Phil Jackson and lines in the sand: The feel of a new era

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In an occurrence about as rare as an earthquake in the Northeast, the President of the New York Knicks held a press conference yesterday, wherein he actually answered questions that were asked to him by credentialed members of the media about past and future operations surrounding the basketball team.

That man of course is Phil Jackson, and the fact that he was even available to comment was a sign that things are now a bit different around here. And his answers to a lot of questions were in lockstep with that seeming culture change, specifically in regards to the future of the team’s star, Carmelo Anthony.

When asked about Anthony’s upcoming contract negotiations and Anthony asking for a max deal, Phil grabbed a stick, dug it deep, and drew big fat line in the proverbial sand. He specifically brought up some of the recent cases of selflessness showed by some of the league’s stars, Tim Duncan and The Heatles in particular, sacrifices made in order to build better, more-well rounded teams. More recently, Kobe Bryant took a bit less this past offseason when signing his extension with the Lakers, giving them a little more wiggle room, though Phil didn’t bring this up. Not only did Phil challenge Anthony to be a bit unselfish, but he also wasn’t shy about the fact that Anthony has said, on record, he would be willing to take less. Phil has taken Anthony’s word, and reputation, and put it on the line even more emphatically. If Anthony refuses to take less and remains with the Knicks, he’s not going to look very good based on his past comments, and Phil’s reminder of them.

This is exactly the correct stance to take regarding Anthony. The unfortunate reality in today’s NBA is that it’s very hard to build a winning team if you pay any player nearly $30 million a year, as the Knicks would be doing in the latter stages of Anthony’s deal were he to sign the max. It’s unfair to Anthony, who has done enough to deserve the most money possible but may not get it, since the only team that can offer it to him might decide they simply can’t give it to him. Not even because he’s not worth the actual coin, but because
by doing so, they hamper their own ability to build a winner.

That sucks for the player, but it’s the reality of the NBA at this time. If you’re Phil, it’s sensible to hold Anthony to his word and challenge him to sacrifice for the greater good and stay on board. Problem for the Knicks is, if you’re Anthony and you’ve decided you’re going to take less, wouldn’t you go somewhere like Chicago, where you wouldn’t have to sit around and wait for a team to be built, but rather join a good team and make them a contender right away?

Yet based on what Phil said yesterday, if Anthony insists on max-or-bust, the Knicks may actually let him walk. This is in stark contrast to the feel around the franchise heading into this season, and in its first few dogged, miserable months, where it seemed as though Melo coming back at a 5-year max was a given. There was no way James Dolan, with the CAA ties as deep as ever, would do anything other than re-up Anthony. But with Phil running things with seeming autonomy*, such things are not a given.

*NOTE: It would be remiss to not mention Frank Isola’s report that Dolan is already undercutting Phil. You’ve probably read it or heard about it. If you haven’t, Google it. I’m not linking it here, because I don’t like how the Internet works sometimes. To me, it sounds very minimal and something natural between a new employee and his boss. This is not a defense of James Dolan, but simply an acknowledgement of rationale: any owner is going to have to sign off on dealings with his business, and he may have questions as to why his employee has made a decision and offer his opinion on the matter. Dolan may some day go back on his word regarding Phil having total control, but I don’t think we’ve quite reached that yet.

The days of totally closed doors lock-down, no questions asked or answered seem to be in the rear view. For now. Perhaps after a coach is hired and Phil speaks at that press conference, he’ll hibernate for a while and everyone will go back to being frustrated with a lack of transparency. At the moment though, it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen. Simply seeing the head of the Knicks’ basketball operations in front of a camera and a bunch of mics is a change of culture in and of itself. How he deals with a crucial personnel decision, one involving the team’s central player, will tell us even more how different things are becoming.

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