Commentary

Dolan's desperation fuels Phil chase

Keeping Melo weighs heavily on Knicks owner as he pursues Zen Master

Updated: March 13, 2014, 7:37 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

Phil Jackson may turn out to be a dazzling combination of Jerry West, Pat Riley and the great Red Auerbach in his first try as a full-time front-office executive if he does finally agree to come to the Knicks.

[+] EnlargeJames Dolan, Carmelo Anthony
AP Photo/Kathy WillensJames Dolan wants Carmelo Anthony back this summer and seems to believe Phil Jackson can help him accomplish that.

Yet it's impossible to ignore that the team's pursuit of Jackson looks like a desperate act by a desperate man, Knicks owner James Dolan, that's meant, first and foremost, to keep Carmelo Anthony from abandoning the franchise this summer. It's more about the short term and Melo. If Jackson -- now 68 and admittedly too weary to travel much -- is able to fumigate the Knicks' organization of its worst traits and bring back the glory days of his legendary coach Red Holzman, it's easy to imagine Dolan saying well, hell, a long-term fix would be great too.

It's just hard not to notice that Dolan's first imperative has to be preventing Anthony from leaving New York. Or that this latest grand gesture of Dolan's has so far looked like an arrow that went flying by his intended target like so many others have.

Anthony, perceptive man that he is, has reacted to news that Jackson may be coming by essentially saying, "Eh."

After paying homage to Jackson's 11 rings as a coach before the Knicks' game in Boston on Wednesday night, Anthony added it won't affect his thinking on whether he will leave the Knicks as a free agent.

All that lovey-dovey talk Anthony arrived in New York spouting is long gone. In its place is the same coolness toward wasting his prime with the perennially mismanaged Knicks organization that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and a handful of other superstars showed before him.

The difference? All those stars wisely refused to commit to even one three-year test drive with the Knicks the way Anthony did.

Now he's on the verge of missing the postseason for the first time in his career despite having a terrific season. And there are persistent rumors that he's already decided to leave despite the extra $30 million the Knicks can pay him. A more hopeful theory is, at best, that he may agree to stay for one more year.

The other clue that betrays Dolan's desperation is the curious timing of chasing Jackson now, with mere weeks left in a lost-looking season.

Wait -- you don't think it's a coincidence the Jackson chase has coincided with the rise of the Brooklyn Nets, one of the NBA's hottest teams since January?

Or that while Knicks coach Mike Woodson is a dead man walking, the Nets' Jason Kidd has emerged as a viable candidate for coach of the year?

Or that Nets executive Billy King was able to add a useful piece to the team at the trade deadline, prying guard Marcus Thornton away from the Kings while the Knicks did nothing to help Anthony -- not at the trade deadline, and not last summer, when someone in the lead underground bunker where Dolan locks his front-office types away thought it was a good idea to re-sign J.R. Smith and trade for underachiever Andrea Bargnani.

Now Bargnani's contract, like Amar'e Stoudemire's, suddenly can't expire soon enough. Immediately after the trade deadline passed, the Knicks were back to trying to sell sugarplum versions of "Someday" yet again, same as they did in the Summer of LeBron.

The organization is now raving that the salary-cap room they should have in the summer of 2015 will allow them to grab some meaningful free agents. Some fans have angrily responded by saying, Yeah, well, we've heard that before. They've scheduled a gathering outside Madison Square Garden on March 19 to protest the team's ineptness under Dolan.

It hasn't been canceled despite the news about Jackson.

The problem, of course, is Phil can't play, and by all accounts, he's not interested in coaching anymore either. But the Knicks need both a better roster and a replacement for Woodson. They're also short on first-round draft picks.

Jackson knows all that.

He's clearly exploiting Dolan's desperation.

The lag in the official announcement that Jackson has come on board has created speculation that he either is trying to leverage the Knicks' interest into a return to the Lakers -- which Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant have actively lobbied for via Twitter -- or is quibbling with Dolan behind the scenes over the precise details of their working relationship, such as thou shalt not muzzle Big Chief Triangle or, say, tail him with Garden spies to the same point that made Larry Brown, another Hall of Fame coach, feel so tormented.

Brown used to hold impromptu talks with reporters by the side of the road just a few hundred yards from the Knicks' practice facility in his final days. Then he wanted out of Dolan's gulag so badly that he took a settlement that left tens of millions of contract dollars on the table.

There are now rumors Dolan may give Jackson a fractional ownership slice of the team, not just an annual salary that sails past $15 million.

Desperate. Like I said.

If Jackson is thinking ahead, he'll tell Dolan that if he comes Dolan has to be willing to blow by the luxury-tax threshold the way his crosstown rival, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, has to get a quick fix.

But what if Jackson finds there's no Carmelo when he arrives?

For the first time in his career, Jackson would be on a team without one, let alone two or three, of the NBA's best players. With the roster the Knicks have, nobody is going to confuse Jackson's club with Holzman's great teams any time soon. The Knicks will still be desperate for a savior, especially if Jackson's arrival and all the nostalgia mongering in the world isn't enough to convince Melo not to go.

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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