The New York Knicks and team president Phil Jackson announced Wednesday morning that they mutually agreed to part ways.
"After careful thought and consideration, we mutually agreed that the Knicks will be going in a different direction," Knicks owner James Dolan said via statement. "Phil Jackson is one of the most celebrated and successful individuals in the history of the NBA. His legacy in the game of basketball is unmatched. We wish him the best and thank him for his service to the Knicks as both a player and an executive."
Conversations about what was best for the team's future between Jackson and Dolan accelerated this week when the franchise decided it would not buy out embattled forward Carmelo Anthony, sources said.
Jackson, 71, had made it well known that he felt it was best for Anthony and the organization to part ways, both publicly and privately, but Anthony refused to waive his no-trade clause, and the Knicks were determined not to accommodate any request for a buyout. Anthony has two years worth more than $54 million remaining on his deal.
With no end to the stalemate in sight and free agency beginning Saturday, Jackson's discussions with Dolan accelerated late Tuesday night and the decision was made to part ways. Some close to Dolan had been pushing him to consider firing Jackson for much of the season, sources told ESPN's Ian Begley.
"The New York Knicks will always hold a special place in my heart," Jackson said in a statement. "This team and this town launched my NBA career. I will forever be indebted to them. I am grateful to Mr. Dolan for giving me the opportunity to return here.
"I had hoped, of course, to bring another NBA championship to the Garden. As someone who treasures winning, I am deeply disappointed that we weren't able to do that. New York fans deserve nothing less. I wish them and the Knicks organization all the best -- today and always."
It had become clear, sources said, that Jackson had no plans to remain beyond the two years left on the five-year contract he initially signed in 2014 that paid him $12 million a year. So with no clear path forward from the toxic situation with Anthony, a constant public relations war over Jackson's preferred triangle offense and new concerns about the organization's relationship with Latvian phenom and 2015 No. 4 overall pick Kristaps Porzingis, sources said it was clear things had reached a breaking point by the eve of free agency.
Several players and members of the coaching staff had expressed frustration over Jackson's insistence that the club run more of the triangle offense midway through last season, sources told Begley.
Knicks general manager Steve Mills will stay in his current role and lead the team during free agency.
"While we are currently evaluating how best to move forward regarding the leadership of the organization, I will not be involved in the operation of the team," Dolan said. "Steve Mills, the team's general manager, will run the day-to-day business of the organization over the short term. Tim Leiweke, who brings tremendous expertise and experience in sports franchise management from both Toronto and Los Angeles and is our partner in the Oak View Group, will advise and work with Steve on an interim basis to help develop a go-forward plan."
Knicks sources say Leiweke will consult with Mills and Dolan about finding a replacement for Jackson for the foreseeable future.
Said one source, "We're letting the phone ring."
A league source told ESPN's Dave McMenamin that Jerry West -- who once tried to hire ex-Cavaliers GM David Griffin in Memphis -- planned to reach out to Leiweke, who like West has former ties to the Los Angeles Lakers from his time working for AEG, to endorse Griffin as a candidate to replace Jackson.
Griffin has long coveted a big job like the Knicks and considers all of his experience in two-plus decades in the league was an apprenticeship for such a challenge.
As of Wednesday afternoon the Knicks had not reached out to Griffin's agent, Mark Carmony, however a member of the Knicks' organization has begun gathering background information on Griffin, including making a call to an executive on the Cavs' business side, a league source tells ESPN.
Several prominent college coaches have already expressed interest as well, according to sources.
As for reports that the Knicks were interested in Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, sources told ESPN that the Knicks have a deep respect for him, but he's under contract and thus would require permission to speak to and compensation -- likely draft picks -- which the Knicks would be very reluctant to consider.
The Raptors also received a second round pick when Jeff Weltman was hired by the Orlando Magic, so the price to get Masai would be very high.
Meanwhile, the Raptors promoted Bobby Webster to GM, Dan Tolzman to assistant general manager/vice president, player personnel and Keith Boyarsky to vice president, basketball strategy & research. In that announcement, the Raptors said, "Masai Ujiri will continue to oversee basketball operations as president of the club."
With Jackson out and the triangle de-emphasized, the Knicks, under Mills, have interest in free-agent point guard Jeff Teague, league sources told ESPN. Sources say the interest in Teague is mutual.
The Knicks completed a disappointing 31-51 season in April and missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year. They were 80-166 in Jackson's three full seasons as team president, losing at least 50 games in each of them.
Coach Jeff Hornacek said of the situation: "It's always an interesting time when stuff like that happens. I just want to thank Phil for giving me the opportunity here in New York. I worked with Steve all year long. We had a great working relationship and talking about things. We'll continue to do that. I wish Phil the best from this point on."
During a February radio interview, Dolan said he planned to honor his five-year contract with Jackson "all the way to the end." In April, sources familiar with the situation told ESPN that the Knicks and Jackson quietly picked up their option on the remaining two years of his contract.
Jackson has faced increased scrutiny in recent weeks, stemming from his clash with Anthony and the revelation that Jackson was fielding offers for Porzingis as the Knicks looked to move up in this year's draft. No deal was made, and New York selected French guard Frank Ntilikina with the eighth overall pick.
Asked in an interview with MSG Network why he would consider trading Porzingis, a young star regarded around the NBA as someone a franchise can be built around, Jackson replied, "The future, you know, what it brings. Does it bring us two starters and a draft pick or something that's even beyond that? [That's] something we have to look at as far as going down the road. We know what he is. He's a unicorn and he's special."
Porzingis skipped exit meetings with Jackson and Mills in April because of frustration over the dysfunction and drama surrounding the Knicks.
Sources told ESPN that Jackson had been upset with Porzingis' actions and was trying to teach him a lesson in professionalism this summer. Jackson, sources said, was contemplating a trip to Europe this summer to meet with his young star.
Jackson publicly and privately expressed confidence in his vision for the club after the season, which included building a roster around Porzingis, Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez, while filling the roster with veterans who could fit into his system and contribute on both sides of the ball.
Asked last week on MSG Network what he'd tell Knicks fans who were "uneasy," Jackson said: "Well, I think, we know what we're doing. That's what I can say to them. Although it's not been apparent in our record the last couple of years, we've grown from within. We've got young players who are on their move up. It takes time to rebuild with youth. And, I think, to have confidence in the fact that we're going to have good players and we're going to have a good team and we're going to be on the court, competitive."
Information from ESPN's Ian Begley was used in this report.