With the New York Knicks and team president Phil Jackson parting ways, it’s hard to argue that the arrangement they had wasn’t working. But these are the Knicks, and as bad as the current regime is, I cannot help but think the next executive James Dolan hires will be even worse. If there’s any reason for fans to hope it’s that Jackson did not manage to trade Kristaps Porzingis before his tenure ended.
When Jackson took over the Knicks in 2014, it seemed like a good idea on the very surface, but if you did any digging at all, it was incredibly baffling. Sure, fellow championship-winning Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley made the transition from coach to executive with great success, but Jackson was 68 at the time, had never been a GM before, and was rooted in Los Angeles, engaged at the time to Lakers owner Jeanie Buss. From the Knicks’ perspective, yeah, the team had not won a championship since Jackson was still playing for them in 1973, and yeah, Jackson went on to win 11 titles as head coach of the Bulls and Lakers, but in an age when NBA GMs are constantly exploring new ways to make their teams better, through advanced metrics, sports science, and domestic and international scouting, they hired a 68 year old man with no front office experience who had been retired and was engaged to the owner of the Lakers. Only the Knicks could make hiring the Phil Jackson into a colossal mistake, but Jackson deserves just as much blame.
Jackson the executive proved to be even more arrogant than Jackson the coach. In an age when teams like the Warriors, Rockets, and Spurs are reinventing the game of basketball to great success, Jackson’s Knicks toiled in obscurity as Jackson stubbornly swore by the Triangle Offense, a system that peaked in popularity 20 years ago. While he won a lot of games with the Triangle over the years, I always thought it had more to do with the players on the court. Any system can be effective if you have Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen at one stop and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal (and later Pau Gasol) at the other. Changes come slow–it took nearly 30 years of the three point line’s existence for NBA teams to realize its full potential–but Jackson was so set in his ways he failed to acknowledge what good basketball was.
Jackson’s love of the Triangle was hardly his only sin. He alienated Carmelo Anthony, and trashed him so publicly it killed Melo’s trade value, making it impossible to find a worthy trade where the player would also waive his no-trade clause. His tenure was not a complete failure. Taking Latvian superstar in the making Kristaps Porzingis with the #4 overall pick was a great selection, and Porzingis has a bright future in the NBA. But just last week, Jackson was openly complaining to the press about how Porzingis skipped his exit interview, and that he was open to trading him. Fortunately for Knicks fans, Dolan stepped in before Jackson could do something foolish. He had already done enough. As if alienating Melo wasn’t enough, he was already doing everything in his power to make Porzingis hate playing in New York. Jackson’s handling of the Knicks’ star players makes me wonder about his reputation for getting complicated stars to play together as a coach. Was he really the Zen Master, or were Jordan and Pippen really that good? Shaq and Kobe probably really did hate each other (that’s too big a feud to fabricate, right?), but maybe rather than manipulating them and getting them to work together, perhaps they bonded over their mutual feelings on how much of an arrogant moron Jackson was. I have no evidence to back that up, particularly the Shaq and Kobe stuff, but Jackson’s time as president of the Knicks makes me think about it. I thought he would be bad at running the Knicks, but not this bad.
The real losers are not Jackson (he made $12 million annually with New York) or Dolan (he’s a billionaire). The fans of the New York Knicks deserve a real basketball team, and I say that as a Celtics fan. They are great fans in both quality and quantity, their team has iconic uniforms and an iconic arena in a city where players should want to play. It takes a particularly amazing level of incompetence to not get it together with so much going for them. Hopefully they turn it around, but I have my doubts about it actually happening.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article for another website about the parity, or lack thereof, in the NBA in comparison to the NFL, NHL, and MLB. My main point was that since 1980, only nine teams had won NBA Titles, less than a third of the franchises in the Association, which was fewer than any other sport. By comparison, there have been 19 different World Series Champions in baseball (and that number has not changed since I wrote that article, as the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants have already won in that span), 16 different Stanley Cup Champions in hockey (and that number will not change this year, as the Los Angeles Kings won their second Cup in 2014, and the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks, and Chicago Blackhawks have all won the Cup in the last 35 years), and 15 different Super Bowl Champions (but now it’s up to 16 after the Seattle Seahawks won their first Super Bowl in 2014). After I wrote that article, we got a sequel to the 2013 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, but with a very different result. In 2015, there is new blood in the NBA Finals, sort of.
As far as the television entertainment value is concerned, the 2015 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors is a refreshing change of pace purely for the fact that our eyeballs will be watching different colored jerseys in June. It’s also refreshing because we will finally have a new champion that does not come from the Basketball Establishment, the nine franchises that have owned the last 35 years collectively. I’m a lifelong Boston Celtics fan, and I’m more than okay with the Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, Dallas Mavericks, and Miami Heat all sitting this one out. In fact, of those teams, only the Moreyball Houston Rockets were the only ones to even make the Conference Finals. The Golden State Warriors have not won a championship or even been to The Finals since 1975. Rick Barry was their star player, Gerald Ford was President, and the world was still a few months away from Carlton Fisk’s legendary home run and the debut of Saturday Night Live. The Cleveland Cavaliers have never won a championship, and the city of Cleveland has not won a title in any of the four major sports since 1964, when the Cleveland Browns won the NFL Championship in the Pre-Super Bowl Era. The state of Ohio has not won a championship in a major professional sport since the Cincinnati Reds won the 1990 World Series. These are two title-starved fanbases.
Despite the new blood in the 2015 Finals, the DNA of the two teams that competed in 2013 and 2014 are clearly smeared all over this year’s championship series. The obvious example is LeBron James. Early in his career, LeBron made it to one NBA Finals in 2007 with the Cavs, but they did not belong in the same league as that San Antonio Spurs team. After ripping the still beating heart out of the city of Cleveland in the summer of 2010, LeBron went to the NBA Finals four straight years with the Miami Heat, after joining forces with Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Pat Riley. The level of competition in the Eastern Conference declined so greatly in that time due to the Celtics getting old (then getting very young), the Bulls and Pacers being cursed with devastating injuries, and teams like the Knicks, Nets, and Pistons being unable to get out of their own way in rebuilding attempts, Cleveland turned into the instant favorite to win the East despite missing the playoffs each of the four years LeBron was in South Beach when they re-signed him last summer.
Much the way the Cavaliers are a replica of the 2010-14 Heat, the Warriors emulate the San Antonio Spurs. Their game is predicated on depth, defense, and ball movement (they should look into getting that trademarked), and their head coach, Steve Kerr is a disciple of Gregg Popovich, having played for San Antonio in the early 2000s. Last summer, Kerr was the most coveted head coaching candidate despite having never coached before, and it’s clear why now. He ultimately chose the Warriors over the New York Knicks, and that looks like a no-brainer in hindsight as well. The Knicks, with Phil Jackson (an all time great coach, but a rookie executive who will turn 70 in September) running the team from the other side of the country where he lives with his fiance, who happens to be the owner of the Lakers, instead hired Derek Fisher, who like Kerr, has no coaching experience, but unlike Kerr, was playing in the Western Conference Finals for Oklahoma City this time last year and has not had the time to get proper perspective. New York was awful this year, but lost in the lottery, much the way Golden State did years ago in the first modern draft lottery when the Knicks came away with some guy named Patrick Ewing. This time, Golden State won the Steve Kerr lottery and are playing for their first NBA Title in 40 years, while New York is left with bad contracts and the dilemma of what to do with the 4th overall pick in the draft. Clearly, Kerr went to the Harrison Ford School of Choosing rather than the rival decision execution educational institution named for Julian Glover.
This Cleveland team has the same flaw every LeBron James team outside of the 2012 and 2013 Heat teams and the 2008 and 2012 USA Olympic teams has had: what is Plan B when LeBron is hurt/tired/effectively guarded? Sure, there’s Kyrie Irving, who can provide a ton of offense all by himself, but when playing against more balanced rosters that can distribute and contribute from three or four positions at any time, LeBron feels like he has to do everything himself. Kyrie Irving isn’t Dwayne Wade, and he isn’t Chris Bosh. Kevin Love was supposed to be in the picture as a third star, and they traded a budding superstar in Andrew Wiggins to get him, but Love got hurt in Game 4 of the first playoff round against the Celtics. With Love potentially leaving in free agency this summer, this has the potential to be one of those moves that really hurts in the long run. Much like when the Detroit Pistons took Darko Milicic with the 2nd pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, even if you win it all this year, with or without him, it’s hard to shake the feelings of what might have been had you not left someone like Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, or Dwayne Wade on the table. At least they have LeBron.
Last year’s NBA Finals started off competitive, but after LeBron cramped up in the first game, the Spurs took more and more control of the series, and the Heat limped their way through five games, physically and mentally drained from by the smart, unselfish dominance of the Spurs. Team basketball has been LeBron’s Kryptonite his whole career. I know that sounds harsh, but a big part of it is because he’s very rarely had a good team around him. He was drafted by Cleveland, a franchise with a very limited history of basketball success before his arrival in 2003. He didn’t grow up in a basketball culture like the Celtics or Spurs where there were other young stars that could be considered peers, so he was used to having to do everything himself. It wasn’t until his Miami stint when he had Wade and Bosh to play with that he ever had anything like “Big Three” to be a part of. In 2014, Wade and Bosh appeared to have lost a step, and once again it was LeBron vs. The World. That was good enough to get out of the flawed Eastern Conference, where their stiffest competition was an Indiana Pacers team on the verge of losing Lance Stephenson in free agency and struggling to find a consistent identity on the court, but reality hit when he ran into the Beautiful Game that is San Antonio Spurs basketball. The way to beat a team that has the best player on the planet, is by having five guys who can pass, who can play defense, and who can make each other better. San Antonio game LeBron more than he could handle in 2007, then it was the New Big Three Era Celtics and Stan Van Gundy’s Orlando Magic that gave him fits to the point where he left his native Ohio to join forces with two other All-Stars in the prime of his career. Even his first year in Miami, the Dallas Mavericks, a team of aging veterans, outworked the Heat on the floor while Rick Carlisle coached circles around Erik Spoelstra. In 2012 and 2013, LeBron was just that good. No team could beat him. The Spurs came the closest, but LeBron was the best whenever the Heat needed him to be those years. In 2014, it looked once again like LeBron didn’t have a team in Miami worthy of his greatness, and he went back home.
There are superstars who do it all themselves because they have to, and superstars who do it all themselves because they are selfish. It’s not always easy to see the difference. In hindsight, it’s fair to say that Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing never had teammates on the level of Scottie Pippin, James Worthy, Kevin McHale, or Robert Parish. Michael Jordan had Pippin, and Kobe Bryant had Shaq (and later Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum), but they still wanted to be the ones being the heroes in the end, and often that was the right call for the team. It’s unclear which camp LeBron truly belongs in, but I would like to see if he’s capable of becoming the third kind of superstar: the one who makes everyone around him better. This is the most intriguing kind of player to me, as an observer. Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Steve Nash, and Tim Duncan are the purest examples. They all played with more Hall of Famers than the selfish superstars because they made their teammates, who were good players, into Hall of Famers by winning as much as they did. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett made each other better when they joined forces in Boston, and now they’re working to make young players like John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Andrew Wiggins better with their new teams. Could LeBron join forces with another player and make themselves better? It’s hard to improve on what LeBron can do by himself, but it would be interesting to see if he ever had a teammate who could go toe-to-toe with him both athletically and intellectually.
The Golden State Warriors are built around one of these unselfish superstars. Stephen Curry is one of my favorite players in the game right now, and I’m glad to see he’s finally reaching the level I thought he could. When the Warriors picked him in 2009, he looked more like someone who should be going to his 8th grade graduation than someone getting selected in the NBA Draft, which may have been why Hasheem Thabeet, Ricky Rubio, and Jonny Flynn were drafted ahead of him (seriously, the Minnesota Timberwolves had the 5th and 6th picks in that draft, they used them both on point guards, and neither one was Steph Curry) despite being the leading scorer in college basketball that year, but he might be the best player to come out of that draft (I’ve joked about the busts, but that was also the draft where Blake Griffin went 1st and James Harden went 3rd, so it wasn’t all bad) when it’s all said and done. He’s the best shooter in the NBA, and his running of the Golden State offense makes Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes better players than they would be by themselves. Steve Nash would be proud. The NBA wasn’t quite ready for this kind of team when he was in his prime and turned the Phoenix Suns into this kind of team, but the season Curry has had is validation of Nash’s style.
Golden State is a joy to watch, and LeBron James is amazing to watch by himself. He’s now in The Finals for the fifth straight year, and the same question lingers: can he be better by himself than the best team in the NBA? If he can, then Cleveland will have won something for the first time since the Johnson Administration. If not, it is a victory for team basketball, a victory for the legacy of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, a victory for up-tempo jump shooting philosophies, and a victory for a passionate and dedicated group of basketball fans who have not had much to cheer about in a long time.It should be fun, and it should be different from what we’ve seen the last few years, but not as different as you’d think.