Commentary

Phil next best thing to Dolan selling

While Knicks owner is here to stay, Phil Jackson may magically make Dolan go away

Updated: March 18, 2014, 12:16 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

If the long-term plan of your average New York Knicks fan is to wait for James Dolan to sell, he or she should get a new long-term plan. Just like the bogeyman lurking under a child's bed, Dolan is never going away.

He will live to be 110. No, make that 120. He will run the Knicks (into the ground) until his last breath, and he will forever hold high his draconian policy on public comment (or lack thereof) as if it were the Larry O'Brien Trophy itself.

So in lieu of Dolan cashing out, Knicks fans need an option that inspires a little hope and allows for a little sanity. Phil Jackson is that option. He won't buy the Knicks, but he will effectively rent them for about five years and reduce Dolan to something of an invisible landlord -- at least most of the time. And right now, that's the best deal a season-ticket holder is going to get.

A ton has been said and written about the bloody endgame that awaits Jackson and Dolan, and rightfully so. There's a better chance of the Knicks making the playoffs, and beating Indiana and Miami once there, than there is of the reported president of basketball operations-to-be and the owner living happily ever after between Seventh Avenue and Eighth.

[+] EnlargeJames Dolan
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsKnicks fans may see and hear even less from James Dolan with Phil Jackson running the front office.

Only it didn't just end terribly for the high-profile recruits out of Madison Square Garden's past, the Larry Browns and Isiah Thomases and, to a lesser degree, the Donnie Walshes and Mike D'Antonis. The practically faceless Glen Grunwald got run over too. If everyone leaves the Garden damaged, hey, it's better to have a highly successful basketball figure in place, racing to get to the trophy stand and ticker-tape parade before the program goes up in flames.

Jackson, a pompous gym teacher, isn't the agreeable type. He made enemies of general managers Jerry West and Jerry Krause in Los Angeles and Chicago, and he also called Kobe Bryant uncoachable.

If Jackson thinks Bryant is uncoachable, wait until he starts diagramming things for Dolan.

But here's the payoff for Knicks fans of a certain age who haven't seen a title since Jackson averaged eight points and four rebounds off Red Holzman's bench in 1973: Of all the available candidates out there to take control of the front office, Jackson is the most likely -- by a country mile -- to make Dolan disappear 85-90 percent of the time. His 11 rings as a coach might just perform that kind of magic.

No, the owner didn't honor the autonomy over personnel he once promised Walsh. Of course, Walsh arrived in New York, his hometown, with 11 fewer rings than Jackson has. Thomas was once granted control of basketball decisions, but after Jackson rejected his offer to coach the Knicks, Isiah preferred hiring either P.J. Carlesimo or Bill Laimbeer over Larry Brown. The suckers who hand-delivered Brown to Dolan authored a 23-59 disaster and started a war between coach and owner that cost Brown a piece of his dignity and Dolan a cool $18.5 million.

Way back when, Thomas admitted that he knew he couldn't last for long with Brown, and that they would someday turn on each other and fight to the organizational death. Isiah figured if they could win a title together first, just like the warring Mike Keenan and Neil Smith had won the Stanley Cup for the Rangers, it would be worth it (they didn't, and it wasn't).

The same holds true here for Jackson and Dolan. Nobody will care about the winners and losers in the power struggle certain to come if the Knicks win a championship before it all goes down.

Can the Zen Master succeed where his predecessors failed and keep Dolan in his seat, under the Eighth Avenue basket, and out of the room where free agents are debated and trades are made? Can Jackson maneuver around his employer's multilayered relationships with Creative Artists Agency? Can he persuade Dolan to let him decide what to say to the news media, and when to say it?

Some longtime NBA officials who have done business with Dolan and Jackson think the answer is no, and pointed to the Knicks' current president and GM, Steve Mills, as evidence why. "If Dolan is insisting that Phil keep Steve on the basketball side, he's already handicapping him," said one. "Nobody else in the league would've hired Steve as a GM, because he doesn't have the experience doing it. So in basketball circles, Phil Jackson and Steve Mills as a team makes no sense. That's a two-plus-two that doesn't equal four."

Another issue, and perhaps a more pressing one, is whether Jackson will commit to running the franchise from New York, and not from a ranch or beach of his choosing on the other side of the country. Assuming Jackson spends the time this rebuilding job requires in the big city he proclaims to love, his biggest decisions -- beyond re-signing or not re-signing Carmelo Anthony in July -- would involve a potential new GM and a potential replacement for Mike Woodson. Steve Kerr is out there as the next coach, but, like Jackson, he would be a novice in his role.

"That's why Steve Kerr really should be Phil's general manager," the longtime NBA official said of the former Suns GM.

Whoever ends up as Jackson's primary personnel lieutenant, doing his dirty work, that won't stop Phil from ultimately going toe to toe with Dolan. Maybe they won't quarrel over Melo. Maybe their first blowup won't be seen and heard throughout the Garden until the trade deadline of 2017. Either way, it's going to happen. You know what they say, right?

You can't stop Dolan; you can only hope to contain him.

Yet this much is already true: Above all other coaches and executives, Jackson has the best shot at containing Dolan. Again, assuming he doesn't plan on this being a long-distance relationship with the Knicks, the greatest coach in NBA history is the one with the best chance to temper all of Dolan's Dolan-ness, and to render future fan protests unnecessary.

The reprieve won't last long, however. Jackson is 68, 10 years older than Dolan, and four or five seasons without Jordan and Pippen, or without Kobe and Shaq, could end up feeling like 15. Soon enough a bone-tired Jackson will be out the Garden door. Chances are, there will be no parade before he hands back the keys to an owner who will do it his way all over again.

But that doesn't mean Knicks fans shouldn't allow themselves to feel good about this. If James Dolan will never, ever sell the franchise, renting it to Phil Jackson for a while is the next best thing.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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