Why Phil Jackson Needs To Adapt

Phil Jackson, president of the New York Knicks and former successful NBA coach, has taken to Twitter recently to voice his opinions on 3 point shooting in the NBA. For those that are unaware, the 3-point shot is more important than ever with many analysts valuing 3’s over 2’s (that are more than 8-10 feet from the hoop). However, things weren’t looking so good for the NBA’s most 3pt-reliant teams just a couple of weeks ago, which led to Phil tweeting this:

The Warriors were down 2-1 to the Grizzlies, the Cavaliers were down 2-0 to the Bulls, and ditto for the Hawks with the Wizards. The Warriors, Cavs, and Hawks (along with the Rockets and Clippers) were ranked by regular season 3PA as follows; 4th, 2nd, 7th, 1st, and 5th. Not goink very well indeed. It looked like maybe Phil was right, except that he wasn’t. Just about a week later the Cavaliers and Hawks had won four straight to advance, while the Clippers and Dubs both advanced on three-game win steaks as well. Those four teams have the highest average 3PA of the 16 teams that made the playoffs, and it looks like we are on our way to a Cavaliers-Dubs finals. Yet Phil cannot admit defeat, and he tweeted the following yesterday:

A couple of points I want to make about Phil’s thoughts from yesterday.

1. Phil Jackson’s coaching career ended in 2011 when the Lakers were swept by the Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals. The Mavericks shot 46.2% from 3 throughout the series and 62.5% from 3 (20 of 32) in their 36-point game four win (Jason terry hit 9 of 10 3PA too!).

2. The last four title winners (since Phil’s 2010 Lakers) had the following Finals 3P%: Mavericks (41.1% on 20.6 3PA), Heat (42.9% on 19.6 3PA), Heat (43.2% on 21.1 3PA), and the Spurs (46.6% on 19.6 3PA).

3. I’m not upset Phil traded away the players he did for minimal returns (though he could have received a much higher yield for Tyson Chandler last summer). If you’re going to rebuild a franchise, might as well strip it down to nothing as much as possible. On the other hand, it’s very frustrating to watch so many former Knicks play pivotal roles in the playoffs this year. Among these players are Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, Pablo Prigioni, Timofey Mozgov, Tyson Chandler, Beno Udrih, and David Lee (the list goes on, but these are all players that I believe could still be on the Knicks roster right now). The departures of these players are not all because of Phil, still a culture of mismanagement and poor talent evaluation is exactly what the Knicks need to refine in order to turn the franchise around.

4. The Zen Master had his own hand-picked coach in Derek Fisher running the triangle offense for the Knicks this year. I know, probably better than most, just how woeful the Knicks roster was this season. Despite that, there’s a lot of irony in Phil emphasizing the importance of penetration and then this happening:

A lot of Phil defenders will point to the fact that he has 11 championship titles as a head coach (the last of those in occurring in 2010). I believe that is a fair defense, but I would also like to make note of the fact that he has had some of the best players ever on his former Bulls and Lakers squads. Looking at the top 30 players ever according to VORP (value over replacement player) we see the following from Basketball Reference:

Five of the top 30 players
Five of the top 30 players
From each of Phil’s six Bulls championships he had MJ (#1), Scottie Pippen (#16) and even Dennis Rodman for a few (#60). For his first Lakers title run Phil had Shaq (#14) and Kobe (#15), and the second Lakers title run had Kobe again, as well as Pau (#29). Now if we look at those same players according to career win shares, their ranks are as follows: MJ (#4), Scottie (#36), Shaq (#10), Kobe (#15), and Pau (#38).

My point there was not to take a shot at Phil, but to express the sentiment that maybe 3 pointers aren’t as important for teams with incredibly talented players that excel at other facets of the game. I’m not attempting to diminish Phil’s accomplishments (he’s earned his praise), nonetheless winning championships is a bit easier when you have some of the best players of all time. However, that point is a bit moot. Nine of Phil’s championship rings came in a different era of NBA basketball where offense revolved around dominant low-post centers, a dramatically slow PACE (the metric), and hand-checking was still allowed. In today’s NBA there are very few real two-way centers even left (I count Dwight Howard, Demarcus Cousins, and maybe DeAndre Jordan). These players have been replaced with 3-point shooters who excel in a game where spacing is key. Just take a look at the correlation between regular season success and 3-pointers attempted per game (done by me in this excel chart below).

Is that a positive relationship I see?
So do I think 3-pointers are the only offense that matters in today’s NBA? No, I think having a well rounded offense that involves a balance of driving, post play, and ball movement that leads to open shots is the key to having a good offense (anyone watch the Spurs?). However, it does appear that win percentage is heavily correlated with average 3PA per game. So while Phil is obviously a much more intelligent basketball mind than myself, I think he needs to be less stubborn and learn that the game is evolving. If not, then we will likely see a depressing end to the career of what was otherwise maybe the greatest player-turned-coach in NBA history. He’s right in that 3-pointers are not the end-all be-all, but they are growing more and more integral with each passing season.

After a disastrous first season running the Knicks, the pressure is mounting to keep the team out of mediocrity. The 4th pick in this year’s NBA draft should help, but coaches/personnel like Phil, Mike Brown, Byron Scott, and Randy Wittman are a dying breed. It’s not the 90’s or early 2000’s anymore and unless they learn alter their coaching/managing styles, the game will inevitably leave them behind (though I’m willing to bet Dolan offers Phil a very lucrative extension regardless of the results). I hope for my sake (and the sake of other Knicks fans), that the teams’ future does not rely on one man’s refusal to change.


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