NEW YORK — Phil Jackson, who won 11 NBA championships as a coach and is one of the league’s most admired figures, has agreed to return to the New York Knicks after three-plus decades to head the team’s front office.
The Knicks are scheduled to hold a news conference at 11 a.m. Tuesday to announce his appointment as the team’s new president, according to a person in the NBA familiar with the discussions. A Knicks spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
Jackson, 68, who was a part of the Knicks’ championship era as a player in the early 1970s, has unrivaled credentials as a coach: six titles with the Chicago Bulls and five with the Los Angeles Lakers. He has the highest winning percentage for a coach in league history (.704), along with the most playoff victories (229). He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.
But he has never held a position in a front office, let alone run one, and his first project is a doozy: resuscitate the Knicks after years of mismanagement.
Despite having the league’s second-highest payroll, the Knicks have labored to a 26-40 record ahead of Saturday’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Madison Square Garden. Though their current five-game winning streak has kept them in contention for a playoff spot in the woeful Eastern Conference, the Knicks are still in danger of missing out on the postseason for the seventh time in the last 10 years.
As constructed, the Knicks are a collection of aging players and mismatched parts, with one superstar, Carmelo Anthony, who plans to opt out of his contract and explore free agency this summer. Mike Woodson, in his third season as coach, could be on his way out. The team has traded away scads of future draft picks. In other words, Jackson will need more than a hammer to fix the Knicks. He might need a backhoe.
The arrangement between Jackson and James L. Dolan comes loaded with intrigue. Dolan has a reputation for being highly involved in personnel matters. He meddles. He overrules. And he has been known to drive some of his more high-profile employees away, including Donnie Walsh, who as the team president objected to the 2011 deal that brought Anthony to the Knicks in exchange for rotation players and several of those draft picks. Walsh is back with the Indiana Pacers, a team with championship aspirations, as a consultant for basketball operations.
Jackson, on the other hand, is known for his candor. He talks about his Zen philosophies. He shares his opinions. He has written several books, including “The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul,” about the 2003-04 Lakers. In the book, Jackson is open about the inner workings of the team. (He even criticized no less an eminence than Kobe Bryant, though they have built a close relationship.) No member of the Dolan-led Knicks has enjoyed that kind of independence, literary or otherwise, and it remains to be seen how much will be afforded Jackson.
It is also unclear how much time Jackson will spend in New York and on the road engaged with the minutiae of management: scouting players, preparing for the draft, weighing the salary cap, examining advanced analytics. Running a team is not an easy job, and Jackson has a history of health concerns. In any case, it seems likely that the Knicks will supply him with a staff to do much of his legwork.
More than anything, Jackson brings instant gravitas and credibility to a franchise sorely in need of some. Dolan has cycled through six coaches since 2004, obsessive in his quest for quick-fix solutions. He made another seemingly impulsive move on the eve of training camp in September, when he hired Steve Mills to replace Glen Grunwald as the team’s general manager.
Now, with Jackson joining the Knicks, Mills is ceding his position heading the team’s basketball operations after less than five months. In another twist, it was Mills who initially met with Jackson to discuss a role with the team, according to a person in the NBA with knowledge of the discussions. Mills is expected to remain with the Knicks in a revised role.
It remains to be seen how much autonomy Jackson will have in personnel issues, though that was likely an important topic in his negotiations with Dolan, who has seldom, if ever, relinquished much control. Dolan also has notoriously restrictive policies when it comes to dealing with the news media — he has granted one interview about the Knicks in seven years — and generally requires his executives to sign nondisclosure agreements as a condition to employment. Staffers sit in on interviews with players and the head coach (assistants are off limits) and take notes on the questions that are asked.
Todd Musburger, Jackson’s longtime agent, could not be reached for comment.
One of Jackson’s first big situations to deal with will come this offseason, as Anthony weighs whether to stay in New York. The Knicks can offer Anthony the most lucrative contract — five years and $129 million — under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, and Mills had made clear in the preseason that he intended to do everything he could to keep Anthony. Indeed, that was one reason Dolan hired Mills, who is closely connected to Creative Artists Agency, the group that represents Anthony and several other members of the organization.
Now, it could be up to Jackson to persuade Anthony to stay, assuming Jackson believes it is the prudent move for the club.
Jackson has been critical of the Knicks in the past. In 2012, he told HBO’s “Real Sports” that they were a “little bit of a clumsy team” and cited the pairing of Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire as particularly flawed. Stoudemire, who has battled chronic knee injuries, is in the fourth year of a five-year deal worth $100 million. It is worth noting that Jackson won championships with iconic players like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Bryant. He is now the caretaker of a roster with considerably less talent, and with little flexibility in the immediate future to make sweeping changes.
“There’s just too much work that has to be done with that team,” Jackson said of the Knicks in 2012, adding: “Stoudemire’s a really good player. But he’s got to play in a certain system and a way. Carmelo has to be a better passer. And the ball can’t stop every time it hits his hands. They need to have someone come in that can kind of blend that group together.”
Jackson is coming to the Knicks despite having deep ties to the Lakers, whom he coached from 1999-2004 and again from 2005-11. Jackson, who has a home in Los Angeles and a ranch in Montana, is engaged to Jeanie Buss, who is in charge of the Lakers’ business operations.
Dolan had pursued Jackson twice before, both times for the team’s coaching position — in 1999 and again in 2005 when Isiah Thomas was running the front office. Since leaving the Lakers in 2011, Jackson had done some informal consulting work for the Detroit Pistons but was eager to return to the league in a more official capacity.
With the Knicks, Jackson’s journey through the NBA is coming full circle. He began his playing career with the team, which drafted him in 1967. As a gangly, defense-minded player coming off the bench, he was part of the Knicks’ only championship era, which produced titles in 1970 and 1973. Somehow, some way, amid considerable skepticism, he will now try to produce another one.