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Phil Jackson Teaches Us An Important Lesson: Never Confuse Luck With Talent

No, I’m not saying I could win 11 championships with Jordan and Pippen or Shaq and Kobe. I’m saying any of you could have done it, as well.


“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team” — Phil “Zen Master” Jackson.

I imagine when you hire Phil Jackson these are the kinds of platitudinous pseudo-spiritual new-agey tidbits of complete gibberish you can expect to hear on a regular basis. It’s like Yoda if Yoda’s lines had been written by a baked junior-college freshman discovering the wonders of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

“If you meet the Buddha in the lane, feed him the ball,” says the master.

That these down-market fortune-cookie bromides can be bankrolled into millions of dollars every year is proof that anyone — anyone — can make it in this great nation.

Which brings me to Knicks owner James Dolan.

Today, Dolan and the New York Knicks mutually agreed to part ways with team president Jackson. As you might know, Jackson was one of the least successful people to ever helm the franchise — and this is a team that once called Isiah Thomas its general manager. New York won only 80 games during his three years. Considering the barrage of incompetence and jaw-dropping decisions under his watch, this was an impressive feat.

Most of the problems were driven by his wholly undeserved Buddha-sized ego. Jackson ostensibly went his own way because of his ongoing bickering with veteran Carmelo Anthony. Anthony reportedly wouldn’t waive his no-trade clause, one Jackson had given him when extending his deal. Since Jackson wouldn’t accommodate a trade or buy Anthony out, it left the Knicks unable to sign any big-name free agent and stuck with an aging player.

“We’ve not been able to win with him,” Jackson said of Anthony in April. Fortunately, we have enough evidence to test this hypothesis. Although there’s little doubt Anthony has failed to live up to expectations, he did make the playoffs his first three years as a Knick. The team won 54 games the season before Jackson showed up. Overall, the Knicks went 141-117 with him in the lineup before Jackson showed up and only 80-166 after the Zen Master took over.

Jackson then began publicly attacking (and trying to trade) 7-foot-3 Latvian Kristaps Porzingis — who is not only by far the best player Jackson accidentally acquired but arguably the best Knicks draft pick since Patrick Ewing — because the budding star skipped an exit interview. (I’m not making excuses for Porzingis, but it’s worth remembering he’s 20 and the situation could have been kept in-house).

In any event, Jackson’s obsession with triangle offense had already meant four coaching changes in three years. His Zen mastery led him to trade J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr., Tyson Chandler, and Raymond Felton, among many others, for basically nada.

The Knicks are not unique in failing. Draft picks often don’t work out as expected. Trades can be duds. External forces can undermine all teams. As Phil likes to say, “Not only is there more to life than basketball, there’s a lot more to basketball than basketball.”

The Knicks are unique in paying an obviously incompetent executive $12 million a year to destroy their franchise. If the president’s name were Joe Jackson, he would have been dismissed a month into the job. A decent fantasy basketball team owner could almost certainly have done a more competent job. It was like watching Chance Gardener without the inadvertent wisdom.

This is because Jackson has always been more lucky than good. It’s just something people seem to have forgotten. Yes, there’s a certain type of skill involved in winning with teams that have an overabundance of superstars and generational players. It’s called showing up. So don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I would be able to win 11 championships with Jordan and Pippen or Shaq and Kobe. I’m saying any of you could have done it, as well.

There’s nothing unethical about monetizing your affliction of luck. I would never apologize if fortune smiled on me (and in many ways it has). But, were I so fortuitous, I’d also never hit the late-night talk show circuit to lecture normal people who toil in the meritocracy about the secrets of success. I mean, unless I literally called my book “Being There.”

Nassim Taleb once wrote, “Lucky fools do not bear the slightest suspicion that they may be lucky fools.” But maybe the biggest fool is the one who doesn’t realize he’s giving $12 million a year to the luckiest fool. So at the end of the day, Dolan is at fault for all the problems the Knicks face. His constant tinkering undermined the stability and growth of the team. Ultimately, he’s the one who hired Jackson.

The New York Rangers, the other team Dolan owns in Madison Square Garden, have seen quite a bit of success over the past decade. They have also been run by basically the same management and team concept through all those years without interference. Maybe it’s time Dolan stopped confusing his own luck with wisdom, because, as Jackson once wrote in “Sacred Hoops,” “The secret is not thinking.”