Commentary

Phil and Melo's Dolan problem

Phil Jackson succeeds with the Knicks only if James Dolan gets out and stays out

Updated: March 17, 2014, 6:09 PM ET
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPNNewYork.com

Before New York Knicks fans get themselves all up in a tizzy just because Phil Jackson is coming to town, they would be wise to check the fine print, scour the particulars and triple-check exactly what stipulations owner James Dolan has insisted upon. Because, chances are, the Knicks' billionaire chairman didn't institute real change. In fact, I believe he plans on keeping things just the way they have been.

Which means Jackson will primarily serve as a figurehead -- a prop -- to fend off the media. Which means Carmelo Anthony will see right through it all and leave the team this summer. Which means that no real marquee free agent will want to come to Madison Square Garden, unless it's only for the money.

Oops, I forgot -- Hello, Mr. Phil Jackson. How ya doing? Question: Why, exactly, did you take this job?

To be fair, no aspersions should be cast against a man with 11 championship rings and two more as a player with the Knicks in 1970 and 1973. Show me the fool who'd turn down a $12 million per-year deal to run a franchise, and we'll have learned what a new fool looks like.

But while there's no justifiable reason to debate why Jackson took the money, there's plenty of reason to debate exactly what kind of job he's taking. Because for the little that anyone knows about Jackson's capabilities as an executive, there's plenty of material to gauge Dolan's qualifications as a steward of a franchise.

Remember, Dolan initially sent Knicks then-president Steve Mills out west to talk to Jackson before heading there himself, according to sources. It was also Dolan who insisted that Mills stay on board in the Knicks' executive branch, probably as general manager.

It is Dolan who still stands alone in the NBA for instituting a dogged media policy, insisting on having coaches escorted by a publicist everywhere. He's the owner who still insists that coaches speak solely when he allows them to, considering it a fireable offense if they elect to do otherwise (case in point: Larry Brown). And he's the same owner who hired Mills as president nine months ago, but hasn't allowed him to speak in public for roughly the last seven months. Yet he's also one, according to numerous sources, who attends almost every practice.

In Dolan's world, you don't speak until you've mastered the art of saying nothing. You harbor no responsibility to the viewing or paying public at all.

Ask around and what you hear includes stories of coaches huddled in the same offices, no separate ones. You hear of players and coaches whispering with one another, petrified that their phones, offices or lockers are bugged, or that their emails are being checked.

The Knicks categorically deny such things, of course. But that means they've heard the stories, are aware of the paranoia and could care less. At least until now.

Can Jackson really eliminate this toxic atmosphere? One famous former player believes he just might be able to.

"Phil can do some good things with them because he's gifted," Michael Jordan told me on Monday. "Phil is fantastic at managing egos and personalities, getting everyone on the same page and maxing out whatever potential is there for what should be the common and ultimate goal. Just because he's never been an executive before doesn't mean he can't do that. He's wanted to do it for a while now and I know he can do it ... so long as he has the necessary pieces in place."

The thing is, those "pieces" Jordan was alluding to strictly pertained to the roster Jackson is able to piece together. Jordan's comments had nothing to do with Dolan or the environment at Madison Square Garden -- what some describe as the real issue that has contaminated this franchise for years, and threatens to continue to do so.

As of Monday morning, three sources familiar with Melo's thinking -- while conceding there's an outside chance he'll stay with the Knicks for the extra $33.4 million they could give him -- believe it's likely he'll be gone.

They said Melo is not about to endure another season of this ineptitude. That his faith in the Knicks' organization has waned considerably. But also that he's looking at his own basketball mortality and asking himself, "How much time will I really have left in my career if I stick around for this?"

If you're Phil Jackson, you will understand this line of thinking. And while Melo called Jackson's arrival a "power move," that only applies if Jackson can actively change the culture -- by, say, coaching the Knicks, which Jackson is not committed to doing.

Assuming Jackson can't do enough to stop Melo from leaving, Jackson's name will be attached to his star's departure. His cachet/influence will be questioned. Perhaps, worst of all, it will fall in line with what Dolan really wanted all along:

Somebody to blame for the Knicks' pathetic state of affairs other than himself.

"Phil is great," Jordan said. "He's very smart. He'll figure out pretty quickly what needs to get done and he'll have plenty of guys in the league willing to help him, myself included. The only problem is, none of us will be willing to give up great players or draft picks to do that. That's the part of the job all of us have found pretty difficult, me included. But I wish him luck. I believe in him and I'm confident anything he does will work eventually."

But only if James Dolan doesn't get in the way.

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, a co-host on First Take" and a regular on "SportsCenter."

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