Moke Hamilton, NBA Analyst
As the 41 years worth of dust continues to accrue on the trophy case at Madison Square Garden, the New York Knicks and their fans can at least be assured of one thing.
And that is true whether or not Carmelo Anthony ultimately decides to spend the remainder of his prime wearing a Knicks uniform or not.
Traditionally, the man with the crossover and the superhuman vertical leap gets the accolades, cash and credit. But once upon a time, while the general manager of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, Jerry Krause uttered a phrase that stuck with Jordan for the remainder of his career.
It is as true today as it was back then, even if Krause was misquoted.
“Players don’t win championships,” Krause was quoted as saying. “Organizations do.”
In many ways, Krause’s statement led to the fracturing of a perennial champion and caused Jordan himself to harbor resentment toward the organization for many years thereafter.
But Krause was correct. And today, finally, the Knicks can say that they have an organization.
Even during the days of Dave Checketts, Ernie Grunfeld, Pat Riley and Patrick Ewing, individual agendas and a lack of unity and continuity plagued the Knicks. Since then, through the incompetent administrations of Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas and even the more aptly-run regimes of Donnie Walsh and Glen Grunwald, the Knicks were always missing the most necessary ingredient for a championship contender: a unified front office that was unequivocally married to and built its organization around its head coach.
But here and now, today, one of the things that secretly fuels Phil Jackson is the desire to put a bow on his basketball legacy. He has won 11 championship rings as a head coach and he has two more as a player.
Pat Riley—the man who is Jackson’s closest comparison at this point—won one championship as a player – as a member of the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers. He would eventually coach the franchise to five more championships before winning three more with the Heat.
No matter how you count, Jackson’s 13 rings are more than Riley’s nine, but Riley is the first North American sports figure to win championships as a player, coach and executive. And you know what? He may have never accomplished what he has without noticing and understanding that Erik Spoelstra contained all of the necessary qualities of a successful head coach.
Those who have worked closely with Fisher and a few that have had the opportunity to play with him over the years have mostly positive things to say about him, his work ethic, his demeanor, and his leadership ability.
It is those qualities that will make him an effective head coach.
With Jackson by his side—teaching him, guiding him, showing him—Fisher will have the opportunity to learn and develop under arguably the greatest coach of all-time. More importantly, he will have the time and opportunity to develop and become the next Doc Rivers. Fisher has a similar passion and sincerity about him that will connect with his players.
At least initially, Fisher, like Jason Kidd in Brooklyn, will struggle with the everyday rigors of being a head coach. He will make mistakes with defensive assignments and adjustments. He will lose patience with some of the young gunslingers and will undoubtedly have to adjust to making the transition from being viewed by his players as a peer to their superior officer.
But Fisher will work hard and he will get it right. He will learn and grow under Jackson and will eventually install a triangle in New York, even if it takes two to three years to build out a roster fully capable of running it.
At the end of the day, that is the main point. Jackson and Fisher are members of the New York Knicks. They are here for the long haul and they are here together.
They will sink or swim together and they will win or lose together. Of that we can be certain. We can also be certain of one other thing: there is no guarantee of success in professional sports, especially in the NBA. In this league, one player taking his talents elsewhere can cause a seismic shift in the league’s pecking order and power balance.
So, if by some strange chance, Carmelo Anthony does end up forming a “Big Four” in Miami with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it will be fair to wonder if Jackson and Fisher will both complete their five-year contracts with the Knicks without winning a championship in this city.
If Anthony remains with the Knicks, there is no guarantee that a triangle built around him will flourish. It is not a given that he can be the captain of the structured and cerebral offense the way that Jordan or Kobe Bryant once were.
But at the end of the day, winning starts at the top. From Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra in Miami to Sam Presti and Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City. From Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle in Dallas to R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. In the NBA, winning begins with a unified front office and a clear vision for the future. The Knicks now have that.
Once upon a time, Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni had the mutual respect and appreciation for one another’s talents, but Walsh’s decision to hire D’Antoni was made through the lens of making New York an attractive destination for LeBron James. Walsh undertook a monumental task and executed the best strategy possible to achieve his primary objective, but the truth of the matter is that the logic was faulty.
Coaches make players, not vice versa. Coaches should choose players and coaches should mold players. Not vice versa.
In Miami, through their most trying times, Spoelstra has challenged James and held him accountable. Spoelstra helped James discover his weaknesses and conquer them. Spoelstra refused to coddle James and allow him to dictate the culture in and around the Heat. Despite some tumultuous times, in the end, Spoelstra garnered the respect and admiration of the greatest player of his generation. The respect has reached the point where James routinely compliments Spoelstra for good decision-making and substitutions made during games and in press conferences afterward.
During the 2014 NBA Finals in Miami, James attracted attention by letting it be known that he considered Spoelstra the team’s boss and leader and that, like a good soldier, he followed Spoelstra’s directives and orders even when he didn’t necessarily agree with them.
Traditionally, that has not been the type of culture that the Knicks have built. Now, finally, that will change.
As the head coach in this league has become more and more disposable over the past few years, the constant with a winning and successful organization has been unity.
If nothing else, coming from the front office, the Knicks have that.
And although there is no guarantee of success, the Knicks are finally doing things the correct way.
It’s been a long 41 years, but as the Knicks attempt to move forward and recapture past glory, they can finally say that there is a plan and a vision.
What a welcomed change.