The problem with the New York Knicks paying Phil Jackson eight figures is not that they'll have trouble affording it. There is no limit to the salary you can spend on executives, and Madison Square Garden makes for a fabulous piggy bank to be tapped as necessary. The Knicks can afford Phil Jackson financially even if the experiment fails. Phil Jackson would not be the first guy James Dolan had to pay tens of millions of dollars to get rid of.
The problem is that Phil Jackson's not the salvation for the Knicks woes. If the reports bear fruit and he signs on as Basketball Overlord or whatever, Jackson will basically be New York's high-dollar Jerry West. He'll exist as a very expensive consultant-in-chief. The Warriors' socialized front office has done wonderful things, for sure. The Sacramento Kings have actually copied its model to some extent, using Chris Mullin as a consultant who reports to the owner.
But what the Warriors did that actually made it work was to hire actual NBA cap and personnel experts to staff the front office. More accurately, to run the front office. Those staffers and the Warriors' ownership lean on West for advice, for assessments. No one thinks he calls all of shots or even does the bulk of the work. West's role in Golden State is framed accurately, as far as we know. He's a consultant in a non-hierarchical front office. Bob Myers is officially the GM and seems to get the bulk of credit for running the team.
Reports have framed the potential situation in New York as Jackson being in charge of everything. He may or may not live in New York while running the Knicks. That may or may not be a big deal. What is a big deal is what Jackson does with his time. Will he personally scout college and international prospects? Will he travel to Lawrence, to Durham, to Lexington, to Ann Arbor, to Belgrade, to Treviso, to Barcelona? When he has to make decisions, how informed will they be? Does he have the energy and inclination to learn everything he can before it's time to make a call?
Let's not forget that in the last few years of Jackson's tenure in Los Angeles, he didn't want to travel for road games ... as the head coach. The reasons were related to his health. As far as we know, Jackson hasn't gotten younger in the years since leaving the Lakers. Scouting prospects (of the draft, free agent and trade varieties) may not be as physically demanding as coaching a team. But you still have to put in the work. Will Phil put in the work?
Jackson is not the salvation: he can't be. If Dolan thinks he can hire Jackson and be done with it, he's wrong. After hiring Jackson, Dolan needs to make sure the team has a smart cap expert and great personnel scouts on staff. Jackson has never had to deal with the salary cap in his professional life, and there's little indication he has a terrifically sharp eye for hidden talent. His gifts have always been teaching and motivating. The talent assessment had been left to Jerry Krause, Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak.
Even if all of that happens — the Knicks land one of the rising young capologists and pluck some excellent talent evaluators from other clubs — Jackson needs to hire the right coach. And this is one aspect of Jackson's history that's particularly worrisome: he's tended to follow the Michael Jordan School of Cronyism. MJ famously hires old friends instead of the best candidates for key roles, first with the Wizards and now with the Bobcats. Jackson's coaching staffs have always been filled with his guys. You know how the Gregg Popovich Coaching Tree is sprawling, filled with thick branches and wild offshoots? How it has tremendous depth and success?
The "Phil Jackson coaching tree" might be poison ivy— DrLawyerIndianChief (@DrLwyrIndnChf) February 28, 2014
Yeah. We can assume that Jackson would hire Kurt Rambis, Brian Shaw or Derek Fisher as the Knicks' head coach. That's a problem. You would think the one attribute the coach with the most rings ever would bring to the table as a Basketball Overlord is a deep list of familiar head coaching candidates. Nope.
Finally, perhaps the biggest problem with hiring Phil Jackson at this stage of his life as the Basketball Overlord of the Knicks is the message it sends to the rest of the franchise. This is a potential cuing nightmare. The head of basketball operations sets the example for the rest of the team. Coaches, scouts, players, all of them. When the boss works his tail off, that usually leads to the rest of the crew busting ass. When the boss slacks off or is invisible, everyone else tends to go easy. It's basic human nature, even for grown men and women.
If the Knicks' deal with Jackson allows him to be an absentee boss or if he doesn't attack this job with utter zeal, it'll cue to the rest of the organization that utter zeal is not a requirement. And unless there's someone else in place to push the troops — a star with impeccable work ethic, a firebrand coach — the Knicks will get left behind by the rest of the league. Again. The money doesn't matter. The power doesn't matter. The message it sends to the rest of the organization matters.
Whether Jackson is taken seriously within Madison Square Garden as the savior Dolan needs him to be depends on how much of his own soul Jackson puts into the job. You can't fake it. And if Jackson won't coach, has no experience as a scout, doesn't know the cap and can't set a good example, what's he there for? To woo free agents in July? For how much money?
Given how Jackson went out in Los Angeles — tired, broken, defeated — it's easy to see why we'd be skeptical of his future in New York.