In just three full seasons, Phil Jackson inflicted as much psychic distress on the New York Knicks fanbase as any executive in New York’s recent, storied, terrible history. Jackson signed with the Knicks on March 18, 2014. News broke on Wednesday morning that he’s leaving.
Yet the fans’ discomfort was only possible, in large part, because Jackson’s front office drafted well and unearthed talented young players. Jackson built the team of the future, and then set about imperiling it.
Jackson’s exit ends several weeks of turmoil which saw him feud openly with Carmelo Anthony over his no-trade clause (which Jackson himself negotiated) and entertain trade possibilities for Kristaps Porzingis, either in earnest or to send the young star a message to fall in line. It was a messy end, but then, things have been a mess for a while now.
In Jackson’s first offseason, he made the biggest decision of his tenure: re-signing Anthony to a 5-year, $124 million contract, which included a no-trade clause. He also traded Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton for then-33-year-old Jose Calderon, a handful of cap filler and a pair of second round picks. Not quite an earth-moving rebuild, but not terrible.
The following season, the Knicks made a three-team deal that sent J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland (and three straight Finals appearances), but returned three marginal players and a 2019 second-round pick. That offseason, the team drafted Porzingis with the No. 4 overall pick, and signed Robin Lopez to a 4-year, $55 million deal. The roster rounded out with peripheral free agents Arron Afflalo and Derrick Williams and a trade for Kyle O’Quinn. Then the real trouble began.
In the summer of 2016, Jackson signed Joakim Noah to a 4-year, $72 million contract, and traded Lopez (and his favorable contract), rookie Jerian Grant and Calderon to the Chicago Bulls for Derrick Rose, Justin Holiday and a second round pick. Rose remained a ghost of his former self; Noah was injured, ineffective and more expensive than Lopez.
Going by FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projection system,1 we can see just how badly Jackson overshot on the veterans he acquired. The seven most significant players he brought in or re-signed — Anthony, Rose, Noah, Afflalo, Courtney Lee, Lopez and Calderon — made or will make a combined $253 million from the 2014-15 season to the end of the 2019-20 season from the Knicks. Over that same time, they will have produced $134 million of value. The Knicks overpaid by half.
The rookies were a different story. Jackson famously preferred Jahlil Okafor to Porzingis, but should be credited for taking a talented but risky prospect. The same goes for trading second-round pick swaps for Willy Hernangomez, a viable center of the future, provided we live long enough to see a future without Joakim Noah on the books, and signing Mindaugas Kuzminskas. And last week’s draft selection, 18-year-old Frank Ntilikina, is a risky, home-run type pick at a draft position in which Jackson could have taken safer players with lower ceilings.
Using the same CARMELO method as we did for the veterans, the key Knicks rookies look far better. They project to produce $203 million by 2020, but will have been paid just shy of $43 million.
Naturally, that surplus is made possible by the nature of the rookie scale, which artificially depresses pay for young players, but even going only by the real and projected value, this group of young players has been and will be worth far more than the veterans Jackson acquired. And the value isn’t all tied up in Porzingis, either — Hernangomez and Ntilikina both project to produce at a high level.
With Jackson on the way out, the expectation is that coach Jeff Hornacek will have the freedom to move away from Jackson’s much derided triangle offense. Dolan is teasing the idea of chasing former Denver Nuggets executive Masai Ujiri, who helped pants New York in the ill-advised trade for Anthony, and then again in the even more lopsided Andrea Bargnani deal a few seasons later when Ujiri was working for the Toronto Raptors. (Somewhat infamously, Ujiri nearly traded Toronto’s star point guard Kyle Lowry to New York before Dolan, hesitant to be humiliated by Ujiri once again, called off the trade at the 11th hour.)
The Knicks, who were 80-166 under Jackson, 29.5 games under their preseason Vegas win totals, are in possession of all of their future first-round draft picks for the first time in a decade.2 Things are looking up.
And so the Knicks move on to the next stage of their development, better off than they were three seasons ago. Phil Jackson did a good job — except for the parts where he didn’t. Or perhaps he did a world-historically bad job, except for a few draft picks that went his way. It was a mixed bag, full of drama and triangles, and maybe the best thing to be said about Jackson’s Knicks is that they never managed to completely bungle the future. But in this town, that’s not nothing. It’s borderline groundbreaking. Stick around long enough and even the New York Knicks might have a bright future to sell you.