Charley Rosen, author of 18 books about basketball and a former assistant coach under Phil Jackson in the CBA, spent a day with Jackson in every month of his debut season with the New York Knicks, during which the Hall of Fame coach-turned-executive talked frankly about his roster and his new role as team president. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Check back next week for Part 4.
Date: Dec. 16, 2014
Knicks record: 5-21
Phil Jackson is not used to losing. Over the course of the 20 seasons he spent coaching the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, Jackson chalked up a .704 winning percentage. In the playoffs, his teams won 68.8 percent of their games -- and, of course, those 11 rings.
Indeed, the closest he ever came to coaching a losing team was in 2006-07, when the Lakers were 42-40.
So how is Jackson coping with the Knicks' disastrous season?
"My release after each losing game," he says, "is writing my morning-after game report. It can take me as long as 90 minutes to explain what I saw out there, and I usually feel a little better when I'm done. I send copies to Derek [Fisher], [assistant coach] Kurt [Rambis], and Clarence [Gaines]. What they do with these reports is entirely up to them."
Jackson is seated at a round table in the middle of a luxurious private room somewhere in the bowels of Madison Square Garden prior to today's game against the Dallas Mavericks. It's a large, party-sized space, presumably available for wealthy fans and/or corporate types to host guests before, during and/or after ballgames. Because of a gout condition, Jackson ignores the seafood and instead nibbles cashews from a dish on the table.
For sure, all the team's losses are painful, Jackson says, but the one that still haunts him is the at-the-buzzer defeat in Charlotte on Dec. 5. The Knicks had a one-point lead, and the Hornets had possession with 4 seconds left on the game clock. Since the Knicks still had a foul to give, the obvious strategy was to foul whoever caught the inbounds pass, ASAP.
"It was easy to anticipate that the ball would go to Kemba Walker," Jackson says, "because he's Charlotte's best one-on-one scorer. The expected play was to run Walker off a foul-line screen. And that's exactly what happened. Fish had all of that right."
"Everything went wrong," he says. "We shaded Walker to push him over a pick and the helper was on the wrong side of the pick and it ended in a layup. A heartbreak loss that really set our guys back."
Jackson then laments the dire results of several other recent games: A loss in Houston when "we couldn't stop [James] Harden." An overtime loss in Dallas: "Another game we should have won." Getting blown out in Oklahoma City in Russell Westbrook's return from an injury: "It was understandable that he'd be pumped." A similar situation in Miami: "Dwyane Wade came off the injured list to kill us."
Then came a nail-biter in Brooklyn, when the referees ignored Fisher running up and down the sidelines signaling for a timeout. "Actually," Jackson says, "timeout or not, what [Carmelo] Anthony really wanted to do was exactly what he wound up doing ... dribble the ball over the [midcourt line] and shoot. Unfortunately he missed."
After a few more losses and a rare win in Boston, Jackson changed his mind about staying away from the sidelines.
"I basically reprised my coaching persona and did a tape session with the team," he says. "I spent 90 minutes going over 15 minutes of game action, taking them through what I saw. Everything from their faulty footwork to their flinging the ball instead of passing it, to their defense, to leaving the middle wide-open and getting beat on the offensive boards.
"They're generally disorganized and slow filling the corner to get the triangle underway. The guards often push the wings to the corner instead of using an entry pass, which is the best way to set up the offense. They don't headhunt on screens. Especially on weakside screens, they're too eager to slide toward the ball. Sam Dalembert and Cole Aldrich set good screens. And hardly anybody boxes out."
Jackson also noted the absence of "automatic releases" that should be implemented whenever a player is denied the ball. "Instead of making the mandatory back-cut, they tend to either stand around or move farther away from the attack zone. This offense is geared to use pressure defense to an advantage."
During his game-tape session, Jackson challenged his players individually. "Tell me what you're doing on this particular play. Now tell me what you're supposed to be doing. Executing properly on both ends of the court is all about recognition and anticipation -- skills that many of these guys lack."
And the result of the intervention?
"The next game was at home against Toronto, and they totally reverted to the same bad stuff. Unfortunately, that was still another game we had a legitimate shot at winning, mainly because the Raptors took us lightly. During that game, Terrence Ross lost Tim [Hardaway Jr.] four or five times coming out of the corner on down-screens and scored some easy baskets. Tim got so self-conscious and down on himself about this that his own offense suffered."
As Jackson has said on several occasions, the Knicks are playing not to lose instead of playing to win. That trend of negative thinking has resulted in failing to take advantage of opportunities to break out into big leads against Cleveland, Denver and Boston.
"Too many of these guys don't want to change the way they've always played ... running isos and screen/roles," he says. "We simply don't have enough talent to win playing that way. If we executed the triangle with a full commitment, and had the same attitude on defense, then we'd win our share of games. But that's too much work. Because they resist even trying these changes out, they're way too passive out there. We are robotic in our actions; I'm waiting for this team to start to play using this offense for the individual talents, but together.
"The entire mindset and culture around here has to be improved."
"Too many of these guys don't want to change the way they've always played ... running isos and screen/roles. We simply don't have enough talent to win playing that way." Phil Jackson, in December
Doing so may require a reset. Nine of the Knicks' players are working on the last year of their contracts, including Dalembert, Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani. "An easier move would be to call up a player from our D-League team that I've talked about before: Langston Galloway, who's a 2-guard learning how to play the point," Jackson says. "I believe he's got a solid NBA future. However, some other teams are sniffing around Galloway and he'll definitely be called up by somebody on January 15, when 10-day contracts are permitted. I guess I'll have to make the call a few seconds after that midnight."
Meanwhile, injuries to several important players have made a miserable situation even worse.
"Carmelo's got a loose piece of cartilage behind his right knee cap," Jackson says. "If you watch closely, you'll notice that whenever he jumps, he tries to land on his left leg. I expect that before the season is over, we'll have to shut him down."
Iman Shumpert's dislocated shoulder and the small tear in J.R. Smith's plantar fascia have considerably thinned the guard corps. But Bargnani's various injuries are particularly annoying. "At practice just the other day," Jackson recalls, "he had no trouble running through some basic no-contact skill drills. Defensive slides. Defending sideline screen-rolls. Then, when we were running through some five-on-none offensive situations, Bargnani was on the sidelines. When I asked him why he wasn't out there, he said that he was told only to do the warm-ups."
This was not the kind of competitive fire Jackson wants -- and demands -- from his players. As a result, Jackson is already thinking about possible free agents he might pursue in the offseason.
"Greg Monroe, for sure. He can hold his spot in the low post and he's a good passer. His issues are his court speed and if he can defend."
Other desirables include Robin Lopez, an unrestricted free agent; restricted free agents Pero Antic and Enes Kanter; and Timofey Mozgov, who has a team option for next season. However, DeAndre Jordan is the center Jackson wants most. "He never touches the ball on offense, and Doc Rivers used to ride his ass all the time, but Jordan's the best defensive center in the league," he says. "We'll never get him, though, because the Clippers can give him the most money."
Concurrent with the Knicks' disastrous decline, the New York media has been unmerciful in their criticism of Jackson. They claim the team's talent -- such as it is -- is not suitable to play the triangle.
"Nonsense," he says. "Any team can be competitive if they execute the triangle correctly."
Jackson was also called out for spending a few days at his home in Los Angeles while the Knicks made a southwestern road trip.
"I'm like a duck in the rain," Jackson says. "All that stuff just rolls right off my back."
His team? Not so much.
"We mostly play hard enough," he says, "but can't sustain the energy and we 're making too many mistakes, which acts as a depressing force."