Ujiri, inclined to elevate Allan Houston as he is to place a call to San Antonio’s R.C. Buford. Even reinstalling Thomas – who has lingered as a top executive with the WNBA’s Liberty – can’t be ruled out. The Jackson era is over, but the Knicks reign as the NBA’s biggest sideshow could roll along, indefinitely.
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