Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Changing Knicks’ culture will be a tough task for Phil Jackson

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

Phil Jackson is the lord of the rings – 11 of them, actually – and if he’s not the smartest man in the room, he’s smart enough to know that the only way to screw up his new job as president of the New York Knicks is to pretend that it’s not a new job.

It is. It is also an impossible job. When it comes to pleasing the boss, the Knicks’ James Dolan and the Clippers’ Donald Sterling compete annually for the award as the most despised NBA owner. But, surprise, sometimes even buffoons catch a break. The Clippers of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and coach Doc Rivers are legitimate NBA contenders for the first time in Sterling’s 33 years of ownership.

The Knicks of Carmelo Anthony … and Carmelo Anthony? He, too, will learn to pass. Assuming Jackson abandons the notion of commuting between Madison Square Garden and his beach house in Playa Del Rey – and that’s a pretty good assumption – the most successful coach in NBA history will enroll in a crash course in analytics and salary cap management, reintroduce himself to the player agents he once avoided, and do whatever else is necessary to succeed. If that means hiring executives who are older and wiser, or at least more experienced and schooled in the ways of the New Age NBA, he will do that, too.

Jackson has never had much use for sycophants. He enjoys the battle, the banter, the mind-stretching exercises. During his early coaching seasons with the Bulls, his staff included the legendary Tex Winter and John Bach, both of whom were stubborn, opinionated basketball lifers who were highly regarded within the industry.

Jackson and the outspoken Winter – who conceived the triangle offense – often engaged in animated discussions during practices and games, argued about everything from when to call timeouts to the value of incorporating yoga and meditation into workout sessions.

“This guy is unique,” Bach said. “I think he’s well-suited for this undertaking. He’ll go in there and reorganize. He is very decisive, and he won’t panic. He also knows New York, understands the New York media and appreciates that the (turnaround) won’t happen overnight.”

Jackson, who will be introduced at a news conference on Tuesday morning in New York, already is assembling a coaching staff that is expected to feature at least one fellow rookie and adherent to the triangle: former Bulls and San Antonio Spurs sharpshooter Steve Kerr.

But hiring quality people will be the least of Jackson’s problems. Overhauling a Knicks roster that is short on draft choices and long on bloated contracts will be infinitely more challenging. His first task is to identify the square pegs from the players who can fit into a triangle, foremost among them free-agent-to-be Anthony, a fascinating, confounding, ball-dominant puzzle.

See, Jackson envisions basketball as art, as a rhythmic exercise of blended colors and symmetrical edges, as images displayed within a precise, cohesive framework. He is probably the league’s harshest critic of isolation offenses, overdribbling tendencies and predictable pick-and-roll systems so prevalent in today’s game.

“We now have signal-flag guys all over the league,” Bach added. “They could work for the old Navy. Every play is three-down, four-up, two-over. Players spend their time looking over at the coach or waiting for him to tell them what to do in the huddle. Phil believes in an offense that is deceptive, (and) features movements and player reads. You can’t be wrong if you move. Most importantly, you can play defense out of it.”

That sounds nothing like the current Knicks of Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and Amar’e Stoudemire. But Jackson will work overtime to convince Anthony to re-sign and then re-sculpt the gifted small forward’s style. Anthony is simply too talented, too tantalizing, to think otherwise. And for those who might have forgotten, a Lakers tandem of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal wasn’t exactly a dream team when Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, either.

No, Jackson’s quirky presence will be missed on the West Coast. His reluctance to commit to living full time in New York also suggests that this is a cat who had two lives with the Lakers and was hoping that Jim Buss would learn from his father’s mistakes and bring him back for a third.

While Jackson’s health issues preclude him from coaching, his presence with the Lakers would have kept life in L.A. interesting. Now, all L.A. has is the Clippers. Now, all Sacramento has is the distant memory of Jackson whining about cowbells and then flirting with the possibility of coaching the Kings when approached during his sabbatical season – or right about the time the senior Buss was publicly badgered into bringing him back.

He is such an interesting character, such a colorful part of Kings lore, he can almost be forgiven for endorsing Chris Hansen’s attempts to kill the Kings and resurrect them as Sonics in Seattle. Almost. Not quite. Maybe never. And imagine if the board of governors’ decision on the Kings possible relocation had come down to a vote by the Lakers’ representative, Jeanie Buss? Jackson’s fiancee Jeanie Buss?

But Kings-Lakers-Anaheim-Seattle is all history now. Jackson is in New York. Jeanie is in Los Angeles. Shaq is part-owner of the Kings. Kobe is achy and aging, and, in a real tongue-twisting development – try to say this five times with a perfectly straight face – the Kings rank higher than the Lakers in the Pacific Division.

West Coast hoops will never be the same, though, and there is no denying that Jackson brought out the cowbells and the best in the Kings.