Courtesy of Jackie MacMullan
ackie MacMullan: You have been under siege since you’ve taken over the Knicks, which has been different for you. In your coaching travels you’ve been all but untouchable. How have you handled the adversity?
Phil Jackson: I knew the parameters of what would go on from years of playing in series against the Knicks. I remember all the barbs. It’s a process of sticking to my beliefs and being able to say, ‘Whatever.’ This is what I was hired to do. I’m going to follow the plan and if it doesn’t work out, it will be evident.
JM: There have been reports you are frustrated that (Knicks coach) Jeff Hornacek isn’t employing the triangle offense enough. Is that the case?
PJ: No. But when they run it I want them to run it the right way. If you are going to do it, use your skills and run it the right way. I’m not frustrated at all. Derrick Rose missed three weeks of training camp (because of a civil trial). It’s totally understandable where we are as a ballclub. We have guards that do a lot of stuff off the dribble. I want them to understand they can do things off the pass. It has to be a combination.
JM: Can the triangle still be effective in today’s game, which has gone the “space and pace” route?
PJ: If you want to learn the fundamentals of the game, you don’t bypass any of the basics, like how to make a post pass, how to set up a screen, what pivots you can use to escape pressure and force defenses to react. What are the passing lanes? You have to acknowledge that. You have five players on the floor. If you are going to drive you have to know where players will be on the court. If you are going to make a pass you need space between players and have a certain amount of lanes open. Appropriate space between players is 12-to-16 feet. Eighteen-to-20 feet is a little long to make an appropriate pass. We’ve extended that to create long lanes to allow players to roll to the basket and stretch the floor.
JM: So, is it safe to say the Knicks will not be a “space and pace” team any time soon?
PJ: It’s my feeling when everybody does the same damn thing it becomes, ‘Who has the best Rolls Royce? Who has the best, fastest stock car in this race we are running?’ So if you have LeBron, wow, we’re going to do the same thing even though we don’t have the Rolls Royce? You have to be unique. You have to have something no one else is doing to have genius in this game. It becomes an ownership. I don’t care about the triangle. I care about systematically playing basketball. If the spacing isn’t right, if guys are standing on top of each other, if there aren’t lanes to be provided, or rebounders available to offensively rebound the ball, or we don’t have defensive balance when a shot goes up, all of these things are fundamental basketball. I follow it. I’m not railing, ‘This is inadequate’ or ‘This isn’t right.’ Just show me what will work. Are we running around for no reason? Can we hit the first cutter? Do we have the ability to hit the second option or are we just bypassing plays so someone can hit a 3-point shot? It doesn’t make sense to me.
JM: Which NBA teams impress you?
PJ: It’s obvious Golden State plays a game in which people move the ball, they move themselves, they are creating passing lanes, they get penetration, they hit the open man, they set picks. They get a little wild, but Steve (Kerr) does a really fine job of keeping everyone in their lanes, so to speak. He’s a really fine coach with a great command of the game. That “feel” for basketball is so important.
JM: What other teams do you like?
PJ: Cleveland has really gotten better about playing together as a team. They have shown much more resilience defensively and are taking responsibility on the defensive end. The ball still gets stuck. Not everyone has a purpose. They have a role, but they might not feel like they are involved and I like to see all five players being involved in the game.
San Antonio continues to do what they do best, running their system, which incorporates a lot of things I believe in, things Pop and I have struggled with each other over for a few years.
JM: So what is your relationship with Popovich like?
PJ: We have no animosity. We just played against each other so many times. One time he just stuck guys in the corner and ran the twin towers and that was it. But they’ve evolved so much. I like the way his teams play. He’s using a lot of triangle stuff, a lot of pinch post stuff. It works.
JM: If you ran into Popovich on the street, what would you say?
PJ: Where are we gonna have a glass of wine? I have great respect for his ability as a coach and how he keeps his players playing at a very high level.
JM: You, Popovich and Pat Riley are the most decorated coaches of your generation. What separates Riley?
PJ: Pat has a terrific sense of what he wants to do. Now that I’m president, I have to read all this stuff about the league. Usually it’s ‘delete, delete, delete.’ But I noticed there was something about D-Wade (Dwyane Wade) and Pat’s communication breaking down the other day. I wondered about that. I found it surprising.
JM: It all started when LeBron left, right? Could you have ever imagined Earvin Johnson leaving Riley, or Michael Jordan leaving you?
PJ: It had to hurt when they lost LeBron. That was definitely a slap in the face. But there were a lot of little things that came out of that. When LeBron was playing with the Heat, they went to Cleveland and he wanted to spend the night. They don’t do overnights. Teams just don’t. So now (coach Erik) Spoelstra has to text Riley and say, ‘What do I do in this situation?’ And Pat, who has iron-fist rules, answers, ‘You are on the plane, you are with this team.’ You can’t hold up the whole team because you and your mom and your posse want to spend an extra night in Cleveland.
I always thought Pat had this really nice vibe with his guys. But something happened there where it broke down. I do know LeBron likes special treatment. He needs things his way.
JM: You traded for Derrick Rose, which was a gamble. What was your thinking behind it?
PJ: Mike Conley was the best choice as a free agent, but he’s making $30 million a year. That’s almost insane. We saw that was going to happen. We had the opportunity to play with Derrick and see if he does have enough left in the tank — he’s 27 years old — before we have to get into that (free) agent market again. It gave us an opportunity to build a team around him, Carmelo and Kris (Porzingis).
And, having experiences with Joakim (Noah) over the years, not only as a player with talent, but a guy who showed up at my door in Montana, he knows Derrick and he knows how to play with him. It gives us an advantage. Both are coming back into playing form.
JM: When you say “coming back into playing form,” do you feel, as other NBA observers have noted, that Rose and Noah logged too many minutes in Chicago?
PJ: I’ve watched Luol Deng’s career very closely. He played (among) the most minutes in the league in 2013 (Deng was 13th) and you remember what happened to him in the playoffs. They thought he had spinal meningitis. (Editor’s note: Deng had a spinal tap to test for meningitis that proved to be negative, but spinal fluid leaked into his body and he missed the remainder of the postseason). It was weird. He got completely depleted, and there was a notion that went along with that; the excess playing time might not have been necessary. I think players get that back again but in a different format. They may not get back to 95 percent but they can be 90 percent with the knowledge of how to play, which gives them an advantage to know when to turn it on.
JM: Rose is a former MVP, but he is prone to posting a bunch of 7-for-17 games. How do you reconcile that?
PJ: Most of Derrick’s misses aren’t jumpers. They are going to the basket — penetration — which is really important to have on any team. People are challenging him, which means Joakim and others following him are going to get offensive rebounds, second-chance points. So you understand his shooting percentage isn’t going to be all that high, but his penetration is going to create opportunities for others.
JM: You mentioned you want your guards to create not just off the dribble but also to off the pass. Do you worry Kristaps Porzingis is getting lost in the offense sometimes?
PJ: Kris is going to shine because he’s just that good. What I really want to see him do is develop his game. He’s an exceptional shooter and his size is unique. It changes the game in many ways. But he needs to learn how to use his size appropriately in different ways because teams will switch and defend with smaller players. With his back to the basket, he hasn’t learned how to do all the positioning and to hold his space. He needs to catch and shoot without bringing the ball down in an area where smaller players can grab it.
JM: Is he strong enough to play in the post?
PJ: He’s strong enough. Finding a base is always a point of view in the game. Having Pau Gasol for so many years, having long players that don’t have a base are what we call ‘high cut’ players that can get run off the post. The league has allowed more and more of that to be exploited. In the past they had rules about just shoving a guy off the post. Shaq (O’Neal) and (Hakeem) Olajuwon could hold it; everyone else just got run out.
The European game is high screen and roll with a double high screen, so Kris hasn’t been in the post much. He’s got to learn switches, mismatches, when to make the pass, to keep the ball high — (Dirk) Nowitzki-type things. He’s got a great mind, a great learner’s mentality, so we’re lucky.”
JM: What have your learned about Carmelo Anthony since you got here?
PJ: Carmelo likes communication. He likes a relationship. I was with a number of players who were fine with a player-coach relationship, which involved support, ‘How are you feeling?’ that kind of stuff. Shaq, Kobe, that’s all they wanted or needed. They were busy. I was never the guy who said, ‘Let’s go out to dinner.’ But with Melo, I do that. Not as much as I’d like, but we do it, because he likes that part of it.
JM: What do you talk about?
PJ: I do like his activism, his willingness to be an activist. I communicate with him on how to couch activism. My feeling is it can be abrasive if it’s not done the right way, but it has to be somewhat abrasive if it’s going to be activism. In some ways, it has become vogue to be an activist — that’s true.
I told Carmelo about how Snoop Dogg, who I know from L.A., approached it in his community. He went to the police graduations in L.A. and spoke to the cadets, which is where the rubber meets the road in our lives. It’s not just simply about color and race. It’s about the atmosphere in the community. I feel Carmelo could have a reasonable voice in that way. I’m not here to lead him down the road. I’m just here to add some suggestions.
JM: What drew you to Jeff Hornacek?
PJ: He has a learner’s mind. I followed this guy since he went to Iowa State. When he came to the pros I wondered, ‘Would he have enough athletic talent?’ He found a way. He’s adaptable. He’s also very competitive. I like the way he talks to young players. It’s become so restrictive on how much of an intrusion a coaching staff can be in the players’ lives. There has to be so many days off, and so many days for players’ association meetings and community appearances.
These players are spending a lot of time doing things that aren’t basketball related. As a result, to take a half hour to teach mindfulness, or to study the mental approach to the game has become almost superfluous. Jeff does yoga with the players, tries to approach it as a holistic thing. I give him credit for it.
JM: You have an opt-out clause in your contract after this season. Do you plan to exercise it?
PJ: I have not entertained that. I’m looking for this Knicks team to get back into a situation where they are competitive. Do I have to win a championship before I feel I’ve done the job I’ve been asked to do, which is to bring this group back to that competitive level? No, I don’t. We’re starting to make progress. I like a lot of the things we are doing here. But we’ve got more to do.
JM: Lakers executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss said if the Lakers didn’t make it to the Western Conference finals by 2017, he would step down. It’s unlikely the Lakers will meet that goal. Why not go back and run your old team?
PJ: They’re moving forward in the right direction. Luke (Walton) has them engaged, Brian (Shaw) is an associate head coach; they have a core group of guys that will get it done. It was never important to me to go back and be a part of that. Especially not now. I have this job, this commitment.
JM: Then why bother to include the opt-out clause?
PJ: The real issue with the opt out was simply my rationale regarding the (potential) lockout. If it was going to happen in December and everybody chose to walk away, there was no way I was going to sit in New York for three, four months when I didn’t have a job, because (the players) aren’t even allowed to show up to work. So, in that case, I would go back to L.A.
JM: You are in a bi-coastal relationship with Lakers president and part-owner Jeanie Buss. How difficult has it been to be apart?
PJ: It’s hard. Very hard. It’s hard to keep a house out there. I’ve got eight grandchildren in the Bay Area. FaceTime has really helped me.
JM: So where’s home?
PJ: My accountant tells me I can’t be a California resident anymore. I spend too much of my time in New York.