The Zen Master Phil Jackson Makes His Move

The New York Knicks are clearing house. What can we learn from Jackson’s renowned management style?

It finally happened last night. The long-awaited dismantling of the Knicks began in earnest, with zen master/team president Phil Jackson shoving J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert out the door and into the wintry mix of Cleveland, in exchange for essentially nothing. Well, not nothing. Cap space. The Knicks will have a lot more money to sign whichever player so chooses to get way richer courtesy of a team that has seen almost nothing but abject failure over the past 15 years.

But what good is money if no one good wants to take it? Under Phil Jackson, the Knicks have sunk to the lowest of the low, playing only for a lottery pick and outclassing in horribleness even the bad-on-purpose 76ers. With last night’s move, Jackson further impoverished an already austere team, all but signaling that the goal for this team was to simply lose every game possible. That’s fine – the Knicks were never going to amount to anything anyway and the reward of a high draft pick is too much to pass up.

What remains to be seen is whether Jackson will be able to finally break through the notion that New York teams aren’t allowed to rebuild, or whether he will succumb to certain elemental pressures that will force his hand into dealing young talent for bloated contracts when the owner gets impatient. In looking at the first nine months of the Jackson regime however, his management style has come into focus. No matter the cost, he wants company men. Like the shock therapy advocated and employed by the Washington Consensus, Jackson has invoked strict fiscal discipline on the team, waiving or trading underperforming players. He has then refocused spending on workforce development, bringing in young talent like Travis Wear, Cleanthony Early, and soon enough, Thanasis Antetokounmpo and Langston Galloway. These players will be raised in the Triangle system, an offensive set that Jackson will not waver from, quite like the devotion to certain free market principles that many late 20th century economists believed orthodoxy. There can be no wavering from the Triangle, which demands constant flow of the ball. In keeping with his free market vision of the Knicks, he also provided some tax relief for his owner, James Dolan, by reducing the luxury tax on a team that might not win ten games.

Carmelo Anthony could have walked away from the Knicks this summer, and one got the sense that Jackson wasn’t originally interested in his return. Melo, a former ruler of the Garden now made to sit at a table and take commands from a higher-up, isn’t a particularly good fit for the Triangle Offense. But when it became clear that Melo was seriously considering taking an offer from Chicago, possibly forming a new dynasty in Jackon’s old stomping grounds, Jackson wavered from his commitment to austerity and paid to keep the one remaining asset the Knicks could have. Everything else, it became clear early on this season, had to go.

Come this off-season, Jackson and the Knicks will be facing a depleted free agent class with tons of money but no huge names to spend it on. Jackson will be able to continue to remake the team almost entirely in the image he sees fit – young, committed to a system, and with some solid role players. But the asterisk in the middle of it all is Carmelo (ask the Lakers how well all that cap space worked out for them last summer with their own aging and mercurial superstar, Kobe Bryant, who scared away every other prized free agent). It’s possible that Jackson now regrets not sticking to the Milton Friendman playbook and passing on signing Carmelo this summer. Whether Jackson will be able to accommodate such a central deviation to his orthodoxy remains to be seen, as the Knicks continue to shed assets in this season of dismal New York basketball, where the only positive is that it can’t get any worse.

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