The possibility of 68-year-old Phil Jackson joining the Knicks makes narrative sense. He was a key bench guy for the Knicks during their 1973 title and has been on the team’s short list of coaching candidates since his CBA days. He spent his coaching career in other, better jobs, but now that his failing back has effectively rendered him physically unable to travel and sit on the bench 82-plus nights per year, he can settle into a front office job with an organization for which he has always had an affection.
Narrative symmetry — an aging basketball genius finally returns home — is nice and all, but there’s a good chance this (still unconfirmed) move will end terribly. The Knicks are an infamously dysfunctional franchise with an entitled, meddling owner who ran the team’s last aging basketball genius, Donnie Walsh, out of town a few summers ago, just as the Knicks were seemingly turning it around.
There is an opaqueness to the Knicks — their strictly enforced media policy is essentially “say nothing negative” — that makes it hard to know exactly what’s sinking them at a given time. Obviously, James Dolan is the common ingredient in all New York’s failures this century, but surely, not everything has been directly his fault. He has hired and fired plenty of people who have screwed up, though we never know to what extent or why. All we see is the product on the floor, which is often abysmal and this year, includes Mike Woodson doing a performance art piece that explores the limits of just how deeply one’s face can express incredulousness and confusion.
If Isiah Thomas functioned as synecdoche for everything that was ailing the Knicks in the early 2000s, then Creative Artists Agency is this decade’s new villain. In addition to sounding like a University of Phoenix for failed painters who don’t know it yet, CAA appears to hold significant sway over the Knicks. The Chris Smith signing, where the Knicks gave already overpaid CAA client J.R. Smith’s brother a contract as an ostensible favor to J.R., is held up as the most prominent example, though I would argue Woodson still having a job is getting up there on the list. When Woodson does get canned? (I mean, it has to happen at some point.) There are rumors the Knicks might try to convince Tom Thibodeau or John Calipari to come to New York, because they’re also CAA guys. Contained in Chris Broussard’s report about Jackson signing with the team sometime this week is a detail about at least one anonymous Knick admitting he thinks CAA players get preferential treatment from the coaching staff. Talk to any Knicks fan, and they’ll give you several unconfirmable explanations for why things are the way they are and how CAA might have something to do with it.
This mess is apparently — you have to use that word so much when talking about the Knicks — because Carmelo Anthony is a CAA client. It’s one thing to treat a superstar exceptionally well — surely every team with a great player does that — but the Knicks have made themselves beholden to a single firm that represents a pool of available talent — players, coaches, executives, etc. — which is sort of like opening a restaurant and signing a contract that stipulates you’re only allowed to use Kraft Food products. It’s not that the Knicks can’t and don’t sign non-CAA people, but it seems evident that they’re strongly encouraged to pursue and look after the agency’s clients.
All of this is to say Phil Jackson, if he were to take a GM-like job where he was in charge of personnel decisions, would either have to continue dealing with CAA or root out the agency’s influence altogether. When Walsh took over the Knicks, they were a capped-out mess, but at least he didn’t have to deal with a flighty owner and the leadership of an outside group that doesn’t have the Knicks’ best interests at heart. Jackson isn’t one to back down from a challenge, but this is a uniquely difficult one that even the Zen Master might not be able to conquer.