Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Zen Bastard

Okay, I'm calling it right now. If Phil Jackson coaches the Knicks, I'll eat an entire pepperoni pizza.* I'm talking all 8 slices. You can decide where we get it from. You know I'm good for it.

I'm pretty sure that I'm not going to have to do anything of the sort. But do you know why? It's because there is no chance -- none -- that Phil Jackson will be walking the home sidelines of Madison Square Garden. Do you know why? It's because they don't have any talent, or at least the kind of talent to which the "Zen Master" is accustomed.

You see, P-Jax has never had to build a team. He has never had to organically take a group of rag-tag players and turn them into players who shock the world by winning. No, Jackson (in both his coaching jobs) has walked into ready-made situations with underachieving players, and simply gotten them to play as well as they already should have been.

When he began coaching the Bulls, they were already poised for dominance. They had the best player in the game (Michael Jordan) a rising superstar (Scottie Pippen, who I still think may be the most overrated basketball player of all time), and a solid cast of role players (Bill Cartwright, Steve Kerr, Paxson, Armstrong, Hodges, etc). They were coached by the over-his-head Doug Collins. Collins is a good man and a knowledgeable basketball mind, but he doesn't seem to have the killer instinct necessary to be a great coach (which was proven in stints with Detroit and Washington later on). So Jordan calls up management to get Collins bounced, Jackson takes over and the rest is, as they say, history.

But this is a team that used to play tough in the playoffs every year, but would always end up losing to the Pistons or the Celtics. It's not like this team was built by Jackson from scratch. It's very similar to the San Francisco 49ers in 1989 (this is football now, in case you didn't know). Coach George Siefert inherited the dynasty that Bill Walsh left to him, and won the Super Bowl in his first year in the league. Why wasn't everyone praising Siefert as a genius? He won another title in 1994, in the most parity-riddled sport on the planet. People, of course, may forget that Siefert went on to coach a team that was quite mediocre -- the 1999 Carolina Panthers -- and was fired due to some piss-poor seasons. Not a genius with no talent, eh George?

So as soon as MJ retires from the Bulls, the whole team smells blood in the water and leaves. Including Jackson. Was it because he was just plum sick of coaching? Well, he may say that. But I have a sneaking suspicion that he didn't want to have to coach without MJ saving his Buddhist-genius ass every game. Sidenote: the two years in the mid-1990s that the Bulls didn't win the NBA Championship, which years were those again? Oh yes, the two years that he didn't have Jordan for a full season. Weird!

So Jackson takes one strike-shortened year off from coaching so he can coach -- who else? -- the Los Angeles Lakers. They are a proud team who had fallen on hard times due to some dips in talent and poor coaching (Del Harris and Kurt Rambis coaching the erstwhile Showtime Lakers? Say it ain't so!)

But the Lakers luck out. They get a steal in the draft by trading Vlade Divac and someone else to the Charlotte Hornets for Kobe Bryant, and they land big-man and bigger-mouth Shaquille O'Neal, because he wants to be in Hollywood movies. (I'm still waiting for Kazaam II.)

Interesting, thinks Jackson. Two superstar players on an underachieving team. Pounce!

Long story short, blah blah blah, Lakers win 3 titles and Phil Jackson's absolute genius cannot be denied. He has applied the tenets of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" and applied them to the basketball court, and my god soon he won't have enough fingers for all those rings.

But a strange thing happened. The NBA -- actually doing something right for the first time in maybe a decade -- decides to bring back zone defense! No more illegal defense calls. (And how a sports league could ever justify calling any defense, which is strictly strategic in nature, "illegal" will never be satisfactorily explained to me.) Suddenly, the league isn't a bunch of one-on-one matchups with Jordan shooting over Craig Ehlo or Shaq dunking over Dikembe Mutumbo. Suddenly we have creative defenses that are able to isolate and contain one, or maybe even two star players, making it imperative that the team play well as a whole. Uh-oh.

Interesting that since this rule change in the 2002-03 season, Jackson has not won a championship, losing to the Spurs in '03 and getting flatly dominated by the dynamic team defense of the Pistons in '04. (And by the way, Ben Wallace, not Chauncey Billups, should have been the MVP of that series for neutralizing Shaq and allowing the rest of the team to swarm Kobe.)

So now Jackson, in a seemingly-new era of NBA where the old teams aren't dominating as much anymore, can't decide where to go. Will he go back to L.A., where Kobe, not Mitch Kupchak, is the General Manager. Jackson could go back there, but he doesn't have another Shaq, so that makes only ONE great player on the team. Hmmm...

He has also been talking about going to the Knicks, but I don't need David Aldridge to tell me that there is not a chance in hell that's gonna happen. Why? Talent baby. Jackson will never -- NEVER -- go to a team that isn't already bursting with talent. (This, by the way, is why I'm shocked he never went to the Cleveland Cavaliers, with their exciting LeBron/Ilgauskus combo.)

Who do the Knicks have? Kurt Thomas? Allen Houston? Starbury? Malik Rose? Sorry boys, but I don't see any top 25 players in that list. And that, folks, is not gonna cut it.

So I'll make my guarantee again: Jackson will not be coaching the Knicks this year. He'll probably just go back to the Lakers and take his $15 million and deal with Kobe and bang Jerry Buss's daughter and grow his Colonel Sanders beard and say pithy things about the teams he's playing against.

I'll say this, if he took the Knicks to even the conference finals with this lineup, even I'd call him a genius. But unfortunately for Knicks fans, no dice!

*Note: This offer is null and void if (before Jackson is hired) the Knicks trade for two of the seven best players in the league. Let's say that the seven best players in the NBA are Shaq, Kobe, LeBron, K.G., Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Allen Iverson, and Tracy McGrady, randomly, but for the record in case it ever really happens.