Yesterday, Knicks fans enjoyed unprecedented candidness from a front office that has locked word of its intentions in an airtight, waterproof time-capsule, buried in the sealed vault of the central bank of Atlantis, located at the bottom of the ocean, and accessible only via a Stargate. So many questions were answered, so many assurances given. Phil Jackson will have complete autonomy. James Dolan will focus on growing the business, rather than involving himself in basketball-related minutia.
But the Garden catacombs are deep and haunting, and Jackson’s shining aura and karmic dazzle have not yet reached every one of its corners. Studious observers of recent Knicks history may have noticed veins of resentment or mistrust at play in the recent drama. Conspiracy minded folks, like myself, may wish to trace these veins to their origin and/or predict their terminus. Recognizing that the following is built primarily on speculation and subtext, I present my conspiracy theory:
Carmelo Anthony, viewing himself as LeBron James’s equal, sought influence over a flagship franchise of his choice. He instructed Creative Artists Agency to procure what James had: influence, control, a trusting, nurturing environment. As ESPN’s Henry Abbott put it, “Anthony didn’t join the Knicks in 2011 to be just a player. He came to build a basketball family…[H]e came to New York envisioning an opportunity to create a refuge from the backstabbing and intrigue that plagues many teams.”
At the same time, stung by the organization’s failure to land LeBron, James Dolan sought advice from the power-brokers at CAA: “What did we do wrong? What can we do next time?” It has been reported that Dolan developed an increasingly cozy relationship with William Wesley, who formerly occupied the vague role of NBA power-broker, but assumed the guise of CAA mega-agent. I believe that CAA sold Dolan the following premise: “Don’t you worry about it. Just give us the keys, and we’ll take you where you want to go.” With newfound access to Dolan’s Garden, CAA delivered Anthony his “basketball family.”
Everything was marvelous. Until it wasn’t.
Memories of the Knicks’ 54-win campaign in 2012-2013 turned to dust, its good vibes shattered as MSG’s relationship with CAA metastasized from well-intentioned fiduciaries to Anthony’s interests to a laboratory for insidious experimentation with CAA’s clients. How else to explain trading three-draft picks (including an unprotected first rounder) for the horrid Andrea Bargnani? How else to explain gifting J.R. Smith a longer, more expensive contract than he would have commanded on the open market? Or gifting his little brother (initially cut by the Knicks and then from a NBA D-League squad) a contract at all? How to explain The Garden’s demand that coach Mike Woodson replace his long time agent with CAA before assuming the reigns? How to explain the witches’ brew of executives dotting the Garden landscape whose ostensible role was to help the Knicks win, but who were actually primarily concerned with catering to Anthony’s sensibilities through CAA?
After that 54-win season, Dolan must have felt none of this mattered. Indeed he told ESPN Radio’s Michael Kay on Tuesday that if the Knicks had been enjoying the same level of success this year, he would not have recruited Jackson. If turning the crown jewel of The Madison Square Garden Company over to CAA to build Anthony his “basketball family” was the price of winning, well it was a small price to pay for a man who once gave Larry Brown $28,500,000 to coach for one year.
But today, during the Garden’s press conference to introduce Jackson, Dolan caused a stir when he admitted that he’s no basketball expert. On Kay’s show, he admitted he doesn’t follow the hoops zeitgeist. But he did note that during games, his misery over the team’s plight is apparent from his demeanor, a visage the city’s back pages are keen to portray. It’s not difficult to imagine Dolan, in those moments, declaring to himself, “I gave these guys the keys, and this is what I get?!?” It’s not difficult to imagine Dolan deciding that CAA had taken advantage of him. It’s not difficult to imagine Dolan deciding that they should be purged, if necessary. And the man to do it, Dolan clearly believes, is Jackson. When Kay asked Dolan, essentially, what of CAA? Dolan responded, “Phil Jackson is in charge of all basketball decisions. Period. Including all of those [MSG’s continued relationship with CAA].”
But what would this mean for Anthony’s vaunted “basketball family”? I think that despite Jackson’s legendary pedigree, his Steve Jobsian reality distortion field, his unquestioned leadership, Anthony may not be pleased with recent events. Read into some of his public comments. Literally one minute prior to the Garden’s press conference to introduce Jackson, Anthony tweeted:
Anthony struck a similar tone in the days leading up to the official announcement: “I’m a chess player. [Hiring Jackson was] power move right there. You know what I mean?…So now we’re going to see what’s the next move, but that was a great power move.” Anthony said on Saturday.
“Hunt or be hunted”? “I’m a chess player”? “The next move”? The thing about chess is that it’s a competitive game, in which one party tries to outsmart the other. Anthony clearly thinks he is one of the parties. He clearly thinks the Knicks/Jackson are the other (Phil says Melo can change, Melo tweets “#StayMe7o”). The Knicks made their move. Hiring and empowering one of, maybe the two people who could accomplish dual goals: Clear the Garden of the detritus that comprises Anthony’s “basketball family,” and still convince him to stay in New York.
I think Jackson, beacon of teamwork, harbinger of harmony, herald of unity, convinced Dolan that that detritus has been holding the Knicks back, and what will continue to hold them back. What else to make of Dolan’s pronouncement after he sauntered onto stage during today’s press conference and announced that Jackson (as opposed to whoever pushed through the moronic trade for CAA client Andrea Bargnani) “will be in charge of ALL basketball decisions”? What else to make of Dolan’s implicit message – in a season characterized in the worst ways by favoritism, cronyism and nepotism that fractured the Knicks locker room – that the new President knows not only how to win, but pointedly, how to win “through teamwork”? What else to make of Dolan telling Michael Kay that he would cut ties with Anthony, if that is what Phil wanted to do?
An anonymous Knicks player recently told ESPN’s Chris Broussard that “You see how guys from CAA are treated differently[.] How they get away with saying certain things to coaches. How coaches talk to them differently than they talk to the other guys. It’s a problem.” As lush and comfortable as this may be to Anthony and his “basketball family,” you can be damned sure that Jackson does not share that comfort. You can be damned sure that Jackson, during the many conversations he shared with Dolan, diagnosed this illness: “[t]his organization has suffered in the past few years from…lack of solidarity.” He shared his vision for treatment: “there’s obviously layers – personnel, basketball and Madison Square Garden – and I hope to be able to move through the organization and find out who wants to be on the group and who doesn’t as we move forward.” And he shared his prognosis: “[A]s great a player as Carmelo is, he still has another level he can go to. I hope together with the team, we can go there.”
What could Phil have meant? Particularly when just a moment prior he also said “No doubt about Carmelo being one of the top scorers in the league, maybe the best isolation player in the game”? Replace the word “Carmelo” with “Michael” in ‘89 or “Kobe” in ‘99 and each guy still needed Phil to convince them that they should change the way they went about business. My theory is that just like those stars, Anthony has to step outside of himself. In Anthony’s case, that means giving up on the notion that he needs to be the figurehead of a “basketball family.” Jackson went out of his way to point out that Anthony played a role in a system during the 2012 Olympics. He went out of his way to emphasize that he will ensure the Knicks utilize a system. So I think Jackson thinks that Anthony must give himself over to and fully embrace discomfort; to make sacrifices; to trust others to do right by him; to stop thinking of his position vis a vis his team as an adversarial chess-game that will now require him to make his own “power move.” The opposite of “#StayMe7o.”
If anyone can convince Anthony to do this, it’s Phil. And if Phil can’t, well, the Summer of 2015 awaits for a new group of guys, led by a new star, who may be more receptive.