Change is good. Those three words are often used as a coping mechanism for someone or a group of people who are quietly pessimistic or nervous about the aforementioned “change.” Whether you deal with it well or it tears you apart, change is unavoidable. In every aspect of life, every twist and every turn, a change is lurking. In no business is this more true than in the business of professional sports. Coaches are changed, players are changed, teams are changed, rules are changed and the list goes on and on. One other major change in the world of sports only occurs every decade or so. This change is often referenced when the landscape of a sport seems to stray from the beaten path. The phrase is used more often than it should. I’m talking about changing the game.
Michael Jordan changed the game some thirty years ago and basketball hasn’t changed much since. Kids growing up all over the world idolized Michael and wanted to emulate his every move. As a result of that, the acrobatic layups, dramatic jumpshots, and gravity-defying dunks became a staple of the NBA for the years to come. Phil Jackson was a part of that change. Phil coached Michael during their incredible run in the late 80’s to the mid 90’s. They won six NBA championships together including two seperate back to back to back runs. He later went on to coach the Los Angeles Lakers with Shaquille O’Neal and a Michael Jordan clone, Kobe Bryant. Jackson won three titles with Kobe and Shaq and later won two more with Kobe and a loaded Lakers team featuring Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum. There is no doubt that Phil Jackson was a huge part of that era of basketball which was ultimately ushered in by none other than MJ himself.
Now, in 2016, a trend has started to develop across the NBA. As “basketball guys” are being forgotten and analytics guys are being praised, the game is once again being changed. The NBA is evolving. Gone are the days of wanting to see a player shatter the backboard. Instead, the fans would rather watch Steph Curry hit a shot from half court with seemingly little effort. Nobody cares to see Kawhi Leonard lock down LeBron James on defense, they’d much rather see Kyrie Irving put on his dancing shoes and send someone to the ground with his fancy dribbling. By no means is this a bad thing. The emphasis on ball movement and player movement has never been more profound across the NBA and it truly is beautiful basketball to watch. For a good portion of the past 15 years, the NBA was very big on isolation basketball; putting the ball in your best players hands and letting him figure it out. Teams like the Spurs and the Golden State Warriors are changing the status quo and the league is taking notice. The Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers made it a point to find head coach that had experience with the San Antonio Spurs in an attempt to imitate that ball movement and player movement that makes the Spurs so successful. The Brooklyn Nets brought in a new general manager based on his experience in the San Antonio front office. The Los Angeles Lakers just hired soon to be former Golden State Warriors associate head coach, Luke Walton to try and bring some of the Warriors tricks to L.A. The NBA is changing and it looks like Phil Jackson is stuck in the past.
It seemed somewhat ironic for Phil Jackson to use a quote about change when talking about how he relaxes. Phil quoted philosopher Alan Watts when talking about dealing with change and how the only way to do so is to “plunge into it” and “join the dance.” Seems somewhat contradictory considering Phil himself is having a hard time changing his ways. Phil Jackson has a deep understanding and respect for the system of basketball that won him eleven championships, and rightfully so. It goes back to the old saying of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Phil won eleven championships by using the triangle offense. It clearly worked out well for him so you can’t blame him for believing in it. However, with the results that it has produced over the past two seasons for the New York Knicks and with the trend that has developed across the league, is it maybe time to question whether or not this system is still effective in the modern NBA? In today’s NBA, the need for strong point guard play has never been more vital. The point guard position has evolved in the same way that the quarterback position has in the NFL. Without a good player at that position, you’re not going to win. It’s not so much that the point guard needs to dominate every game, but the depth of the position around the league is such that without a solid player at the point guard position, you are immediately at a disadvantage. It’s seemingly every night that you’re going up against an all-star caliber point guard. Phil Jackson has said repeatedly that he doesn’t see a big need for a point guard. Strike one. The NBA has evolved into a perimeter oriented game. Teams are shooting the three point shot at an alarming rate and the best teams in the league are the ones who do it best. Teams center their whole offense around setting off ball screens for shooters and trying to space the floor. The triangle offense puts an emphasis on playing through the post. The very foundation of the triangle offense is getting the ball inside and reading the defense from there. Strike two. Perhaps the biggest key to having success in today’s NBA is how well you play in transition. Whether it be transition defense or running the fast break, the best teams, again, are the ones who do it best. The top teams in the league excel at getting the ball off a defensive rebound or a turnover and pushing the pace and getting easy buckets in transition. Some teams push the pace even without a defensive rebound or turnover to start it off. Phil Jackson and the triangle offense require you to get the ball into the post, set your offense up, and wait for a play to develop. The offense isn’t as effective if you don’t slow the pace down, set up the triangle, and get into the flow. Strike three.
It seems as though every key component to a successful team in the NBA today is contradicted by the philosophy of the one they call the “Zen Master.” Despite all of this, Phil has seemingly faced little criticism despite the few regulars who enjoy pointing out all of his deficiencies. It’s almost as though Phil is getting a pass because of his success as a coach. There is a difference between running a team and assembling one and Phil seems to be having issues with both right now. He has failed to attract marquee free agents in his first two offseasons as Knicks president. He is so hung up on his triangle offense that he refuses to even consider alternatives. With very good coaches still available on the open market, Phil seems inclined to bring back interim head coach Kurt Rambis to do the job full time going forward. Coaches like Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson, Kevin McHale and others are still out there and they haven’t even received a text message from the Knicks president. While all of this is going on and coaches like Luke Walton, Tom Thibodeau, and Scott Brooks are finding homes, the Knicks president is enjoying his summer vacation. As other front offices are working ’round the clock to find their next head coach among other things, the Knicks president is exploring the Great Plains. Don’t get me wrong, everyone is entitled to a vacation, but usually the vacation waits until the work is done. It is clear that there is still a ton of work to be done by Phil and the Knicks front office. It may be time that Phil listens to philosopher Alan Watts. It may be time that Phil himself adapts to change. This isn’t the same league that he won eleven championships in. This isn’t the team with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. This isn’t the team with Kobe and Shaq. This is the New York Knicks in a new era of basketball. The basketball world is changing while Phil Jackson is not. Time will tell if there is a method to the madness but all signs point to the answer being no. The clock is ticking on Phil and if he doesn’t change quick, the name on his office door might.
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