Super Bowl Sunday for the New York Knicks began with a game against Denver.
All the while, it was another Denver team which — later in the day — offered a lesson Phil Jackson would be wise to heed.
This is an NBA basketball website, but we can all appreciate that certain principles of coaching, organizational leadership, and management of personnel transcend a specific sport. The Super Bowl — like other momentous occasions in various sports — often serves as the best vehicle for the conveyance of lessons, if only because it’s so visible to the general population.
One has to wonder if Phil Jackson — who knows how to win titles as a coach — is willing to understand what it takes to build a champion as an executive in New York.
Consider his initial comments in the wake of firing Derek Fisher (at least, he claimed responsibility for doing so) as the Knicks’ coach, one day after a dreary loss in Madison Square Garden to the Denver Nuggets:
Phil, on whether the next coach needs to run the triangle: "It's not paramount, but it's important."
— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) February 8, 2016
The fuller context surrounding Jackson’s thoughts on the Knicks — and where they go from here — is found in this article below from Jeff Caplan of Fox Sports:
Phil Jackson's reason for firing Derek Fisher: 'Easier' to get rid of coach than players https://t.co/KirAgLJEwx
— Crossover Chronicles (@crossoverNBA) February 8, 2016
Phil doesn’t seem to be on the cusp of making a long-term move, at least not yet. He might have the blueprint in his mind, and he might intend to act at a certain point in time. However, nothing is secure or fixed here. Moreover, other interested parties — such as Luke Walton — aren’t going to engage the Zen Master until after the season is over. This is a fluid situation.
That being said, if you were to draw any preliminary conclusions from the above tweet and the Jeff Caplan piece, you would have to think that Jackson is not inclined to embrace Tom Thibodeau. He’s leaning toward a new (permanent) coach who will try to make the triangle offense work.
This is where Denver’s lesson on Super Bowl Sunday enters the picture.
The Nuggets — slowly but steadily evolving under coach Michael Malone — don’t have much to tell the Knicks. They have their own growing pains to address as they figure out life in the NBA. The Denver team which should tell Phil Jackson how he must approach the future is, of course, the Broncos, who won Super Bowl 50 with a masterful defensive performance against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
The official record shows that Gary Kubiak is the head coach of the Broncos, but he is more of an offense-first coach. The true architect of Denver’s Super Bowl championship is defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who never could hack it as a head coach, but has long been one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL. Phillips’s defense hammered Tom Brady to win the AFC championship a few weeks ago. That same defense hounded Cam Newton Sunday evening to win a world title. The Broncos’ 2015 defense takes its place as one of the best in NFL history.
Is there a secret to Wade Phillips’s methods? Not really — it should be a basic tenet of coaching and the use of personnel.
The excellent Chris Vannini at Coaching Search documented the wisdom of Wade Phillips here:
Wade Phillips: "If a player doesn't fit your scheme, something's wrong with your scheme.” https://t.co/1HSBmKASI0
— CoachingSearch.com (@coachingsearch) February 7, 2016
Is this really such a hard concept to wrap the mind around?
Various coaches — no matter the sport — all have their own points of emphasis. Some need the comfort and precision of a specific system they have come to embrace over time. Phil Jackson and the triangle certainly rates as one particular combination.
However, coaching — distilled to its essence — is ultimately about using the material at one’s disposal. Systemic frameworks are all well and good, and they can obviously unlock talent in many situations, but what happens when it’s clear that System A doesn’t fit Roster B? What then?
The fully-prepared coach, not overly reliant on any one system, will rearrange the puzzle — players and system alike — to put everyone in a position to succeed. Phillips did this with the Broncos, and now Von Miller is a Super Bowl MVP. Denver’s “other team” on Super Bowl Sunday — not the NBA one — sent a message the Knicks need to understand in the days and months ahead.
It’s not as though Tex Winter didn’t help Phil implement the triangle offense to great effect in Chicago, and it’s not as though the triangle didn’t blossom with Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant anchoring it with the Lakers, en route to a fat stack of championships along the way. However, the Knicks don’t have those prime-period parts. Their best player, Carmelo Anthony, is approaching the 15-year mark of a career with a body that’s failing him. Kristaps Porzingis is just beginning to learn how to handle life as a good NBA player who receives every opponent’s best defensive effort every night (or afternoon, as was the case on Sunday).
When Phil Jackson ultimately chooses to hire his next permanent head coach, is he going to remain wedded to his system, or will he realize that the coach the Knicks need right now is the coach who will enable talent to flourish in any form?
In short, will Phil Jackson learn what Wade Phillips just taught all coaches and sports executives?
Denver — not the Nuggets — gave the Knicks some helpful advice on Super Bowl Sunday. Now, it’s up to Phil to respond accordingly.