James Dolan did what any right-minded person knew needed to be done. By parting ways with Phil Jackson on Wednesday, Dolan took the first step toward getting the New York Knicks back to a place of respectability within the NBA.
But simply getting rid of his team president won’t be enough. If Dolan wants to turn the Knicks — who went 80-166 in Jackson’s three full seasons running the team — into a consistent winner for the first time in his nearly two decades running the team, he needs to replace Jackson with the best basketball mind he can find.
That’s the irony of Dolan’s run as Knicks owner: For the many, many millions he’s spent on the franchise, for all of the ridiculous things that have happened on his watch, only once has he hired someone whom everyone agreed was the right man for the job — when former NBA Commissioner David Stern all but forced Dolan to hire Donnie Walsh in 2008.
Walsh’s hiring came at the previous nadir of Dolan’s ownership: the end of the failed presidency of Isiah Thomas, who earned his trust and proceeded to run the franchise into the ground. But Walsh took over after Thomas had dealt away several crucial draft picks; Jackson’s departure was made before too much damage was done.
Dolan apparently acted now not because of Jackson’s long-standing feud with Carmelo Anthony, a Dolan favorite, but because of his ridiculous and bizarre public spat with budding young star Kristaps Porzingis. Jackson and the Knicks openly shopped the 21-year-old forward last week, but no suitable offer emerged. Now whoever takes over — for now, it’ll be General Manager Steve Mills — will be able to do what Jackson should’ve been doing: Build a team around Porzingis.
There’s a reason every team in the league called to check on Porzingis when he hit the trade block. Few players combine his ability to score from everywhere on the court while also protecting the rim. Add in that he fully embraced being a star in New York — something that isn’t for everyone — and that’s the kind of building block any team would love to have.
Now Dolan needs to find someone who can build a team around his young star. And he needs to give that person the same kind of autonomy that he’s given Jackson the past three years.
For all of the deserved criticism Dolan has received, if he had the same kind of trust in an experienced executive that he has had for Thomas and Jackson, the Knicks would almost certainly be in a far better place. What’s even stranger is that Dolan did exactly that when he hired Glen Sather — arguably the greatest executive in hockey history — to run the New York Rangers in 2000. Sather still remains the team’s president, having stepped down as general manager two years ago, and during large portions of that run, the Rangers have been among the best teams in hockey.
How Dolan failed to hire a president of that caliber to run his basketball team is one of many confusing things about his ownership of the Knicks. But now, after moving on from Jackson, he has a chance to change that.
The Knicks still have some albatross contracts on the books — most notably Joakim Noah’s gruesome remaining three years and $54 million — but they have Porzingis, point guard Frank Ntilikina, the No. 8 pick in last week’s draft, and control of all of their future first rounders. For the first time in decades, New York has the opportunity to slowly and methodically rebuild through the draft, with budding star Porzingis as an anchor.
There are obvious candidates on the market. Sources have said Dolan is enamored with Toronto’s Masai Ujiri, who fleeced the Knicks in the Andrea Bargnani trade in 2013. Dolan later refused, because of that deal, to send a 2018 first rounder to Toronto for Kyle Lowry. Ujiri is under contract, however, and it would likely cost a first-round pick to get him away from the Raptors.
David Griffin, who last week parted ways with the Cleveland Cavaliers under very different circumstances, is an intriguing candidate. Griffin did a fantastic job working for a difficult owner, Dan Gilbert, and — despite limited flexibility — gave LeBron James as much firepower as he possibly could, helping James lead the Cavaliers to three straight NBA Finals and the 2016 title.
That’s exactly the kind of résumé that Dolan should seek: a man with a proven track record, who is comfortable with members of the media and in his own skin, and who will lead the Knicks back to respectability and beyond. Making such a hire could set the Knicks on a new course, and could finally begin to bring positive feelings back to Madison Square Garden. All Dolan needs do is look at how quickly things have changed for the Los Angeles Lakers to see that it doesn’t take long to turn things around.
Getting rid of Jackson was a much needed first step. But only hiring someone truly qualified — and then leaving him alone to do his job — will make it a meaningful one.