At 6’8”, Phil Jackson is a man who commands attention. Known just as much as “Phil” or “Zen Master” as he is his full name in NBA circles, there’s an unmistakable presence when Jackson walks into the room.
And with this New York Knicks team facing a true rebuild during a time where a lot of fans were expecting instant success following Jackson’s arrival, the 11-time champion of the sidelines is doing a great job deflecting attention from the club and onto himself.
It’s purposeful, directed and another example of Jackson controlling the conversation without most even realizing it.
Jackson has a reputation for using the media in order to deliver his message. Kobe Bryant has admitted as much, and Jackson rarely speaks a word without having an explicit purpose behind his message. While there’s been a demand to see more of a “hands-on” approach from Jackson versus a reserved behind-the-scenes approach, the 69-year-old is only interested in doing things on his time, at his pace and with his purpose.
Notice how few have talked about the Knicks’ offseason from the team’s perspective, instead focusing on Jackson’s moves? Notice how Jackson has used The Phil Files, an online ESPN series, to make himself — not his underperforming team — the center of conversation? Perhaps, then, one can begin to understand the reasoning behind Jackson’s desire to put himself at the front and center of the conversation.
Jackson wants a team that’ll fight for one another. He wants a group of men who will lead through example and be unafraid to sacrifice their own for the greater good. And because Jackson has been able to keep the attention on himself — deflecting it from his team as he attempts to grow them closer— he’s closer to achieving his ultimate goal.
On paper, Jackson has improved this Knicks team during the offseason. While the signings of Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Kyle O’Quinn, Derrick Williams and Kevin Seraphin aren’t exactly the max contract wingmen that Carmelo Anthony might have hoped for, the reality was always that New York was more than just an Anthony wingman away from putting together a competitive crew. And after the trades of Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert came back to bite Jackson — and his team — in the behind, there was a much more methodical approach this offseason than in Phil’s first turn.
And it was all focused through the Zen Lens.
This could be a lot uglier if Jackson wasn’t deflecting the attention onto himself. No one knows what to expect from Anthony, on the wrong side of 30 and coming off a season-ending knee procedure. Kristaps Porzingis, not even of legal drinking age, is going to take some time to acclimate to the NBA. This is a team that needs Jerian Grant to save its point-guard position in order for it not to be the equivalent of a sad face emoji, and while Lopez is an underrated player, he’s going to be put under the microscope every single night in New York as the Knicks’ new $54 million center. With Williams, Seraphin and O’Quinn still needing to prove a ton at the NBA level, this is a club that, in all likelihood, will be middling at best as it marches forward in improving the long-term picture.
The short-term picture, at best, is bleak. But the tone around the Knicks heading toward the upcoming campaign? It hasn’t been about that. It’s been about Jackson — his rights, wrongs and the culture he’s building inside Madison Square Garden.
Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal dove into the current roster composition and found an interesting, under-discussed trend among members on the roster:
An improved roster certainly doesn’t guarantee that players will take reading assignments more seriously, but it’s worth noting that the Knicks’ opening-night roster figures to be among the NBA’s most book-smart by one measure. The team currently has six players who spent four years in college, which would have been the second-most in the NBA last year, trailing only the Pacers. Entering last season, only three Knicks had spent four years in college, tied for the second-fewest in the league.
So while the Knicks’ rebuild might be walking instead of running, and Jackson’s comments — often taken out of context to be turned into headlines — might rub some in the wrong fashion, just remember that Phil’s Zen Master Mode isn’t unlike a game of chess.
Jackson is thinking two steps ahead while you’re trying to figure out your next decision. Every move, every action and every little thing is done with a clear and emphatic purpose.
Jackson sees the forest for more than its trees alone.