Charley Rosen, author of 18 books about basketball and a former assistant coach under Phil Jackson in the CBA, spent a day with Jackson in every month of his debut season with the New York Knicks, during which the Hall of Fame coach-turned-executive talked frankly about his roster and his new role as team president. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. Check back next week for Part 6.
Date: Feb. 24, 2015
Knicks record: 10-45
Before a flight to Boston and a game against the Celtics the following evening, Phil Jackson sits in his office at the Knicks' Tarrytown practice facility, a modestly appointed space containing a few nondescript chairs and a remarkably neat desk.
Indeed, the most interesting features are the framed, poster-sized photographs mounted on the walls, all of them snapped by George Kalinsky, the official photographer of Madison Square Garden, celebrating the Knicks' 1970 championship -- a team that in local parlance is still referred to as the "Old Knicks." There's Walt Frazier in mid-air about to launch a jumper. Red Holzman standing in front of the Knicks' bench, yelling and pointing at something or someone. Other action shots focus on Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Cazzie Russell, Dick Barnett. The best of the lot is a joyous Dave DeBusschere pouring a bottle of champagne on Howard Cosell's already-drenched toupee.
There are no likenesses of Jackson, who spent most of that memorable season recuperating from a spinal fusion.
Jackson collects his overcoat and his bulging briefcase and Marty takes him to Horsefeathers, a dimly-lit restaurant and bar in Tarrytown named after one of the Marx Brothers' zaniest movies. The menu offered over 100 choices, including a "Knickerbocker burger," but Jackson settles on soup and a cob salad before fielding questions about several topics regarding him and the Knicks that have recently appeared in the news.
What's your reaction to Jerry Krause saying you took the Knicks job only for the money?
Jackson: "I heard about it but didn't read the article. But I do know this: If a writer goes searching for something like that from somebody like Jerry, he knows what he'll get. I've always tried to be positive about Jerry, and I really don't know what his point was. I mean, there were many factors that were much more important to me than money. What appealed to me the most were things like coming back to New York, staying involved with the game, facing a different kind of challenge and working with people I greatly respect."
Krause also said that you're kind of floundering in your new position.
Jackson: "All I can say is that I'm following the same script that Jerry followed after I left the Bulls. That is, basically clean house and look to rebuild around a top-notch draft pick. If you recall, Jerry had the first overall pick in 1999 and got Elton Brand, a good player but not a franchise player. I hope that I can do better."
Jackson: 'It was directed to my team and to NBA players in general. Every appearance on the court gives every player a chance to show his better self. By this I mean, a chance to demonstrate his team-oriented mindset. That's a league-wide problem. As for the Knicks, a lot of our players don't fully understand what we're doing on offense. By picking, cutting, moving without the ball, making appropriate passes, filling lanes and generally moving together in a certain rhythm, players should be focused on helping to create good shots for their teammates. They'll get their own shots as the offense unfolds. However, there are still too many players on the Knicks and all around the league who are overly concerned with their own individual goals. That's an attitude that we're intent on changing here."
In an interview in GQ, Kobe didn't have anything nice to say about you. In fact, he said that he disliked you. Your reaction?
Jackson: "Ah, my good friend Kobe Bryant. ... Yes, quite often I could feel his hatred. I'm sure Kobe was pissed when I wrote in "The Last Season" that he was uncoachable. And, yes, we were often at loggerheads. He wanted more freedom and I wanted him to be more disciplined. This is a normal source of friction thing between coaches and players on just about every level of competition. But when I came back for my second stint with the Lakers, Kobe and I worked it all out. I gave him more of a license to do his thing, as long as it stayed within the overall context of the triangle. And we did win two more championships. Anyway, I've always seen Kobe as a truly great player, an intelligent guy and a remarkable person."
A few weeks ago, you said that your experiment has been a failure. Then a few days ago you said that the team is right where you should be. How do explain that about-face?
Jackson: "At the beginning of the season, I hoped that we would at least be able to compete. But because of various injuries and guys who were resistant to our game plan, that hope never panned out. It was necessary, though, to give that hope a chance. Once we realized that it was not possible, that we were not moving forward in a positive direction, changes had to be made. Above all, we needed cap space and draft choices to start to right the ship. And we had to do everything right now simply because we don't have another first-round draft pick until , and no second-round picks until 2017. The various trades gave us what we needed -- cap space and future draft choices. In truth, this is our last chance for a while to build through the draft."
What about those trades? (In addition to dealing J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland, the Knicks also traded Pablo Prigioni to Houston for Alexey Shved and two second-round picks and waived Amar'e Stoudemire.)
Jackson: "We sat down with our scouts and made a list of players we'd be interested in, a list of who we could part with to get some of these players and what would be the ramifications of our own salary situation if we could get this guy or that guy or whomever. Then we contacted more than a dozen teams to see what might be done.
Which players did you focus on?
Jackson: "Goran Dragic, for one. I heard through the grapevine that he was open to coming here. We worked hard on that possibility, but the asking price was too dear. Maybe we worked on that possibility so much so that it distracted us. I mean, Dragic is every team's current choice for a nuclear option -- a guard who can penetrate and either score or kick. Guys like Chris Paul and James Harden. But, anyway, that's not really the way I want us to play."
Jackson: "We were also interested in guys like Enes Kanter, Arron Afflalo. ... Guys we thought could be good fits in our game plan. We weighed all of our options, but, obviously, none of those things came to be. Actually, no really serious discussions took place until about two, three hours before the trading deadline. It was all kind of chaotic and totally fascinating."
Why did you trade away Smith and Shumpert?
Jackson: "As I've mentioned before, J.R. was more interested in hunting for his own shots than in buying into the triangle. Plus, he has a player's option for next season that would limit our flexibility. As for Shumpert, mainly because of injuries, he'd take one step forward and two steps backward. And because of a salary 'hold' on his rookie contract, a CBA format that limits available money in free agency. In the end, we didn't have many other realistic options, and the dollar matchups made the deal work. Pablo wanted to go to a playoff team and at 37 he deserved the chance to have a positive chance at the end of his NBA career."
From what you've seen so far, how would you evaluate the two players you got in that deal?
Jackson: "I like them both. Louis Admunson knows how to play. He can do everything except shoot, and he's working hard on his offense. He really knows how to play the pro game -- when to help, when to rotate, when to pass and when not to pass. He plays terrific position defense and he's not afraid of anybody. He's listed as 6-foot-9, so he can get overmatched against bigger opponents. Beaten to the top of rebounds. But if he was two inches taller he'd be a great player."
And Lance Thomas?
Jackson: "I also like him. He only takes open shots, although his jumper looks like he has limited range. That's something we're working on. Thomas is smart and a good defender. These two are players that make a team better by their presence in practice, in the locker room and are gamers."
Yeah, I notice that he never bites on fakes.
Jackson: "That's from his time at Duke. Under Mike Krzyzewski, the program at Duke is to concentrate on fundamental skills. That's opposed to North Carolina, which has always relied on more athletic talent."
Are either, or both of these guys keepers?
Jackson: "That depends on who chases them when they become free agents this summer. And if we can sign them to salaries that works for us."
And Alexey Shved?
Jackson: "Obviously we've scouted him thoroughly. He's a legit 6-foot-7, and we think he can be a shooter and a playmaker. He's a tease, and we've basically rented him for two months, but the pair of future second-round draft picks in exchange is very important."
There are a couple of other teases on the team. Andrea Bargnani, for one. What's your evaluation of him?
Jackson: "Bargnani will be an unrestricted free agent and would be a great fit in the triangle. He's 7-foot-1 with long arms, high shoulders, loads of talent and is an intriguing player. One thing working against him is his history of injuries. Because of a variety of injuries, at this time he's still in a training-camp mode -- and he hasn't really played full-time in over a year. Another concern is whether he wants to continue his NBA career or go back home and play in Italy. I had a sitdown with him last December and got the impression that he'd rather stay here. I know that he likes living in New York, and I've heard through the grapevine that he'd be happy returning to the Knicks. He's a very intelligent guy who's made some very profitable business investments in Italy, so money might not be a big issue. Anyway, if we can agree on a payday that meets both of our needs, this is something that will be worth investigating."
And Langston Galloway?
Jackson: "We signed him to a non-guaranteed contract for next season, and he's projected as a combo 1-2 guard. After a terrific start when we called him up from the D-League, he's hit the wall and banged off it. But I still think he can be a productive player for us."
What are your impressions of some of the other key players on your team?
Jackson: "Jason Smith has really stepped up his game, and before he got hurt, so had Shane Larkin. Unfortunately, Shane hasn't grown any since the start of the season. Tim Hardaway still shows great potential but has been inconsistent. Jose Calderon expects perfection, and since our operation of the triangle -- while improving -- remains far from perfect, Jose gets frustrated. When that happens, he gets tight and makes mistakes. Overall, though, and more often than not, everybody plays hard."
In our previous discussions, you've targeted several free agents you'd be interested in when the season ends. What's your current thinking about that whole process?
Jackson: "It's tricky. The question is who to offer the big money to? A guy who's an established player or someone who has sky-high potential? Also, there are, and always have been, really good players who are not winners -- guys like Joe Barry Carroll, Glenn Robinson and many more whom I don't care to name. And then there's someone like Marc Gasol, who's certainly a winner and would have to be paid somewhere around $18 million, a number that would severely limit what we could offer other players. We'd wind up with starters only getting about $5 million. So there are endless ramifications to the salary cap situation, and rules within rules. Most of the details are not new to me since I've been dealing with them for about 10 years. However, some tweaks were made in the system when I was out of the NBA in 2011."
Some people say that you'll have trouble recruiting free agents to New York and some say the opposite. Your view?
Jackson: "One problem is the state and the city tax here. There are places like Texas and Florida that have none of these taxes. Even so, New York is still a big draw. Nothing can duplicate the lifestyle here. When it's time to talk to free agents that we'd like to sign, I'll talk about the benefits of living in the city, and about exactly how each player would fit into our game plan. What their roles would be in the triangle. There's no question in my mind that sooner rather than later, the Knicks will be winners. And nothing that happens in any professional sport can match winning in New York."
The trading season opens up again after the NBA Finals. Might you be active then?
Jackson: "There are exceptions that we picked up due to trades by players this season. This allows us to absorb a player into our salary cap trading a like player. A complicated term, but still a possible way to obtain a player. Another possibility is for us to accept a tempting offer made by another team. They'd offer to trade draft positions in exchange for us picking any one player on their current roster. Of course, this would totally depend on how the lottery works out."
How do you feel about how New York has reacted to this dismal season?
Jackson: "The fans have been great. They come to the Garden and cheer every good thing we do. The media has been really down on us, and on me in particular, but I understand that their job is to report on what's happening right now. As I've said before, the media can do and say whatever they please. It's easy for me to ignore them because I'm doing the job that I've been hired to do."
And that is?
Jackson:"To establish a way of playing basketball that will extend past my tenure here."