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Phil Jackson spoke about old coaching nemeses, posses, and even the Knicks

Phil goes off.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Knicks kingfish Phil Jackson spoke to Jackie MacMullan Monday. In two-and-a-half years captaining the good ship Knicks, Jackson has been mostly hush-hush after decades as outspoken head coach; when he has opened up, it’s often via Twitter or Charley Rosen. But Phil said a number of things to MacMullan we need to look deeply into so we can once and for all answer the question whose answer could change in a couple of months anyway: Is Jackson, as architect, out of touch? Or is he onto something? Or on something? The early returns: yes, yes, and probably.


  • Re: Derrick Rose’s shooting: “Most of Derrick's misses aren't jumpers. They are going to the basket -- penetration -- which is really important...People are challenging him, which means Joakim and others following him are going to get offensive rebounds, second-chance points...his shooting percentage isn't going to be all that high, but his penetration is going to create opportunities for others.”

Jackson makes a good point here, one he’s probably glad mainstream analytics hasn’t debunked yet: all misses are not created equal. Kyle O’Quinn forcing a contested three as the shot clock’s expiring is less helpful than Rose getting into the lane and forcing multiple defenders to react, potentially freeing up teammates for brief unattended moments. Rose helps the offense fail better. The man he replaced, Jose Calderon, is ten times the shooter Rose is. But X’s and O’s are fractal, rugged, nuanced. The Knicks’ new point guard can’t shoot, but his misses mean more than his predecessor’s makes. Phil’s right on this one.

  • Re: The league-wide zig to “pace and space”: “It's my feeling when everybody does the same damn thing it becomes, 'Who has the best Rolls-Royce? Who has the best, fastest stock car in this race we are running?' So if you have LeBron, wow, we're going to do the same thing even though we don't have the Rolls-Royce? You have to be unique. You have to have something no one else is doing to have genius in this game.”

The Knicks spent most of the preseason with their biggest new addition, Rose, facing a civil rape trial; they spent some of the preseason not really sweating defense; they’ve spent practice time in the regular season defending against a style no one in the league really emphasizes. Unique, thy name is Knicks.

Philophobes may fear the NBA’s move toward pace-and-space renders the Triangle and its midrange-ness antiquated, and thus fear this aged artifact tempting Phil to try and reboot the past. To be fair, I wonder if Phil’s many years coaching Rolls Royces lends him any wisdom about going up against them. He’s literally spent decades watching dozens of systems employed over hundreds of games whose aim was to out-do his Rolls. The Knicks do have something no one else has or has ever had, something truly unique: their Unicorn, Kristaps Porzingis. If nothing else, this quote from Jackson suggests there’s a bit of a mad scientist up to something back in the lab.

  • Re: Pat Riley: “Pat has a terrific sense of what he wants to do. Now that I'm president, I have to read all this stuff about the league. Usually it's 'delete, delete, delete.' But I noticed there was something about D-Wade and Pat's communication breaking down the other day. I wondered about that. I found it surprising.”

First off, I love the image of a petulant Phil sullenly ending a mindfulness/peyote session because he has to go do his homework and read about the NBA, and while he’s up in his office his friends throw rocks at the window and when he opens it they’re like “We’re going to play stickball! Come on!” and first he’s like “I can’t. Too much work to d-” but then his eyes wander over to that delete button and his heart lifts.

But the real thing I love about this quote is it’s Phil going after Riley -- via a question that was an open invitation to compliment Riles! MacMullan had linked Jackson, Popovich and Riley and then asked what separates Riley. Phil turned it into a reminder to anyone reading that Riley drove Mr. Miami Heat out of town. These two have been competing against each other in the NBA for almost HALF A CENTURY. In fact, in true Michael Corleone-fashion, Phil went about settling all family business in this interview. He went after Riley, Popovich, even Chicago, bringing up Luol Deng’s spinal fluid troubles from three years ago. That Jax can still tap into that well of disdain after all this time shows his competitive heart still goes “beat beat beat.”


  • Re: His plan for the Knicks: “It's a process of sticking to my beliefs and being able to say, 'Whatever.' This is what I was hired to do. I'm going to follow the plan and if it doesn't work out, it will be evident.”

This is such an IDGAF quote that I don’t think Phil was on something when he said it; I think he was on all the things. Look at what he’s saying. Whatevs. They hired me to do what I want. I’m gonna. If it doesn’t work, you’ll know. Rarely has anyone said more saying less than Jackson here.

  • Re: LeBron and Cleveland: “When LeBron was playing with the Heat, they went to Cleveland and he wanted to spend the night. They don't do overnights. Teams just don't. So...Spoelstra has to text Riley and say, 'What do I do in this situation?' And Pat, who has iron-fist rules, answers, 'You are on the plane, you are with this team.' You can't hold up the whole team because you and your mom and your posse want to spend an extra night in Cleveland. I always thought Pat had this really nice vibe with his guys. But something happened there where it broke down. I do know LeBron likes special treatment. He needs things his way.”

“Cleveland has really gotten better about playing together as a team. They have shown much more resilience defensively and are taking responsibility on the defensive end. The ball still gets stuck. Not everyone has a purpose. They have a role, but they might not feel like they are involved and I like to see all five players being involved in the game.”

Wednesday, December 7th, is the next time the Knicks play the Cavs. Expect a motivated Cavs team that night at MSG. Expect it to be a date which will live in infamy. The heat is already rising:

  • Re: Joakim Noah: “...having experiences with Joakim over the years, not only as a player with talent, but a guy who showed up at my door in Montana, he knows Derrick and he knows how to play with him. It gives us an advantage.”

Maybe Phil’s lonelier than we realize. Maybe as mortality looms ever-nearer, we cling more fiercely to life wherever we find it. I feel like this is the 100th time Jackson has referenced the fact that Noah came to his house in Montana. I expect the story to grow more and more dramatic with each re-telling. If things work out, by the end of Noah’s contract Jackson will regale reporters about the time Noah piloted Spaceman Spiff’s little one-man craft all the way from Hell’s Kitchen to Phil’s split-level ranch atop Olympus Mons.


Re: Gregg Popovich: “We have no animosity. We just played against each other so many times. One time he just stuck guys in the corner and ran the twin towers and that was it. But they've evolved so much. I like the way his teams play. He's using a lot of triangle stuff, a lot of pinch post stuff. It works.”

This is shade. This is A-level shade. This is Phil saying “I know y’all worship Pop these days and his five rings. Five’s cute. His other hand must feel so cold, though. So naked. I remember when Pop’s offense was AOL 1.0 edition. Nice to see he eventually evolved to walk upright.” This is Phil equating Pop to the apes fighting in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Phil’s the ape with the stick, natch.

  • Re: Mike Conley’s contract: “Mike Conley was the best choice as a free agent, but he's making $30 million a year. That's almost insane.”

It’s entirely possible in two years NBA logic concludes Mike Conley’s contract is a bad deal. For a team president who’ll be negotiating with free agents, it’s not a good look to label someone’s contract “almost insane.” Particularly when that team president is the highest-paid executive in American sports, I think, with no track record of success.

It’s entirely possible Phil comes by this thinking honestly. There is a clear line of logic in only paying Rolls Royce dollars to Rolls Royce players, and Mike Conley ain’t no RR. Also, Jackson coached Michael Jordan, who played 13 seasons and made $4M or less 11 of those years. Phil tried (and succeeded, to an extent) in getting Carmelo Anthony to take a slight pay cut when he re-signed in New York. Maybe there’s some pennywise rationale to Jackson’s words here. But saying them publicly seems pound-foolish.

  • Re: Playing the right way: “Just show me what will work. Are we running around for no reason? Can we hit the first cutter? Do we have the ability to hit the second option or are we just bypassing plays so someone can hit a 3-point shot? It doesn't make sense to me.”

Note that Phil isn’t complaining about bypassing plays to “take” a three-pointer, but to “hit” one. Most NBA teams have embraced 3>2. Jackson sounds like an old Charlie Brown strip lamenting the “new math.”

That kind of obsession to detail is what makes ideologues great. It also generally means their stories don’t have happy endings. Oftentimes, process does trump end-product. But that goes for public speaking as well as basketball. What Phil says usually makes sense. But how he says things, or how he determines what things to share publicly contrasted to long stretches of relative radio silence...that, coupled with his age, sometimes makes him look cranky and out of touch. Even if he isn’t.

Early in Jackson’s reign I wrote about the Knicks being a long-suffering patient and him being a surgeon. The team is now on its fourth coach since he took over, hasn’t made the playoffs once under him, and is no lock to do so this season. Team-building is something he’s never done before, yet he’s bristled at criticism in a way unbecoming a G.O.A.T. Here’s hoping the doctor knows what he’s doing and is up to something good. Or at least, on something good.