Commentary

Blame Phil if this move fails

Jackson won't have Dolan to dump on should he fall short as Knicks president

Updated: March 18, 2014, 5:51 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Phil Jackson said that he does not fear the consequences of failure in his new job, that he sees nothing but opportunity in a New York Knicks franchise that leads the league in squandering it. But in reality, Jackson should be afraid. Very, very afraid.

The president of the Knicks needs to understand something up front: He's not going to pocket $60 million over five years, leave the Knicks more or less as he found them and then blind the fans with the reflection off his 11 rings won in Chicago and Los Angeles while blaming the easiest of targets, James Dolan, in yet another of his books, this one titled "Sacred Oops."

No, he's not making that kind of escape from New York. Fans and news media members have been dumping on Dolan for so long, and rightfully so, that this tired game needs a new player. And Tuesday morning, when it was lights, camera, Jackson at Madison Square Garden, that player was a lot more conspicuous than he ever was as a moderately useful reserve on Red Holzman's bench.

Ending a championship drought dating back to Holzman, Jackson said, would be "a capstone on a remarkable career that I've had."

There's no arguing that. If Jackson the executive can do what Pat Riley the coach could not -- win it all in New York -- he would belong on the lead float in the parade and would likely go down as the most beloved sporting figure in these parts since Joe Torre.

Only if it goes the other way, if Jackson fails to build the kind of team Red Auerbach always said he'd never built, his legacy will take a direct and lasting hit. Suddenly Jackson's endgame would look just like the Knicks' roster looked to him from afar -- clumsy.

Autonomy? "Jim knew I wouldn't come without it," Jackson said.

Abdication? "Willingly and gratefully, yeah," Dolan said.

The beleaguered owner has made these pledges before, most recently to Donnie Walsh, the executive who didn't want to do the Carmelo Anthony deal with Denver that Dolan made him do. Who knows what Steve Mills was promised before he was brought back to the Garden for a six-month term that sort of ended Tuesday, when Mills lost his senior title and was left to join his bosses on a stage with a mike in his hand and no questions to field.

But this much is clear: Jackson has been given more power than Mills, Walsh and even Isiah Thomas before them.

[+] EnlargePhil Jackson
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesPhil Jackson was presented as the Knicks' new president on Tuesday.

"I am by no means an expert in basketball," Dolan said in a rare admission during a rarer meeting with the press. The owner would go on to say that he is "a little out of my element when it comes to the team," and that he's felt obliged in the past to do more meddling than he's wanted to do.

Even if that is a laughable claim, Dolan was doing everything he could to distance himself from the potential disaster to come.

"Phil will be in charge of all basketball decisions," he said.

Yes he will. And man, does he have some basketball decisions to make.

For starters, Jackson committed to Anthony and the attempt to re-sign him in July, though he didn't sound overly enthused about the prospect of Melo lining up with the ball-sharing principles of the triangle. Jackson sounded less enthused about the prospect of Mike Woodson returning, so barring a miracle run to the No. 8 seed and an upset of Indiana or Miami in the playoffs, the Knicks' president will be hiring a new coach this summer, too.

The real work will begin in 2015, when Jackson will have a first-round draft choice and, via the expiring contracts of Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani, some free-agent money to burn. Dolan didn't have a closer in the summer of 2010, when Riley threw down his championship rings in front of LeBron James and landed the dynasty-maker for Miami. In Jackson, Dolan believes he just hired Mariano Rivera.

So the Knicks need James to opt in for another season in Miami and then to opt out in 2015, when Jackson can show him more rings than Riley ever could. If that long shot doesn't come in, the Knicks will need Kevin Durant and Jay-Z to embrace Zen philosophy, and a pay cut, in 2016.

Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo and LaMarcus Aldridge are very good players, but they won't elevate Anthony to a title. The league will be dominated by James and Durant over the next four or five seasons, and if Jackson can't land one of them, somehow, some way, then odds are he will fail.

"There are very few accidental championships in the NBA," Jackson said.

That's why he won six with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, three with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal and two with Bryant and Pau Gasol. When the likes of Smush Parker were part of his starting five in Los Angeles, Jackson won 45 and 42 games in back-to-back seasons and twice lost in the opening round of the playoffs.

Nobody said this was going to be easy. But then again, Jackson is being paid $12 million a pop for a reason. Long before Riley found Dwyane Wade a partner in LeBron, he persuaded his former team, the Lakers, to give him Shaq and, ultimately, Miami's first title.

Jackson has to make a move of equal significance, and nothing less will do. If Anthony is to be a member of a championship team in New York, triangle or no triangle, he'll be the second best player on it.

All in all, this is a massive undertaking for a 68-year-old man who counted up to five recent surgeries on his knees and hips. More alarming than Jackson's health, if you're a Knicks fan, was his stated love for his beachfront home and weather in California, where he has a fiancée, children and grandchildren.

"So there will be still ties there," he said, "but [New York] is where I'll establish myself."

Jackson has to establish himself here, almost 24/7, for his Knicks to have any shot at making this work.

Dolan figures he has nothing to lose, anyway, other than his money. He said he began talking to Jackson at a December party thrown by music mogul Irving Azoff, and soon enough this most unlikely pairing was agreeing to bring a piece of March Madness to the Garden.

"Thank you, Irving," Dolan said to Azoff, seated to his news-conference right. "If this doesn't go well, we'll blame you."

Actually, we'll blame Phil Jackson instead. Carmelo Anthony called his hiring a "power move," but now it's all on the new president of the New York Knicks, Red Holzman's old forward, to make some power moves of his own. Or else.

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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