ORLANDO, Fla. — Phil Jackson was brought back to the organization he loved to try and help change the culture and create a winning environment. But Jackson created drama, alienated the team’s two best players and is out as president of the Knicks.
The team announced on Wednesday morning that they “mutually agreed” to part ways with Jackson, ending a 3 ½-year era. In three full seasons with Jackson as president, the Knicks went 80-166 and missed the playoffs all three years.
“After careful thought and consideration, we mutually agreed that the Knicks will be going in a different direction,” Madison Square Garden executive chairman James Dolan said in a statement. “We wish him the best and thank him for his service to the Knicks as both a player and an executive.”
The timing is odd with free agency beginning Saturday. But Jackson’s treatment of Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis and insistence on running the triangle offense — which is unpopular with players — had led to whispers from around the league that the Knicks would have trouble signing free agents.
Jackson, who won an NBA-record 11 championships as coach of the Bulls and Lakers, didn’t have the impact Dolan hoped for when he gave him a five-year, $60-million contract to run the basketball department in March 2014. Jackson, 71, has two years and $24 million remaining on his deal.
General manager Steve Mills will “run the day-to-day business of the organization,” Dolan said in the statement. Also, the team announced that Tim Leiweke will advise and work with Mills on an interim basis to “help develop a go-forward plan.”
Leiweke was the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which oversaw the Raptors. He hired Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who reportedly the Knicks are targeting to replace Jackson.
But Ujiri, the former Nuggets GM who traded Anthony to the Knicks in 2011, signed a five-year, $32-million extension with Toronto last season. The Knicks would have to give up compensation — likely draft picks — to get him.
Others who could be considered include former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy and former Cavaliers GM David Griffin, who helped assemble a team that went to three straight NBA Finals and won a championship.
Dolan reiterated what he said when he handed the reins over to Jackson and several times since — that he’s not going to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the Knicks
“While we are currently evaluating how best to move forward regarding the leadership of the organization, I will not be involved in the operation of the team,” Dolan said.
Appearing on “The Michael Kay Show” on ESPN New York Radio in February, Dolan said that he would honor Jackson’s five-year contract. But a lot has changed since then.
Yahoo! reported Dolan made the decision to move on from Jackson because he was concerned about the future of the franchise.
Jackson, who was a member of the Knicks’ only two championship teams, has openly feuded with Anthony and Porzingis and hasn’t been able to turn the Knicks into a winning team or bring stability.
The Knicks have had three head coaches during Jackson’s tenure, and Jackson has turned over the roster every season.
“I had hoped, of course, to bring another NBA championship to the Garden,” Jackson said in a statement. “As someone who treasures winning, I am deeply disappointed that we weren’t able to do that. New York fans deserve nothing less. I wish them and the Knicks organization all the best — today and always.”
The Knicks are in Orlando preparing for the start of summer league. Jackson didn’t make the trip as the decision was made Tuesday. A team official said Mills wasn’t here. Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek gave a statement about Jackson’s departure but wouldn’t take any questions.
“It’s always an interesting time,” Hornacek said. “You work with guys and stuff like that happens. I just wanted to thank Phil for giving me the opportunity here in New York. I’ve worked with Steve all year long. We have a great working relationship, talked about things. We’ll continue to do that.
“I wish Phil the best from this point on. It’s a tough day for us but really our focus is to get this team better and continue to build our young players and figure out a way to win.”
Jackson has been public about his desire to have Anthony off the roster as the Knicks rebuild with young players.
There were reports Tuesday that Anthony’s camp tried to engage the Knicks in buyout talks and that they were rebuffed. ESPN reported that Jackson was in favor of buying out Anthony, who has two years and $54 million left on his contract, and that expedited Jackson’s departure.
Jackson’s best move as president was drafting Porzingis with the No. 4 pick in 2015. But he recently fielded trade offers for the Latvian big man most view as the future franchise player of the Knicks.
In last week’s lead-up to the draft, Jackson acknowledged the Knicks had been receiving calls and were listening to offers for Porzingis. Jackson said the Knicks “have to do what’s best for our ballclub.” But in the end they held on to Porzingis.
Another shortcoming of Jackson’s was his stubbornness regarding the triangle offense. He made his coaches run it even if it didn’t fit the personnel or the coach’s style.
Hornacek never played or ran the triangle before Jackson hired him last summer. Yet late last season, Hornacek said the triangle would be the Knicks’ main system going forward. That will change now.
Possible replacements for Phil
Masai Ujiri: The respected Raptors president assembled playoff teams in Denver and Toronto, with the help of some trades with the Knicks. But Ujiri signed a five-year extension last year so the Knicks likely would have to compensate the Raptors with draft picks.
David Griffin: The former Cavaliers general manager is a free agent after not receiving a contract extension from Cleveland. He helped build teams that went to the NBA Finals three straight years, and would start up the LeBron James to the Knicks speculation if hired.
Jeff Van Gundy: The former Knicks coach recently has been shown and introduced on the MSG Jumbotron after not being recognized for years. He knows New York, knows the players around the league and what it takes to win.
John Calipari: His time in the NBA didn’t go well, but Calipari did put together a playoff team with the Nets. He’s a master recruiter and although he’s treated like a god in Kentucky he would return to the NBA for the right place and the right price.
Steve Mills: The Knicks GM was running things for six months before Jackson was hired and usually was the one initiating trade calls and talking to agents after Jackson’s arrival. Mills was retained and is handling day-to-day operations “for the short term.” Maybe longer?