Why the Phil Jackson Era Wasn’t a Total Dumpster Fire

Why the Phil Jackson Era Wasn’t a Total Dumpster Fire

The tricky thing about a dumpster fire is the smoke. You can’t see what’s burning or what damage has been done. It’s all obscured behind the haze.

Phil Jackson walked away from Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, leaving behind a smoldering pile of false hopes and broken promises. He was not the first Knicks exec to leave under a noxious cloud. He likely will not be the last.

For as long as James L. Dolan has owned the franchise, the Knicks have operated in a near-constant state of emergency—a perpetual conflagration of scandal and controversy and self-inflicted humiliation.

Sometimes, the fire rages (see 2005-07). Sometimes, it merely fouls the air.

The Jackson era was indisputably messy: two head coaching hires, dozens of players, provocative quotes, mystifying tweets, pointless conflicts with the franchise star and a near-religious devotion to a possibly obsolete offensive system.

But this is no inferno. Cut through the haze and the charred relationships and what you’ll find is a franchise that’s in surprisingly solid shape—and arguably in better condition than it was when Jackson arrived.

The team Jackson inherited in March 2014 was spiraling toward a 37-45 finish, behind a tired, aging core with no room to grow. The Knicks had no first-round pick that spring, no salary-cap room that summer and no youth to build around.

Whatever mistakes Jackson made over the last three years—and yes, there were many, all well-chronicled elsewhere—he at least put the franchise on firmer footing.

In Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks now have a blossoming young star to build around. The roster is dotted with cheap young players with upside, including rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina. They control all of their future first-round picks. They will have at least $20 million in salary-cap room when free agency opens July 1—and possibly more in 2018. They still have the opportunity to deal Carmelo Anthony (with his consent) for additional assets.

This is not to diminish the damage done or the torture that Knicks fans have endured these last few years. The Knicks were mostly horrible under Jackson’s watch, sometimes comically and sometimes tragically so. They are likely years away from contention.

Nor is this to excuse Jackson’s ill-advised public barbs at Anthony, or the ill-advised contract he gave Joakim Noah.

But the Jackson era was not the unmitigated disaster being portrayed in some quarters—and really, not even the worst era in recent Knicks lore.

Or has everyone forgotten Isiah Thomas, Larry Brown, Stephon Marbury, Penny Hardaway, Eddy Curry, Steve…