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, Part 2 and Part 3. Check back next week for Part 5.
Date: Jan. 10, 2015
Knicks record: 5-35
Back in the mid-1980s, when I was an assistant coach for Phil Jackson's Albany Patroons in the CBA, our usual game-day routine consisted of the following:
• A 65-minute drive from Woodstock, New York, to Albany to conduct a 10 a.m. shootaround.
• A workout on the Nautilus circuit at a nearby health club.
• A 30-minute game of one-on-one going up and down the club's small court (my record against him was approximately 1-125).
• A session in the steam room.
• Lunch at our favorite Chinese restaurant.
• Dessert at a bar on Swan Street, to savor a large cup of coffee laced with Bailey's Irish Cream.
• Head over to the Washington Avenue Armory for the game at hand.
So today, Shun Lee West -- a Chinese restaurant on 65th Street -- it is after a 110-82 loss to the Hornets, the Knicks' 15th in a row.
As we near the restaurant, Jackson gets a quarter from Marty, his driver and bodyguard.
"OK," Jackson tells Marty. "I'll flip it and you call it. If you lose, you'll have to park the car and wait until we're finished, then drive me home and drive Charley to the Port Authority. If you win, you can go home."
"Tails," says Marty.
It's tails. (What Jackson didn't say was he would continue flipping the coin until Marty made the right call.)
If Jackson is recognized as we're led to a semiprivate corner table, none of the customers or staff look twice at him. Over soup, he discusses the roots of the recent three-team trade that sent J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to the Cleveland Cavaliers in return for three non-guaranteed contracts -- Alex Kirk, Lou Amundson and Lance Thomas -- and the Cavs' second-rounder in 2019.
The Knicks were winless on a November Southwest trip, losing to Houston, Dallas and Oklahoma City, but there was even worse news from his staff.
"J.R. had been exhibiting some delinquent behavior and had gotten into the habit of coming late to team meetings, or missing them altogether," Jackson says. "Also, Shump and Tim [Hardaway Jr.] were regressing, so I decided to meet with them separately and try to find out what, if anything, was bothering them."
Smith was first on the list. "We talked about his statement to the press that our shooting guard depth was going to be the team's asset, but so far it hadn't worked out that way," Jackson says. "He was supposed to carry the scoring load for the second unit and he wasn't doing the job. I also said that because of his unacceptable behavior, he had two strikes against him with this team. He didn't really respond. He's a very sensitive guy, with his big doe eyes. He looked like he was going to tear up. But he finally responded that he was going through some issues with his gal."
Shumpert was next in line. "After he suffered a hip injury in Dallas, his game went rapidly downhill. Did he have any other issues to explain his decline? He said, 'No. I don't know what has gone wrong with my game.' As with J. R., nothing got resolved."
Hardaway was more responsive, he says. "I told him he was casting the ball instead of shooting it. And if his man scored on him at the other end, Tim tried to get back at him by forcing up some kind of shot. Plus, his defense was hurting the team. He was not closing out on 3-point shooters and forcing them to put the ball on the floor, not trusting that defensive help would arrive on the second dribble. Still, [Derek Fisher] told me that Tim's defense was actually improving, so I didn't harp too much on that."
Hardaway seemed to take the comments to heart, Jackson says, and vowed to work on his flaws. "On New Year's Eve, we played an afternoon game in L.A. against the Clippers," Jackson says. "We stayed overnight in L.A. on New Year's Eve, so whatever might go on probably doesn't help that we have a game the next day. "I asked Fish what players were the biggest distractions. He said that although J.R. never talked back to him, he always walked around under a dark cloud. Derek was worried that negative energy was contagious."
"I asked [Derek Fisher] what players were the biggest distractions. He said that although J.R. [Smith] never talked back to him, he always walked around under a dark cloud. Derek was worried that negative energy was contagious." Phil Jackson, in January
Shumpert was another problem. "I like Shump," says Jackson, "but he has a very loud, big personality. It was difficult for most of the other guys to deal with, especially if things don't go well for him or the team."
The other nuisance, according to Jackson, was Sam Dalembert, who had fallen asleep in the pregame locker room sessions.
"These aspects presented problems that D-Fish doesn't think are going to get our season turned around and, more than that, won't establish this 'culture' we're trying to develop."
Jackson saw no other way. He had to make a deal.
"We made the trade to Cleveland because that was the best place to get J.R. and Shump playing ball the right way. The money that comes back to our cap situation is the benefit of these trades. We need to get out from under our obligations of contracts."
Did he consult Carmelo Anthony, who had played alongside Smith for almost his entire career, before pulling the trigger?
"Not at all," Jackson says. "If I had done so, Carmelo would have to lie to the media when they asked him about that possibility. If we ever had the opportunity to bring in an All-Star player, I'd certainly ask Carmelo if he thought he could play with the guy. Otherwise, it's appropriate to keep him out of the loop."
The three players sent to New York in the deal were promptly waived, and Amundson and Thomas soon signed 10-day contracts. "They can help us," Jackson says. "Lou's experienced, he can bang, and he knows his role. Thomas is a good shooter, and Fish said he had gotten good reports about him from his contacts in Oklahoma City. I figured we'd have two 10-day periods to get a closer look at him, so we signed him as well. Kirk we simply cut loose."
The owner of the restaurant accompanies our waiter as the latter brings us poached codfish. With it, the owner proffers a photograph of a much younger Jackson wearing a Chicago Bulls sweat suit. Jackson gladly obliges the owner's request for an autograph.
His time with the Bulls seems so long ago now, with the Knicks closer to picking at top of the draft than the top of the standings.
At best, the Knicks would get the first pick and tab center Jahlil Okafor, although Jackson thinks he might not be aggressive enough. "Also, if you look at the guys who came to the NBA from Duke, aside from Grant Hill, which ones lived up to expectations?"
At worst, New York will get the fourth pick. "If this happens, I like to know about that kid Emmanuel Mudiay, who's playing in China."
Jackson adds that the free-agent market is much more reliable: "There will be 193 free agents next summer. Some of them restricted but most of them not. So, really, we made the deal mainly because we needed more under-the-cap money to be able to sign some guys we like. The 8 million dollars or so that we picked up in salary exemptions will also help."
Even so, Jackson is not overly enthusiastic about adding five or more new players to next season's rosters. What he'd rather do is bring in a few NBA veterans ASAP: "The idea is to have the rest of this season to get them indoctrinated, to get them comfortable in Fish's game plan. Something might come along during the trading deadline."
Jackson ponders the trade bait the Knicks have left to offer. Pablo Prigioni, he says, is an obvious choice.
"He's 37 and has a small enough contract for next season to entice a contending team to want him as a backup. Same thing with [Jose] Calderon. ... If a team making a championship run needs some stability at the point, then we'd listen. Would anybody take a chance on [Andrea] Bargnani? I did and got no return whatsoever. Maybe he'd be another candidate for a salary dump. Maybe we'll just bite the bullet and waive him. Anyway, we're now in the hunt."
On the plus side, Jackson again makes sure to praise Langston Galloway. "He's got broad shoulders, long arms and the talent and work ethic to have a nice career in the NBA."
He also likes Cole Aldrich. "The problem with him is, that after sitting on the bench for four seasons, he's now being asked to play starter's minutes. So, especially since Amar'e [Stoudemire] has been out, Cole is really wearing down."
And what about Hardaway?
"We were hoping that Tim would establish himself as a bona fide starter, but he's been surprisingly inconsistent," Jackson says. "Sometimes the personalities of a coach and a particular player simply don't match. That could be the case with Tim and Fish, but I'll wait until the end of the season and see what Fish has to say. Tim still has a bright future -- he wants to be good, and if he learns how to improve all the aspects of his game he has a chance."
"He's the only player, besides Jose, on a long-term contract, and once we get moving in the right direction, he'll thrive in the Triangle. If it was up to me, I'd rather he had the surgery ASAP, since it'll take about six months to fully recuperate. And, really, what difference does it make if he plays this season or not? Winning 20 games or 25 games doesn't get us into the playoffs, and the aspect of him playing with a physical issue isn't in our or his best interests."
The fortune cookies arrive. Jackson's reads: "The shortest distance between two people is a smile."
Despite the frigid weather, and the gusting winds, we decide to walk the 10 blocks to his apartment building. The streets are filled with passers-by. Although several of them take a peek at Jackson, nobody smiles at him.