On Thursday fans of lesser rank NBA teams were abuzz with talk of the lottery-winning Philadelphia 76ers, former GM Sam Hinkie, and the ever-controversial "Process." To Hinkie's loyal, downright fanatical followers, the evening was a vindication of their faith; to his critics, it was a stroke of luck that still doesn't make up for years shoddy roster building.
Twenty-four hours later the basketball world caught a glimpse of the New York Knicks' very own Process when it was announced that Jeff Hornacek would likely be hired as head coach. Like Sam Hinkie, Knicks president Phil Jackson has employed come controversial methods over his two-plus years in charge. Like Hinkie, he has dealt with his fair share of criticism and mockery.
But that is where the similarities end. The Hinkie Method was based on cold, rational analysis taken to its (some would say) logical conclusion: tear down as much as possible in order to acquire the most valuable assets. You may not agree with it, you may not like it, but it's fairly clear for all to see.
What is the Knicks' "Process"? Phil Jackson. The man is his own process. He does what he wants, when he wants. He cares little if nothing for convention ... or at least so it would seem. He makes grandiose speeches about the way things should be done, and then turns around and does the exact opposite.
Consider the recent coaching search. Phil talked about needing to find a coach to fit his methodical Triangle offense, a coach he knows. Then he dragged his feet for a few weeks, took a road trip to Montana, skipped out on one of the bigger executive schmoozing events of the summer (the draft combine), interviewed two coaches with at least some ties to the organization, and then hired Jeff Hornacek, a dude with relatively few Jackson ties, who ran a pick-and-roll-based Suns offense that finished in the top 3 in the NBA pace all three years he was involved.
Now there are even rumblings that Hornacek is free to do what he likes with trusted Phil lieutenant (and objectively crappy coach) Kurt Rambis. He is even rumored to be handing Hornacek the freedom to adjust the offense! Madness.
This entire process, and really everything that came before it, makes sense once you understand that you have no idea what Phil Jackson is actually thinking. His own statements certainly don't help. He talked about contending for the playoffs in 2013, then broke the team down even before the trade deadline. He reportedly yearned for a traditional back-to-the-basket post player, then drafted a 7'3" beanpole. He fired Derek Fisher, claimed it had to do with the way he neglected the Triangle, hyped the Triangle for months and then hired a non-Triangle disciple.
Phil isn't some kind of mad dictator making decisions on a whim. He delegates to executives like Steve Mills and Allan Houston -- a shocking development in itself, that he would put his faith in so many old-school Dolan guys. Who would have guessed a few years ago that he would trust Houston to run the Knicks' Combine presence?
But make no mistake: in the end, Phil is in charge. The word on the street is that he became energized once Fisher was fired and Rambis was promoted. That in itself may say less about Rambis than it does about Phil and the coach he fired. Fisher had moved away steadily from the Triangle by the end of the 2014-15 season but perhaps his true mistake was pushing Phil out of the loop. There's a fair chance Hornacek will be given the same freedom Fisher once enjoyed, as long as he is willing to sit down with the boss every once in a while and talk shop.
Phil Jackson is neither a a semi-retired codger cashing a paycheck, nor a stubborn old man utterly closed to change. He's a basketball lifer with a huge ego, a contrarian streak, and a genuine attachment to the New York Knicks franchise. And that is just about all we know for sure. That uncertainty makes it difficult for Knicks fans to completely "trust the process", but with each smart move he makes it gets a little bit easier.