When Phil Jackson was finally introduced in 2014 as the New York Knicks’ team president after deliberating for months about whether he should accept the extremely difficult challenge of trying to turn New York’s moribund franchise around, the Knicks’ best player, star forward and avid chess player Carmelo Anthony, called the signing a “power move.”
Bringing Jackson in to run the Knicks initially excited Anthony, who at the time was on the verge of free agency.
A little more than one month on the job, Jackson quickly put his own stamp on the club, replacing the entire Knicks’ coaching staff with mostly handpicked selections that had direct ties to Jackson’s 11 NBA title-winning seasons when Jackson served as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.
Less than three months later, Jackson decided to go all in on Anthony, who shunned the wooing of other teams during free agency and signed a fresh five-year deal to remain in New York.
All was positive and off to a smooth start in the Jackson era, even if Jackson knew that deep down, Anthony wasn’t exactly the type of self-sacrificing star he’d prefer to build around.
That is, all except one key detail in Anthony’s new contract at the time — the no-trade clause offered to him by Jackson, which ultimately proved to be like losing a queen early in a chess match.
When that happens, a savvy enough chess player can still find another way to win than originally planned. But if too many missteps are made thereafter (as with some of Jackson’s later mistakes, with some misguided trades and free agent signings), that player often ends up on the wrong side of a checkmate.
On Wednesday, that’s exactly what happened with Jackson, when team owner James Dolan fired Jackson just two months after Dolan picked up the final two years of Jackson’s original five-year, $60 milion contract.
Although that choice cost Dolan $24 million to make Jackson go away, Dolan’s decision was the far better buyout for both the Knicks’ present state and future, compared to what he would have had to do with Anthony.
Rather than buying out the last two years of Anthony’s contract — worth a total of over $54 million — and taking a salary cap hit in that amount, spread over the next five years, while losing a possible tradeable asset with some good value still left, Dolan wisely opted to spend about $30 million less and part ways with Jackson, with no negative effects on the Knicks’ cap and maintaining the ability to get something of at least decent value in return for Anthony.
Of course, that ending wasn’t envisioned by Dolan, who to his credit, departed from his past meddling ways with prior general managers, and took a backseat in allowing Jackson full autonomy to shape New York’s roster and to try to change the Knicks’ culture as he saw fit.
That approach backfired to a degree, as Jackson overstepped his bounds at times, whether it was trying to force feed an antiquated triangle system while blurring the line between his front office role and being too hands-on in the form of coaching in team practices, subtlely denigrating Anthony and his game in interviews or through ghostwriter and longtime friend Charley Rosen, or in the way he allowed his relationship to sour recently with his own 2015 fourth overall draft pick, Kristaps Porzingis, after the budding 21-year-old star forward skipped a post-season exit meeting with the aim of sending a message to Jackson about his disdain for the Knicks’ dysfunction as an organization.
Yet, it wasn’t all bad for Jackson.
Although he strongly considered trading Porzingis just before last week’s draft, Porzingis will probably remain a Knick for a while, as should 23-year-old center Willy Hernangomez, who two years after being shrewdly snagged by Jackson, 31 picks after Porzingis, was named to the 2017 NBA All-Rookie First Team.
And since Jackson — unlike many of his predecessors in New York — managed to hang on to multiple first-round picks in three years, he had another one to use last week, and exercised it to grab highly regarded, 18-year-old French point guard Frank Ntilikina with the eighth overall pick.
It remains to be seen if the young trio of draftees form a great future nucleus capable of being built around to the point at which the Knicks can at long last, return to what now, feels like ancient days when they were legitimate Eastern Conference contenders.
But at least there’s that chance, and for that, Jackson deserves some acclaim.
However, Dolan brought Jackson in to accomplish far more than that, and Jackson might have if not for how he viewed Anthony.
While much was made during Jackson’s time as the Knicks’ president about the triangle and how he handled Porzingis at the end of his tenure, Jackson’s real hubris showed in his vision of what he assumed Anthony would become as a player.
Anthony (the sixth-youngest NBA player to reach 20,000 points, and the 25th-leading NBA scorer of all-time) is one of the greatest ever at putting the ball in the basket. But he also has his flaws and limitations, particularly ones that didn’t mesh well with Jackson’s ball-sharing, triangle-based visualization of what Jackson arrogantly assumed he could get Anthony and the rest of the Knicks to morph into, rather than allowing Anthony and the Knicks to play more to their strengths.
Especially with Anthony, Jackson’s overconfidence that he could force his own beliefs of the way the he thinks the game should be played on Anthony — who was a little more stubborn than Jackson had expected — made Jackson believe in Anthony all the way to the point of offering that no-trade clause.
Without that, Anthony might already be playing somewhere else and Jackson quite possibly, still running the Knicks, with the young core he built, along with greater flexibility to build around that group.
But the no-trade clause changed everything and instead, what began as a power move in Anthony’s eyes, devolved into a power struggle between he and Jackson, as the Knicks went a putrid 80-166, winning no more than 32 games in any one season and suffering a franchise-high 65 losses two years ago, during Jackson’s reign in New York.
In the end, Jackson held on to some key pieces, the team president version of perhaps a rook, a knight and a bishop, and he might have remained in position to ultimately figure out a way to win. But sometimes, when you offer a no-trade clause you shouldn’t, it can be the basketball equivalent of losing the queen far too early in the game.
And for Jackson, that was checkmate, while Anthony survives in New York for now, after pulling off his own power move.