Not-so-Bullish: Kerr eyes title as Jackson drifts further away

ByIan O'Connor ESPN logo
Thursday, May 28, 2015

As it turned out, Phil Jackson did not just hit a home run with his first significant call as president of the New York Knicks. He hit a grand slam, admired its flight and dramatically flipped his Louisville Slugger in the air while starting a slow, self-congratulatory trot around the bases.

That call? Jackson decided a coaching novice named Steve Kerr could lead a team to championship contention. Consider that for a moment. With no experience running a franchise, Jackson immediately identified one of his lesser Chicago Bulls, Kerr, as someone who might someday win 60-plus games and land on the doorstep of an NBA title, and lo and behold Kerr did exactly that in Year 1.

Of course, Knicks fans know the painful punch line. As much as Jackson wanted to bet his future on his former player, Kerr wanted to bet his own on someone else.

No, the coach of the Golden State Warriors didn't pick a relatively faceless general manager, Bob Myers, over Jackson, lord of the rings. He pickedSteph Curry, Klay Thompson, favorable weather and a more family-friendly location over Carmelo Anthony and a rebuilding job to be regretted later.

But whatever the reasons, Kerr's last-minute snub of a man he considered a mentor last May -- a snub that surprised even Kerr's family and agent -- started a disastrous 12-month run for Jackson that was defined by the very first Knicks team to lose 60 or more games, and punctuated by some unfortunate thoughts on the contenders he found too preoccupied with the long ball.

If the 69-year-old Jackson wanted to debunk the notion that he effectively took a $60 million retirement job, and that he's too arrogant and detached to compete with younger, hungrier and more flexible front-office foes, he did himself no favors by no-showing at a draft lottery held five blocks from his Manhattan apartment, and by raging against the realities of today's winning postseason approach.

"NBA analysts," he tweeted on May 10, "give me some diagnostics on how 3pt oriented teams are faring this playoffs...seriously, how's it goink?"

It wasn't goink great then for Kerr's Warriors, who were down 2-1 to Memphis in their second-round series, or for the Atlanta Hawks, who were down 2-1 to Washington, or for the Houston Rockets, who were about to go down 3-1 to the Los Angeles Clippers. During the regular season, Houston led the NBA in 3-point attempts and makes, and Golden State and Atlanta finished 1-2 in the league in 3-point percentage.

Asked at the time about Jackson's tweet, Kerr responded, "I don't care." The Warriors coach didn't bother to point out that Curry had become the league's MVP while launching 646 3s.

Whatever. Fresh off his 17-65 debut with the Knicks, who ranked among the league's bottom third in 3-pointers attempted, Jackson saw a rare opportunity to pounce on those competing for the same prize he won 11 times with the Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, and pounce he did. On cue, Golden State, Houston and Atlanta all rallied to win their conference semis.

Golden State and Cleveland have averaged more 3-pointers attempted and made than any other postseason team, and their drive toward a date in the NBA Finals didn't stop Jackson a few days ago from tweeting that playing for the 3 "is an error" and that the long ball "is not the be all end all of basketball." For his next social media missive from the mount, Jackson should concede the same thing about his triangle offense.

No other executive or coach is running the triangle, Kerr included, and yet Jackson has already said he will use it as a selling point to free agents, much like his local chamber of commerce uses the Statue of Liberty as a selling point to tourists. Jackson is dying to show that the triangle was as much a part of his Bulls and Lakers dynasties as Jordan and Pippen, Kobe and Shaq, and now he's charged to hand Derek Fisher something other than a dreadful roster to prove it.

Fisher's current assistants and longtime Jackson loyalists, Kurt Rambis and Jim Cleamons, ran the triangle to lesser degrees in Minnesota and Dallas, where they were a combined 60-202 as head coaches. "The problem right now with the triangle is Phil doesn't have Tex Winter in New York to help run it," Jackson's former GM in Chicago, Jerry Krause, said Wednesday by phone. Winter, 93 and suffering from the effects of a stroke, taught Jackson the triangle in Chicago and helped him implement it in L.A.

"Tex was a much bigger factor in the success of the triangle than people realize," Krause said. "But beyond that, you've got to have players. You need a certain kind of player to run that thing. They have to be intelligent, unselfish and they've got to be good passers. In that system, if you're a bad passer you've got a problem. And you really need a post player who can do different things, and that's where Phil not getting one of the first two picks in the draft could hurt."

If it wasn't Jackson's fault that the Knicks dropped to the fourth pick in the lottery, out of the derby for Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor, he can be blamed for just about everything else that went south. He traded big for small, and productive for nonproductive, when moving Tyson Chandler for Jose Calderon. He sent off Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith to help LeBron James reach his fifth consecutive Finals and received in return a second-round pick in 2019, when his best player, Anthony, will be 35 years old, and when Jackson will most likely be back on a California beach.

"Phil was someone who always believed coaching was a lot harder than being a GM," said one longtime league official who knows him well, "and I think now he's going, 'Oh s---, this isn't as easy as I thought.' I think he's got a lot more respect for the job than he had 12 months ago.

"With the triangle, it's almost like he's more caught up in proving it can work than he is in making the team better. It's like Mike D'Antoni trying to prove to the world you can win in seven seconds or less in Phoenix, or trying to prove he could make Melo an equal-opportunity guy in New York. You need a system, but the game's always changing and you can't do something just because that's the way you did it five or 10 years ago."

Can Jackson alter his philosophy the way, say, Pat Riley did when he left behind Showtime in Los Angeles and started playing Big Ten football in New York? Can he give Fisher the freedom to be a little less triangle-centric? Can he spend the summer acquiring the best available players, rather than the best available players who fit his system? One prominent agent said Jackson seems hell-bent on validating the triangle, the media critics be damned. A second prominent agent who described Jackson as "more set in his ways than most" disagreed with the notion that the Knicks' president needs to adjust the way he looks at today's game.

"Phil is old-school, but he's won being old-school and if he gets the right players maybe he can do it again," that agent said. "Until he's proven wrong, he deserves a fair chance. Let him see what he does with the draft pick and all of their cap space this summer and then judge him. And if Phil doesn't get the players he wants in free agency, you have to understand that some of that will be guys just not wanting to play with Carmelo."

But then again, Jackson is the one who decided to build around Anthony and pay him $124 million. The same Anthony who admitted there were times during the 2014-15 horror show when he thought he'd made a mistake in accepting the Knicks' offer last summer.

Listen, even his most stubborn detractor wouldn't believe that Jackson just rolled out the balls for his legacy players with the Bulls and Lakers. A good coach would've won six or seven titles with those teams, and a very good coach would've won eight or nine. The best coach in NBA history won 11. On the day he was introduced as Knicks president, Jackson said that winning the franchise's first championship since 1973, when he was a bench player for Red Holzman, would represent "a capstone on a remarkable career that I've had."

Jackson thought the Knicks would make the playoffs, and they went out and won 17 games for him. He has a ton of cap space, and a chance to draft a difference-maker at No. 4, but in the coming years James will make it awfully hard for Jackson to build a Madison Square Garden contender that would make the conference finalist New York Rangers proud.

Odds are, Jackson will make or break his stay with the Knicks. Krause was talking about how the triangle can work with the right pieces when he was suddenly hit by the memory of how he landed a nondescript reserve guard named Steve Kerr in 1993.

"I was in my office at seven in the morning when I saw he was available," Krause said. "I didn't even wait 10 minutes to call his agent. And then Tex comes running into my office at 7:15 yelling at me, 'Steve Kerr is free. We've got to get him. We've got to get him.' I said, 'I know, I know, I just got off the phone with his agent.' Tex knew who fit the triangle, and he knew Steve was perfect for it."

But as much as he wishes otherwise, Jackson doesn't have Winter or Kerr in New York. The Zen Master has himself, and his own ideas on how to play winning basketball in today's NBA. And if his first year in the big city is any indication, that won't be even close to good enough.

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