Finally, the adopted the strategy that was less celebrated, more calculated. Call it Jeff Van Gundy revisited.
Some will wonder how the Knicks could not have at least talked to Jackson, owner of a record 11 championship rings with the Bulls and the Lakers, and renowned for enlightening Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant on the virtues of sharing and leading them each to their first (of many) titles. Couldn’t he do the same for Carmelo Anthony?
Not to undervalue Jackson’s impact in Chicago and Los Angeles, but the stars he inherited in those cities were significantly more multidimensional and self-motivated than Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. Anthony is not on that plane and may never be.
How would Anthony have responded to Jackson’s coming to Madison Square Garden and installing the triangle offense — a ball and body-movement system not designed for abundant isolation play? No doubt Jackson would have brought more credibility than Mike D’Antoni, whose high screen-and-roll offense made Anthony feel like a neglected bystander and led to D’Antoni’s resignation in March.
But Anthony was noticeably more productive playing for Woodson, who made sure he had the ball plenty and in the positions he preferred it. And it must be noted that James L. Dolan, the Garden chairman, has empowered Anthony, for better or worse, at the expense of his relationships with D’Antoni and Donnie Walsh, the former team president.
Dolan didn’t even support his coach when the marginally credentialed star Stephon Marbury declared himself the enemy of Larry Brown, whose brief coexistence with the team president Isiah Thomas in 2005-06 was part of the most calamitous and costly episode of the Dolan years. It was also in step with a decades-long pattern, no matter who ran the Garden. The building has been a breeding ground for hierarchal disharmony. Even Holzman, the ultimate company man, waged a covert war with General Manager Eddie Donovan upon his return to the bench in 1978 after being ousted a season and change earlier. He secretly negotiated with Sonny Werblin, the Garden’s president, for a clause that would have allowed him to assume Donovan’s title.
Holzman never did ascend to the job, as Dave DeBusschere was hired to run the Knicks in 1982 — but not before he had a new coach, Hubie Brown, chosen for him. Brown, who yielded to no one, had a predictably contentious working relationship with DeBusschere, resulting in both their dismissals.
Then came the initially promising Al Bianchi-Rick Pitino era, another shotgun marriage in which general manager and coach couldn’t even agree on what style of offense to run. Pat Riley lit up the Garden as savior-coach for a few years until he lost a power struggle with Dave Checketts. Riley’s replacement, Don Nelson, was talked up as an offensive genius, the D’Antoni of his time, but crossed Patrick Ewing in the manner of D’Antoni and Anthony, and that landed Van Gundy in the big-boy chair.
Here we come to the most instructive example of less ending up as more — and by extension, the case for Woodson. Van Gundy succeeded in continuing what Riley started, with the Knicks contending for several more seasons. Unlike Woodson, a moderately successful head coach in Atlanta, Van Gundy had been only an assistant. Like Woodson, he got the job by default and without the brand recognition the Knicks habitually sought — until his identity as the everyman coach became an appealing marketing spiel in itself.
Post-Van Gundy, Dolan resumed chasing names in the Hall of Famers Lenny Wilkens and Larry Brown to coach his failing team, along with Thomas, but Woodson has the only playoff victory to show since Van Gundy.
It is almost laughable to think that a power broker like Jackson could have operated in Dolan’s empire, where the party line is the only line. To get the job, Woodson had to discard his longtime agent, reportedly at Dolan’s insistence, and so unremarkable was the occasion to Dolan that the Knicks released news of the hire on the eve of the holiday weekend.
Or maybe it was part of the plan to underscore the point that the move was as inevitable as it was logical. In that context, Woodson was clearly the better choice for what is most important, a cohesive chain of command, as evidenced here by the Indiana/Bob Knight roots he shares with General Manager Glen Grunwald.
Of course, Thomas, still believed to be an unofficial adviser to Dolan, is part of that fraternity, too. The decision to pass on Jackson notwithstanding, the Knicks may yet have their uneasy triangle.