On the eve of a New York Knicks season that Phil Jackson expected to end in the playoffs, Jackson's former general manager with the Chicago Bulls, Jerry Krause, predicted something entirely different. Krause reviewed the Knicks' roster and decided his old coach would have a really tough go of it as a rookie executive.
But did Krause think it would be this tough? You know, 10-43 tough with the winning percentage actually expected to plunge over the final 29 games?
"I'm not surprised at all," Krause said by phone Wednesday night. "I knew Phil had a bad ballclub. If [James] Dolan offered him $2 million a year or even $5 million, he wouldn't have taken it. But $12 million is overwhelming. Phil didn't take the job because he thought he had a playoff club. He took the job for the money."
Krause and Jackson won six championships together with Michael Jordan's Bulls before the marriage ended badly, and they haven't shared a meaningful conversation in years. And yet Krause still knows how Jackson's basketball brain works better than most. He's the one who pulled Jackson out of the minor leagues, identified him as the coach to take the Bulls where Doug Collins couldn't take them, and helped him embrace the triangle offense by keeping one of its early advocates, Tex Winter, by his side.
Only Jackson has discovered in New York that the triangle is best deployed when Jordan and Scottie Pippen (not to mention Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal) are there to cover for its imperfections. Though the Zen Master of this Knicks disaster never had the talent to compete for anything but the draft-night services of Jahlil Okafor, the fact that he qualifies as a bigger disappointment than his players was notarized Wednesday with the announcement of Carmelo Anthony's pending knee surgery.
Jackson said Anthony is expected to miss four to six months after he undergoes what the team described as a left knee patella tendon debridement and repair. Four to six months. Melo had been publicly kicking around eight weeks as a potential timetable, the reason why many observers (this one included) didn't see his choice to play in the All-Star Game on his home floor as a Defcon 1 crisis.
Jackson's disclosure is an All-Star Game changer. Anthony's knee hadn't felt right since the first week of the season, and he played through the pain when he could in the name of saving the Knicks before it was too late. But once it became clear the season was gone, how could Jackson delay the start of Anthony's recovery period when his projected return might run too close for comfort to the start of training camp?
Melo's going to turn 31 in May, and his legs have already logged a dozen NBA seasons and more than 30,000 minutes. Did this make any sense at all?
"This is his choice," Jackson said at the Knicks' practice facility. "He has to make the choice."
Says who? Anthony might be a $124 million franchise player, but Jackson's $60 million deal is supposed to count for more. He's the guy running basketball operations. He's the guy who won 11 championship rings coaching the Bulls and Lakers, or 11 more than Anthony's won playing for the Nuggets and Knicks. If Jackson wanted to protect his team's future, and the long-term investment in Melo, shouldn't he have pulled the plug weeks ago and persuaded his star player to accept his warm All-Star ovation in street clothes?
"The normal course of action is to just get surgery done and start the rehab as soon as possible," said one prominent league executive. "And I don't think you can just let the player make the decision. It has to be a collaboration with the medical team involved and the player and management side each having a say."
Back in the pre-Jackson days in Chicago, after a young Jordan broke his foot early in the 1985-86 season, Krause and owner Jerry Reinsdorf fought hard to keep the second-year shooting guard off the floor. Jordan missed 64 games before returning in mid-March on a tight minutes restriction.
"Michael wanted to keep playing, and we had some heated arguments about it," Krause recalled. "Michael knew his body probably better than any athlete I've ever known, but we had five doctors saying he shouldn't play and so we wouldn't allow it. We had to protect the player.
"Carmelo is a veteran who knows his body, but Phil should have the final authority. When you delay the surgery like this, the doctors had better do a hell of a job. If the player comes out of it and he's not the same, then you've really got a problem."
Anthony's knee surgery is more serious than everyone was led to believe, and that's only the latest bogey on Jackson's unruly mess of a scorecard. Start with his six-player deal with Dallas that really boiled down to a dangerous swap of a big (Tyson Chandler) for a small (Jose Calderon). Now Chandler ranks 25th in the NBA overall in player efficiency for a contender, and Calderon ranks 234th for the league's worst team.
"Is there a hue and cry for Jose from other teams in a trade possibility?" Jackson asked as Thursday's 3 p.m. deadline approached. "No, there's not that. And we're not out selling Jose stickers to passing cars."
Jackson is lucky there isn't a ranking for executive efficiency, or he'd be right down there with his team. He complained about the Knicks having "a loser's mentality" in the early hours of the season, and did next to nothing to change it.
So far Jackson's found it much harder to impose his will on a team from the executive suite than from the bench. "Phil's never had the ultimate say before," said Krause, who agreed that Jackson has likely developed a greater appreciation for his former Chicago GM (and all GMs and presidents, for that matter) than he had as a coach.
Jackson does have a ton of salary-cap space to play with this summer, and he does have the apparent belief that New York remains an attractive option for free agents on the move. "Why wouldn't it be?" he asked.
The Knicks president also has a shot at a very high lottery pick, and quite possibly Duke's Okafor. "But it's not easy," Krause said, "and this is the first time Phil ever drafted a player."
He'd better draft a good one, or connect on a Hail Mary before Thursday's trade deadline. As much as Anthony needs to be 100 percent for the start of next season, the Knicks need a full recovery out of Phil Jackson too.