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.
He’s back. Rajon Rondo played in his first NBA game in about a year on Friday in the Boston Celtics’ home loss to their age old nemesis, Los Angeles Lakers. Before the game Rondo was announced as the team captain, just the fifteenth in franchise history and taking over after Paul Pierce, who had been at least co-captain since 2000, was traded to the Brooklyn Nets in June of 2013. With this great responsibility will come great expectations. The list of Celtics captains includes Hall of Famers Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Dominique Wilkins (though The Human Highlight Film only played one season in Boston and is in the Hall mostly for what he did as a member of the Atlanta Hawks), as well as a future Hall of Famer and the most popular Celtic since I’ve been following the basketball in Pierce. Rondo has some big shoes to fill, a lot of people to prove wrong, and a legacy of winning to uphold.
I would imagine that naming him captain takes him off the trade block, but the last two Celtics captains, Pierce and Antoine Walker both had their Celtics tenures end by getting traded (in fact, Walker was traded away twice). This shows that the Celtics are committed to building around Rondo, but it’s up to Rondo to be a foundation worth building around. Rondo’s strength as a player is his ability to get the ball to the open man, and make the guys around him better if he has his head in the game. With Pierce and Kevin Garnett down in Brooklyn, Rondo is the longest tenured Celtic and the last holdover from the 2008 team that took the basketball world by storm and beat the Lakers in six games to clinch the franchises 17th championship banner. His intensity can rub people the wrong way, including former Celtics head coach Doc Rivers and veteran superstar teammates like Ray Allen (and Pierce and KG to a lesser extent). By all accounts, he has bought into Brad Stevens’ system and admires his cerebral young coach. Perhaps they are a perfect match. Perhaps they “get” each other in a way that can transform Rondo from the guy I wanted out of town last year before he hurt his knee to the kind of guy who can lead a championship team. Stranger things have happened. Kobe Bryant is every but as abrasive as Rondo, but he’s also the kind of guy who will stand by his teammates as long as they’re giving it an honest effort, and he has five championship rings and two Finals MVPs to show for it. Kobe even offered up the comparison to himself when asked about Rondo having to weather a franchise rebuild. I’ve been hard on Rondo in the past, but the Celtics owe it to him and they owe it to Stevens to give their collaboration a chance.
Rondo only played 19 minutes and 25 seconds in his return to NBA action, but his presence was felt. He finished the game with eight points and four assists as he tried to shake the rust off. The other bright spot of the night for the Celtics was rookie center Kelly Olynyk. The 22 year old 13th overall pic scored a career high 25 points to go along with 8 assists in the game, and played 32 minutes and 49 seconds. I would love to see Rondo’s presence help Olynyk grow as a player and help him reach his full potential. It would be a great step in the right direction if Rondo develops chemistry with Olynyk, Sullinger, and Bradley, and Phil Pressey becomes a solid point guard off the bench.
Rondo’s presence is not enough to make the C’s a championship contender this season, and might not even be enough to make them a playoff team, either. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The Celtics currently find themselves out of the playoff picture heading into the deepest NBA Draft in a decade. There’s Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins at Kansas (Paul Pierce’s alma mater), Jabari Parker at Duke, Julius Randle at Kentucky (Rajon Rondo’s alma mater), and the list goes on. The Celtics have a chance to add one of these blue chip prospects to a young core that is learning from one of the best teaching coaches in the business. Danny Ainge has plenty of options for making moves. Former Butler Bulldog Gordon Hayward is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, and reuniting with his old college coach seems appealing to all parties involved. The point is that the Celtics are well on their way to the future, and the next great Celtics team could arrive sooner than we thought when the C’s came up short against the New York Knicks last April. At least for now, Rondo is the man at the helm, and he and Coach Stevens are ready to steer this storied green ship.