Facing reporters in a press-conference setting for the first time since September, Phil Jackson made clear what was roundly believed through another lost season in New York: He wants Carmelo Anthony gone from the Knicks before he can isolate one more time on the wing and launch a jump shot.
In a wide-ranging, 49-minute discussion Friday afternoon at the team’s practice facility, Jackson began by saying, “The buck stops here.” But in evaluating a 31-51 season and an 80-166 record for his three full seasons as the Knicks’ president, he targeted Anthony’s reluctance to perform happily within the triangle offense as a primary reason why the team failed to establish an identity and a formula for winning games, especially close ones.
“We faced resistance and we faced resistance at the top,” he said, referring to Anthony, while also contending that porous defense by veterans Anthony and Derrick Rose haunted the Knicks all season.
Jackson disclosed that he had conducted a “cordial” exit meeting with Anthony but had told him that the team was dedicated to moving on from the six-and-a-half season era in which “he’s carried the basic load for this team.”
But Jackson added: “We’ve not been able to win with him on the court at this time and the direction of our team is that he is a player that would be better somewhere else, and using his talents somewhere else where he can win and chase that championship. Right now, we need players that are really active, can play defensively and offensively. I told him this is not a situation where we’re going to dump you or anything like that. But we’re looking to improve ourselves however we can.”
Jackson insisted that things he has said or tweeted about Anthony were not meant as criticism, including his assertion in an interview this season that Anthony’s ball-stopping was a problem in the execution of the offense.
“Holding the ball is not a criticism, that’s a fact,” he said. “A person has to be able to take that if they’re going to be coached, if they’re going to be part of the organization.”
Jackson said he views his organization as one on the rise – at least in terms of developing a style and type of player he wants. He cited the hustling, team-oriented play of a few young players during the final weeks of the season, which resulted in a few wins that dropped the Knicks into a tie for the sixth-worst record in the league with Minnesota heading into next month’s lottery.
“We were OK with that,” he said, in reference to the young players’ refusal to tank.
In embracing a rebuild with youth, athleticism and whatever free agents might be attracted to such a plan, Jackson must first await Anthony’s decision on whether to waive the no-trade clause given to him by Jackson when he signed the All-Star forward to a five-year deal in 2014. The contract still has two years and roughly $54 million remaining and isn’t likely to bring back much in return.
It was Jackson’s first significant move after taking over as president in March of that year. But while essentially admitting the decision to build around Anthony had been a failure, Jackson added: “I can’t go back and regret it.”
His eye, he said, is on the future, though perhaps not the long-term future. Like Anthony, Jackson has two years left on his five-year, $60 million contract. Asked if he might not be around to enjoy the fruits of a rebuild, he acknowledged that possibility and said he was following the mandate of Knicks owner Jim Dolan and segued into another defense of the triangle.
“That’s not a concern of mine,” he said. “What Jim Dolan and I talked about originally was trying to develop a process where we were developing players and had an identity. That’s one of the things that bothered us this year, was that we didn’t have an identity. It’s basically about ball movement, body movement, a style of play, all part of what we’re trying to do.
“But we understand that a lot of these people are young people – it’s going to take three or four years for them to develop. So in that process it may be beyond my tenure here, in which the team becomes vibrant, competitive, has a chance to go beyond just being in the playoffs. That’s OK with me. I didn’t come here just to particularly win a championship but to do things that were directed by my instructions by Dolan – let’s have something that is identifiable in who we are and how we play.”
Jackson also offered a lukewarm endorsement of his second handpicked coach, Jeff Hornacek, hinting that he had lost control of the team and also suggesting that the season went south around the Christmas holidays when Jackson was in Los Angeles and the Knicks lost six in a row.
At that moment, Jackson sounded more like the coach with a record 11 championship rings won in Chicago and Los Angeles than the executive who has yet to come close to a winning season.