Commentary

Phil Jackson now on the other side

Hall of Fame coach's defining skills an odd fit in an executive role with Knicks

Updated: March 14, 2014, 6:59 PM ET
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Phil JacksonMatthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsPhil Jackson is back. But can the coach of 20 years have the same success away from the sidelines?

Phil Jackson's the one who first pointed out to me the inherent conflict between coaches and general managers. Coaches are trying to do everything they can to win right now, while general managers need to think about the franchise's future -- thus protecting their own. That's why it's so strange to see Jackson himself aligning with this side of the divide, taking a front-office position with a New York Knicks franchise that hasn't succeeded in the now or set itself up well for the future for the past 15 years.

There are two elements that fit Phil's pattern: The Knicks are in a big market, and they're paying him big money. That's the Jackson we saw in Chicago and especially the Jackson who cashed in on his success in Los Angeles with previously unprecedented pay levels. Oh, and contrary to the popular perception, Jackson doesn't only take jobs that are on the brink of winning a championship. The Lakers were coming off a 34-win season when he rejoined them in 2005.

If you reduce it to those base factors, the circumstances wouldn't seem so bizarre. It's when you reach the next layer and add the details that it's hard to see the fit.

Jackson's last boss was the best owner in pro sports, Jerry Buss. His new boss, James Dolan is ... not. As one NBA executive put it, "Phil and Dolan will not work. Like, never." And there's so much uncertainty about how detailed Jackson's involvement will be.

It's more critical that Jackson be involved than it would be for any other distant president, because so much of Jackson's achievements have to do with his personality. In January, while I was examining the reasons why Jackson's unparalleled achievements in the NBA has not spawned a Popovichian tree of successors throughout the league, Kobe Bryant provided this telling observation:

"Phil's philosophies are different, to say the least, in terms of how he teaches the game and how he coaches the game. There's some X's and O's to it, obviously. But he teaches players, he teaches guys how to play. He teaches from a place of Zen, he teaches from a place of emotional balance. And it's hard to duplicate that. It's hard to replicate that. It has to be something that's a part of you. His philosophies and beliefs, the meditation and all that, it's very, very hard to duplicate that.

"The system is predicated on the spirituality of the game. In terms of being in the moment and reacting to situations, balance. How [Jackson] teaches the system comes directly from his beliefs and his philosophies spiritually. That's why you see the teams that go out there and try to run it in the past, they don't have the same level of success."

In other words, it's not Jackson's system that works so well, it's him. So if Jackson isn't the one personally interacting with every potential draft pick or free agent, if he isn't the one making the daily phone calls around the league, then there's not much point in having him. And flying around the planet to scout the next up-and-coming teenager or schmoozing with other execs in the stands during summer league games in Las Vegas isn't really Jackson's thing.

And scratch the notion that Jackson's presence on the Knicks' staff masthead will attract players to New York. The NBA is filled with kids who grew up watching Jordan highlights and wearing his shoes, but you don't see them flocking to Charlotte because he owns the Bobcats.

So why bother spending so much money on Jackson?

For one thing, he's a walking Baskipedia. He was coached by two all-timers, Bill Fitch in college at North Dakota and Red Holzman with the Knicks. He played in the era of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. He's instructed Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, and had to find ways to beat the Bad Boy Pistons, Magic Johnson and Tim Duncan. He went clipboard to clipboard against Chuck Daly and Larry Brown and Pat Riley. There are so many experiences and perspectives he can share, no search engine necessary.

The story on Jackson isn't that he coached talented players, it's that he maximized talented players. The question is whether the Knicks are capable of doing the same with him.

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