Phil Jackson is the Winston Churchill of the NBA. He won the biggest wars with a combination of old-school toughness and new-school guile.
Victory in hand, the dominant equation for both became: Big mouth + bigger ego = the verbal victory lap. Any quote book is loaded with Churchill’s high-testosterone patter. Jackson’s latest book, ostensibly about teamwork, has a title that has only to do with Jackson. Michael Jordan didn't win "Eleven Rings." Neither did Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal or Scottie Pippen. Only Phil did.
Jackson is expected to return to the NBA, as a New York Knicks executive, packing not just a lot of the NBA’s gravitas, but the majority of it. Add up all your other coaches, players and experts. If Phil says they’re full of it ... his voice is even money to carry the day.
That has to be a big part of why Jackson could mean so much to a team like the Knicks. The common denominator of their dominant commonness has been bad front-office decision-making, specifically one high-profile overspend after another. There's no arguing James Dolan is an owner without a clue, determined to bludgeon the competition not with his insight, but with his wallet -- a method that, for a bundle of league-wide cap reasons, always makes teams difficult to improve and almost never ends in titles.
If Jackson arrives in New York packing the stature to silence the Knicks’ most foolish impulses, he’ll be a titan. Dolan’s piles of gold -- as a businessman, Dolan is no laughingstock; the Knicks make money -- would be so much shinier with the polish of wisdom.
The Knicks might already be the world’s most over-loved team. New York hoops fans, those hopeless romantics, have been dashing their hearts on the rocks of false optimism since the days of Patrick Ewing. Remember when Zach Randolph was the revolution? Amar’e Stoudemire? Carmelo Anthony?
Time and again, Dolan has gotten his man. Time and again, like Charlie Brown, the fans have believed. Time and again, the only thing needed to prove Dolan got the wrong man has been time.
Will this time be different?
I’m convinced the answer is no, and not because Jackson’s the wrong guy, but because this is the wrong time.
It’s too late. The league is changing too fast, learning too much, and Jackson, for all the open-mindedness that once led him to the novel and wonderful triangle offense, has been telegraphing his incuriousness for more than a decade.
This is not just basketball’s boom time for analytics, it’s also, as Nate Silver wrote recently in ESPN The Magazine, when analytics become basketball necessities, as opposed to niceties. From the stew of SportVu, Catapult and Vantage comes things that really matter: which pick-and-roll defenses stops which ball handlers, which offenses generate the best-quality looks, who plays good defense, the right number of hours to sleep before a big game and, increasingly, which players need to come out of the game right now before their fatigue-induced injury risk skyrockets.
It’s not that any one person knows ALL the right answers. It’s that no ONE person knows all the right answers. Much of this new stuff will prove to science bunk, but the best of it is exponentially better by the day. The only right answer is to be curious.
And at that, the league has passed Jackson by. All his books, all those interviews, all that insight into his thinking, and has he ever even once told of finding value in insight from a younger generation? Or, indeed, from anyone beyond his chosen short list of apostles?
Jackson spoke at this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. As he did, I took notes, but I soon stopped. There was no point. Other than a rude joke about needing a “grain elevator” to weigh Shaq, these were all things told previously. The oft-recited Gospel According to St. Phil. His conversation was a museum piece, the recurring soup of the words “Michael Jordan,” “Kobe Bryant” and “Scottie Pippen” that Jackson has been ladling out forever.
More importantly, Jackson was not at Sloan to learn. Never has been. Tuning people out, and discrediting them even, is also a mainstay of Jackson’s game -- just ask Jerry West, or Jerry Krause.
Jackson’s Lakers never bothered to attend the stat-geek confab, and the Lakers were famously the only NBA team not to have a representative there last year. Jackson’s generic public take on basketball innovation has long been, essentially, that Red Holzman and Tex Winter knew all that stuff.
At Sloan, Jackson bragged of once playing O’Neal 48 minutes per game -- on the same day sport scientist Michael Regan, of Catapult Sports, explained how resting after stints of just eight minutes dramatically improved performance in Australian Rules Football, a league that’s enjoying massive injury reductions league-wide thanks to science-based things we've learned only in the past decade.
It’s not that Jackson can’t make the Knicks winners. He might. Indeed, as the argument goes, at least he has won, unlike everyone else in the building. But he’s sending all the wrong signals if the task is to outclass 29 other teams in a race starting in 2014. That prize will, almost certainly, go to whoever best masters new ideas, about which Phil says, basically: Who needs ‘em?
The cautionary tale here of course is in Charlotte. Michael Jordan also filled the staff with like-minded friends. But, of course, a great executive is far more than a great player who lost his spring or a great coach who tired of travel. Without piling one good decision on top of another, the team is lost. The Bobcats did everything Jordan’s way for a while, until the competitive forces humbled even Jordan, who now listens not just to his gut and his friends, but also to people such as new executive Rich Cho, who is effectively the team’s ambassador from the post-Jordan, Sloan-infused world of hoops insight.
Jackson and the Knicks aren't playing the exact same tune as MJ and the Bobcats -- they have deeper pockets and more intricate team-building experience -- but they’re sounding a lot of the same notes.