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Zen and Now: A look at Phil Jackson's first year approach

Payroll, prospects, personnel: how has Phil Jackson managed year one of his presidency?

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Last March, two teams faced missing the playoffs in a year when they didn't own their first-round draft pick. Each would hire a highly-regarded, highly-successful ex-coach as their new president of basketball operations. Despite the optimism the hirings inspired this season, by Christmas both had stumbled out to a 5-23 record. Since then, Stan Van Gundy's Pistons are 18-17, 12th in the East, 5.5 games out of the playoffs. Phil Jackson's Knicks are 12-51 and own the worst record in the league. Which team's better poised for future success? They've taken different paths, to differing (and early) results. The Knicks could very easily have followed the Pistons' path.

What if Jackson hadn't traded Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to Dallas? What if he'd kept last year's team intact and ended this year like the Pistons: 35ish wins and no playoffs yielding a mid-1st round pick? Would falling just shy of mediocrity feel better than the abject basketball poverty Knick fans have been subjected to this season? Would it be better for the long-term health of the franchise?

Dr. Phil's chosen the more radical approach to treatment. The patient's not seeing just any doctor; they're seeing a surgeon. It takes a while to know the long-term effects of any operation. Let's look instead at the Knicks Jackson inherited versus the Knicks that have been/could be created, focusing on payrolldraft picks, and the roster.


The Knicks have $33M committed to the 2015-16 payroll, half next year's estimated $65M salary cap. They were looking at a relatively clean cap situation this summer before hiring Jackson, who's avoided adding any significant long-term commitments ('cept for that one $125,000,000 one). The only players he's added on the books next year are two rookies, Cleanthony Early and Langston Galloway, who'll make $1.6M combined, and Jose Calderon, due $7.4M in 2016 and $7.7M in 2017.

Calderon's age and lack of foot speed/defense are not how you'd draw up a 21st-century point guard in a lab. But he's the team's best shooter in the absence of Carmelo, hitting 42% of his threes. The team's next-best guard from distance is Galloway at 35%.

When J.R. Smith was traded along with Iman Shumpert to Cleveland, that likely saved the Knicks $6.4M in cap space this summer, as Smith figures to exercise his player option. That's 20% of their spending money. That ain't chump change. Other than Jose and J.R., virtually everyone Jackson's brought in or let go (or both) was on an expiring deal, making Smith and Calderon his two biggest financial moves. J.R. Smith is a more skilled basketball player than Jose Calderon. But Calderon's a better fit for the Triangle, and a better mentor/model of professionalism for a team likely to have six players 24 or younger next year than the guy who admits he struggles in Sunday matinees because Saturday night is party time. And if the Knicks want to move on and can't find a trading partner, the stretch provision would allow them to rid themselves of Calderon's contract spread over three years against the cap.


Jackson inherited a team with no picks in 2014 and 2016 and a first-round pick in 2015. One pick in three years is not the blueprint to success, though it looks like they'll have their first top-4 pick in 30 years. Further evidence of the Calderon trade being about more than wins is that it netted the Knicks essentially three draft picks: Shane Larkin, a de facto rookie after getting fewer minutes his first year than Travis Wear has this year; Early, who was considered a late 1st-round talent; and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, averaging just under 16 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks per-36 minutes in the D-League.

The Smith/Shumpert trade and sending Pablo Prigioni to Houston added three second-round picks (one in 2017, two in 2019) to the Knicks' secret stash. Slim pickings? Maybe. But that's virtually a half-dozen rookies/draft picks added in a single year. That is decidedly un-Knicksian, suggesting it's probably a good thing. Another potential benefit: If it pays off, the logic behind the practice could embed in the organization's gray matter long after Phil rides his ATV off into the sunset.


Only three incumbent players have survived Jackson's first year: Carmelo, Andrea Bargnani, and Tim Hardaway Jr. Bargnani's likely gone, and Hardaway's no lock to be a Knick next year.

A number of players Phil's jettisoned are contributors on contending teams: Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire for Dallas; Shumpert and JR on Cleveland; Pablo forced to work for the NBA's Sith Lords. Some feel Jackson could have gotten more back from the Mavs and Cavs. But given the model the Knicks are following -- avoiding long-term entanglements; adding Triangle-friendly, cheap youth -- I don't see who Jackson should have acquired that he didn't.

Dion Waiters is a shooting guard shooting 39% from the field and 26% from downtown, his offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) with OKC is 90 while his defensive rating is 106, and he has a $5M team option next year. In a small sample size (seven games), Reggie Jackson is playing more minutes than ever since being traded to the Pistons, taking more shots than ever, and shooting worse than any year since his rookie campaign. The 1st-round pick OKC sent Cleveland is protected through 18 and figures to remain with the Thunder this year. In 2016 and '17 the pick's top-15 protected, and if it doesn't vest by then it becomes two second-round picks. Depending what happens with the future health and contracts of Kevin Durant (missed 57% of OKC's games this year) and Russell Westbrook (missed 24%), Cleveland may never see a first-rounder from that deal.

Denver acquired two first-round picks for Timofey Mozgov, rubbing salt in the wounds of those who felt the Knicks should've gotten a bigger haul for Tyson Chandler. But Cleveland was desperate for a center and willingly overpaid for Mozgov. They had one singular, specific need. Mozgov fit the bill to a tee, and competent seven-footers are rarer than Bunsy sightings. I suspect Phil trading Chandler was more about getting back youth and picks and getting rid of a guy who carried himself like a prisoner of war his last year in New York. He's bounced back nicely playing with a legit team this season. If he'd been a Knick this year, he might've looked a lot like last year: a guy who fits in perfectly with a pre-existing culture, but not a culture-changer. As far as Dallas, they may have never been willing to give up a first-round pick for a soon-to-be 32-year-old one-year rental coming off a season where his scoring, rebounding, and shooting all dropped to their lowest levels in years. It's easy to say, "Give." It's rarely if ever that simple. 

How you feel about ex-Knicks and would-be Knicks helping current contenders in a year like this probably says more about what kind of fan you are than it does about Jackson's roster-building to date. In the P&T season preview, we were split 3.5 to 3.5 whether we'd rather get the 8 seed or the 8th pick in the draft. If you root for the 8 seed, you may also root for the idea that a sub-.500 team that was swept in the first round and picks 15th in the draft is more appealing to free agents than a dregs-of-the-NBA team with a top-4 pick. More likely, neither appeals, and the player will base his decision on numerous factors.

Pat Riley, now lauded as a title-building genius, took until his 11th year running the Heat before winning a title. Five years ago, Donnie Walsh cleared cap space and roster space in the last Great Knick Rebuild, like Phil's doing now; few figured the payoff would be winning one playoff series. There's no way, even now, to guess how Phil the Architect turns out.

We do know Jackson took over a ship that was dead in the water, with little roster mobility or hope. There's momentum now, even if it's only from bodies being thrown overboard. We don't know where it will go, but based on where it'd been, where it is now feels like where it had to be. Phil's probably done as much as anyone could have to this point. You can't label surgery a failure because the opening incision caused some bleeding, anymore than you can label it a success while the patient's still on the operating table. Healing is impossible unless suffering is acknowledged. We'll have to wait another year or two, at least, before we know how Jackson's moves have fared. I don't know where it's all headed, but one year in, I'd wouldn't trade places with a few teams above the Knicks.