Phil Jackson’s departure tells us NBA is a players’ league
If the GM or team president is the main celebrity of your franchise, you’re probably in trouble
Phil Jackson didn’t just lose a power struggle at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday; he lost the culture war won by the modern NBA player. It’s fitting the news of Jackson’s firing in New York was trumped before noon Wednesday by the blockbuster trade between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers — a trade reportedly orchestrated by Chris Paul, the linchpin of the deal.
More than ever before, the NBA is a players’ league. In the finite number of earning-power years they have as elite athletes, they’ve also taken control of their careers like never before.
Jackson privately seethed about this new world, as it took the power out of his hands and bestowed it on the very players whose careers he and his team president peers were paid to control and lord over.
If LeBron James or Kevin Durant or James Harden could play general manager, who needed a genuine team architect? Jackson couldn’t embrace that reality. Neither has Pat Riley, although he was the first beneficiary of it.
If James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade ushered in the modern era of the Uber Team when they decided in 2010 to combine forces in Miami, Durant upped the ante last summer when he left Oklahoma City to join the team with the greatest regular-season record in league annals.
Now it’s Paul’s turn to play maestro. He essentially gave the Clippers an ultimatum the past 48 hours: Trade me where I want or lose me for nothing.
Doc Rivers, the Clippers’ coach and team president, worried more that Paul wouldn’t return to the Clippers than he did about Blake Griffin, the team’s other highly prized free agent-to-be. He worried that Paul, the president of the players union, had grown weary of anyone telling him what’s good for him, unless it was exactly what Paul wanted to hear from that person.
Mostly, he worried that the idea of the Super Team had become the thing to do for a perennial All-Star player, that if someone like James or Paul and one of their BFFs could find a way to play together and recruit another All-Star aboard, they could build their own championship contender.
And all they’d need Rivers, Jackson and Riley for was to call the league’s salary cap guru to see if the numbers worked out.
Rivers spent the afternoon dealing with the repercussions of “losing” the Clippers’ face of the franchise, if you can call a player dictating the terms of his exit losing. He also heard reports, via ESPN’s Michael Eaves, that the relationship between Paul and Rivers was almost nonexistent at the end because Paul reportedly couldn’t stand how the coach favored his son, Clippers guard Austin Rivers. Rivers had to know this wouldn’t work out long term.
According to a Clippers player and a team official on condition of anonymity, Paul actually lobbied for Austin Rivers to start at shooting guard ahead of J.J. Redick at midseason. When Rivers disagreed with Paul, he got angry about it. Rivers couldn’t win in the era of the Uber Team.
If there is one takeaway from Jackson’s exodus/escape from New York, it’s this: If the GM or team president is the main celebrity of your franchise, you’re probably in trouble.
If you’re constantly competing with your on-court stars for Q rating and public affirmation, the way Jackson was with Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, you’re not going to be a successful NBA executive in 2017.
The difference with Sam Presti in Oklahoma City, Daryl Morey in Houston and many of the other recent successful NBA front-office people? Unless you were an NBA insider or a plugged-in fan of their team, you’d have no idea who they were walking through Times Square.
Jackson, Riley, Larry Bird, who just stepped down in Indiana, and Magic Johnson, now heading up the Los Angeles Lakers, should take heed today and realize the truth — the star of your franchise can’t be wearing a suit.
There’s a reason Riley lost James back to Cleveland and Dwyane Wade to Chicago over the past four summers; it wasn’t just about money, it was about respect, or lack thereof, from above.
The Phil Jackson experiment in New York detonating so quickly, after just three years, is a bit of a head-spinner. It’s frankly startling to think about the greatest coach the NBA has known unable to get through to his players in another job.
Jackson’s reputation was built on being a star whisperer; Shaquille O’Neal once called him “my white father.” Kobe Bryant took all the tough love Jackson could dole out and channeled it into two titles without O’Neal. Michael Jordan. Scottie Pippen. Even the former malcontents like Dennis Rodman listened and learned from Jackson, the all-knowing sage, Obi-Wan Kenobi with a whistle and a clipboard.
Jackson, for all his off-kilter, bohemian weirdness, could talk to these guys. Whatever he became, he once knew how to motivate people, some of whom believed themselves to be the greatest men on the planet, and push them to grander heights.
And now, it’s all about tweeting at Porzingis or Anthony, trying to passive-aggressively tell them who’s boss in a rash new NBA landscape where the great Phil Jackson suddenly has no job anymore.