Phil Jackson Talks About N.B.A. Draft, Carmelo Anthony and More


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Next week, Phil Jackson will select his first first-round draft pick since becoming the president of the Knicks.

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Barton Silverman/The New York Times

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — On the afternoon of May 19, Phil Jackson, the president of the Knicks, met with Steve Mills, his general manager, at the team’s practice facility here. Mills had a couple of hours before he was expected to report to a Midtown Manhattan hotel, where he would represent the team at the N.B.A.’s annual draft lottery.

As they discussed their usual daily business — everything from the playoffs to potential prospects in the draft — Jackson kept folding a piece of paper until it formed a neat, tiny square. He finally presented it to Mills, who opened it to reveal a series of numbers, which Mills presumed were the team’s odds for landing various picks in the lottery.

“But they were the wrong odds,” Mills said. “They were the odds from a different year.”

The message from Jackson was essentially that the numbers did not matter, that everything that would happen at the lottery was beyond their control. The team would move forward regardless. Or at least that was what Mills thought Jackson meant.

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After the draft, the Knicks will see what kind of luring power the star player Carmelo Anthony might have with free agents.

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Pool photo by Kathy Willens

“Phil’s not just cryptic on Twitter,” Mills said. “He’s cryptic with me, too, sometimes.”

The odds did not fall in the Knicks’ favor, of course. After finishing with the second worst record in the league (and enduring the worst season in franchise history), the Knicks slipped to No. 4 in the draft, which is scheduled for next Thursday at Barclays Center.

In recent weeks, Jackson and Mills, along with Coach Derek Fisher and the rest of the team’s front office, have been preparing for the draft. On Thursday, four post players — Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin, Trey Lyles of Kentucky, Joshua Smith of Georgetown and Kevon Looney of U.C.L.A. — worked out for team officials at the practice facility.

Jackson said he had originally planned to work out only 12 to 15 prospects, back when the Knicks had the best odds of securing one of the top two picks in the draft. But that pool has since expanded to upward of 30 players. Whether the Knicks keep the pick or trade it, the draft will offer them an opportunity to begin to reshape their roster before the onset of free agency.

“I have a definite idea about how I want a team to look and what kind of skills the players need to have,” said Jackson, who remains as wedded to the triangle offense as ever. “When everybody else says, ‘Well, this might be their best pick,’ we’re not going that way at all. We’re going with what we feel will be the best player for us at this particular time.”

A week ahead of the draft, Jackson and Mills agreed to an interview that touched on their preparation for the draft, their approach to free agency, their thoughts on the N.B.A. finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors and the decision to let Carmelo Anthony play in the N.B.A. All-Star Game — only to have him undergo knee surgery days later.

Jackson also addressed the reintroduction of Isiah Thomas to Madison Square Garden after Thomas was involved in a sexual harassment suit during his days as coach of the Knicks, as well as Jackson’s use of the word “goink.”

(This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Q. After slipping to No. 4, how have you been preparing for the draft?

JACKSON: Well, Steve went there and just messed it up. Actually, Jamie Matthews did — he was with the balls back there. We just knew it was a lottery shot, and this was one of those things that we were joking about today. Picking at No. 4 changed up how we’re going to deal with it. So it’s been an adjustment.

But we’re enjoying the process, and that’s the fun thing. I think if you get a high position, you’re kind of locked in. You try to stay open-minded, but there’s so much pressure about who’s slotted to go where and how all the pundits think the picks are supposed to fall. Now, we have an open field and we’re really exploring all our possibilities. So whereas before I was like, O.K., we’re going to draft a big, now we have to be open to what’s there for us that makes our team different. So that changes up our look now and our look next week when we go into the free-agent chase. So we’ve had to do a lot more work.

Q. No offense to Steve, but why weren’t you the team’s public face on the dais at the draft lottery?

JACKSON: I see Steve as the future of this franchise. I mean, I’m here for a time, and I’m trying to help turn it around the best way I can. But I can see Steve having a lasting tenure here, and this is one of the things that’s good about our relationship, that we can grow from our teamwork. I couldn’t believe that there was some kind of hue and cry over whether I should have been there to watch what in effect had taken place in a back room, where they had some balls rolling around in a hamster cage.

MILLS: So I volunteered to do it. And Phil said, “Well, you know, we can have Derek do it.” And I said: “No, Derek’s suffered enough. I’ll go.”

Q. How many teams have called about trading for the No. 4 pick?

JACKSON: Steve does most of the communications with other teams.

MILLS: There are a lot of teams that call, but you don’t get that many calls from teams who are picking from, let’s just say, 15 to 30. Everybody who is in that range wants to know, “Would you be willing to move down for X, Y and Z?” So we’re diligent in trying to be open to thinking about whether there’s a combination of a good player plus a move down that we think rounds out our roster and puts us in a better position to build this team and move it forward. At the same time, we understand that we’re going to get a really good player that can be a part of where we’re going long term at No. 4.

Q. Do you have positional priorities this off-season?

JACKSON: Yeah, we have no big men. So we’re seeing what can we add to our team that will move us along and make us a better team, and we’ll have to fill out that big possibility with some free agents if we end up going smaller with wings and guards in the draft. But there’s some good players. This is a draft that everybody feels like, in the lottery, from 1 through 14, there’s really good players, and a lot of good players that will be there in the later part of the first round, too. History tells us that 1 through 10 usually indicates that you’re going to get a starter at some level.

MILLS: We obviously can see holes in our roster. But one of the positives that came out of last season was that when we did our exit meetings, there wasn’t one single guy who played on the team last year that doesn’t want to be back. So we felt that was progress and that things were moving in the right direction after we made the trades that we made. It felt like a second season. We were moving forward, and they all want to be part of it. So now our job is looking at, O.K., what’s going to happen in the draft? What do we think we can do in free agency? And then looking at the guys who were a part of what we did last year. Which of those guys can fill roles or help continue to move this thing forward and not have a wholesale change where we have to introduce nine new guys to our roster?

JACKSON: We have guys that all played together. They know how to use the system, so that’ll help us.

Q. The team won 17 games and Carmelo Anthony is coming off knee surgery. How are you going to sell the Knicks as an appealing destination to free agents?

JACKSON: When we saw that the season was not going to be successful, that our chances of making the playoffs were gone, we had to create what we could create and do the right thing, which was get players who wanted to go places for the playoffs, like Pablo Prigioni and Amar’e Stoudemire and so forth, their opportunities. In the process, we had to try to keep our coaching staff and our players understanding of what we were looking for.

I don’t think the offensive system has to take a back seat to anything we do. We’re looking for people who want to play a full basketball game, that want to be able to make plays, that want to be able to do things that are a credit to their skills. I think people that want to play the full game have seen that demonstrated, and if they’re interested in doing that, they know that this system can feature what they can do. And we have people who are interested. So we feel good about that.

MILLS: We’re fortunate that we had a group of young players who really enjoyed being here. They understand what it’s like to play in New York and what it’s like to play in the Garden. When guys are thinking about where they’re going in free agency, they want to play with an elite player, and we have that in Carmelo. We have a group of role players around him who all had a good experience. So when they’re out talking to players about what it’s like to be with Phil here and what it’s like to play with Fish as the coach and what it’s like to play with Carmelo, we’re confident that all those conversations are positive. And then we have the benefit of Carmelo having gone through free agency and the recruitment process last summer. So he sits down with me a lot and talks to Phil and talks about what was important in his journey and what wasn’t important. So it gives us an opportunity to have him involved in the process.

JACKSON: We know there are a limited number of guys we can bring in this year. We think we’ll get competitive guys to play. I think we’ll complement the guys we have here, and we’re going to move forward. We do know we’re going to have big guys in that group. We’re going to have to search out some big men.

Q. Do you anticipate players being resistant to the idea of running the triangle?

JACKSON: Players who are resistant to it shouldn’t be here. Guys who want to play basketball and feel comfortable with their skills should understand that there is ample opportunity to play a game that’s an evolved game. It’s a thinking man’s game. It’s a logical game.

MILLS: If Phil says we need to get a big guy, well, we just sat in a film session with four big guys who watched the way a big guy operates in the triangle, and I think it’s a lot more attractive than a lot of the basketball that they’ll see other teams play.

JACKSON: We’re trying to find players who are the best fit for us. We’re really chasing as much information as we can. We’re not interested in guys who are just interested in the money and in their branding. They have to have a little more to their life than just those selfish desires. There’s nothing wrong with chasing money, and there’s nothing wrong with making the most from your name. But that seems to be the running theme that you see a lot these days.

Q. Speaking of branding, why did Anthony play in the All-Star Game when it was clear that he needed knee surgery?

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Steve Mills, the Knicks’ general manager, couldn’t hide his disappointment when the Knicks slipped to No. 4 at the N.B.A. draft lottery in May.

Credit
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

JACKSON: I don’t see any value at all in an All-Star Game. None. I think it was a pretty exciting game this year because of its speed. But as a coach, what’s the point? But when guys have, as part of their contract, shoe things when they make the All-Star team, we try to accommodate what will help them move forward with their lives and their careers. So when we sat down with Carmelo in London and we had dinner with him, we actually pointed to that date as a possible time for him to shut it down. If he was going to have the full ability to have an operation, go through rehab and training, and get ready for next season, that was an appropriate time because it gave him March, April, May, June, July, etc., and he was going to need at least six months. So we actually did plan that date.

Q. The date that he shut it down?

JACKSON: We didn’t plan the exact date, but we said, “You want to play in the All-Star Game, don’t you?” And he said, “Yeah, I want to play.” I said: “Well, that’s a date we could work with. so let’s go from there.”

MILLS: To put it all in context, Carmelo was playing with an injury that wasn’t going to get worse. There was no risk to him playing, but it takes a certain amount of time to get it done. So we needed to pick a time when he could get it done. And I can’t speak for Carmelo, but I think he felt like he had an obligation as the face of the New York Knicks with the All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden: “I should be here and play in the All-Star Game.” It wasn’t a risk.

JACKSON: The idea of whether it was the right thing to do, I can see where people could look at it and be skeptical. How do you think he played that night? I think he got between the free throw line and the other free throw line. I don’t think he could run very well.

Q. How is Anthony’s rehab going?

JACKSON: We’re really pleased. Everything’s going along swimmingly, as they would say. Swimmingly.

Q. You came to the Knicks a little over a year ago. Knowing what you know now, would you have still taken the job?

JACKSON: Without a doubt. I knew it was going to be a challenge. We just didn’t have any room to work last year. We knew that we were going to have to make big changes with the limitations that we had, being in a locked-in situation as far as the salary cap goes. That’s why when I said recently that I didn’t know why I wasn’t given some votes for executive of the year, I wasn’t kidding. I was really serious. We had a yeoman’s job of having to get rid of a lot of fat on our roster to get to where we are. I saw Mitch Kupchak got a vote, so I know some people valued what the Lakers were doing obviously.

Q. Have you spoken to Isiah Thomas since he was hired to run the Liberty?

JACKSON: Yeah, Isiah came in my office. I was on the phone, but I was able to shake his hand. And there have been a number of times when we’ve just bumped into each other here in the cafeteria. We talked about the playoffs, about his team. He seems to be happy doing his job, and that’s about it.

Q. Were you consulted before Thomas was brought in?

JACKSON: Jim Dolan had talked to us about it over dinner, maybe a month before it happened. We said, “Are you cognizant of the fact that this at least has the look of putting the fox in the henhouse?” Is that a good term? In reviewing the history of it, we were told what the approach was by the Garden and how it went down. Jim said, “If you have any suggestions that you want to come back with, I’m open.” And not being in that field, I didn’t have any information. It’s not where my head is at. So we’re not giving them any advice, and it’s going both ways.

Q. Do you have any thoughts on the playoffs?

JACKSON: I’ve gotten comments from people who thought it was a really great series because it was so close. And I had more comments from coaches about what bad basketball we saw in the playoffs — one-on-one ball, street ball. So it was just complete opposites. Personally, I think Cleveland had to do what they did to manufacture the games to be as close as they got them. It was a great demonstration of perseverance by LeBron James, trying to keep the games close and trying to do the best he could.

For Golden State, it was pretty exciting for that town and for that team. There’s an awful lot of pressure for a team to come into the finals without any finals experience. In the first couple of games, they looked like they didn’t quite know how to compete at that level, with the necessary intensity and physicality. The games just got more physical, and they adjusted.

Q. In the middle of the playoffs, you took to Twitter to ask N.B.A. analysts to give you “some diagnostics” on how 3-point-oriented teams were faring. It struck most as a criticism of teams like the Warriors who take a lot of 3-point shots. You asked, “How’s it goink?” What was that about?

JACKSON: They have all these analysts. I just wanted to see someone come back to me with statistics: Is 3-point shooting in the playoffs as consistent as it is in the regular season? Does your 3-point-shooting percentage change because you’re in the playoffs? No one figured that one out. And that’s probably me being obtuse to leave it open at the end. But “goink” is one of those New York expressions that we use, and I will tell you this: I learned something. Someone sent me the fact that if you look it up on Urban Dictionary, you’ll find out what it means in today’s society.

Q. Should I look?

JACKSON: Well, it’s rather bizarre to say the least.

Q. So it wasn’t just a typo?

JACKSON: “Goink” is a castoff expression, right? Instead of, “How’s it going?,” it’s, “How’s it goink?” It turned out to be either a combination of a mixed ethnic group: part Korean, part Chinese. Or it’s a vernacular term for how do you deal with a sexual partner.

Q. That was not your intention though?

JACKSON: No, I had no idea.

Q. What are your expectations for next season?

JACKSON: Do we expect to make the finals next year? It did not look good when I saw the Las Vegas odds. I think we were 80 to 1. Philly was 200 to 1, so I think they’re being generous.

Q. How’s your health and your ability to travel?

JACKSON: Well, I’m gimping around and I’m doing O.K. But we may have to travel to deal with the free agent market and be on the move. It may require making appeals and presentations. So we’re prepared to do that — both Steve and I, as well as Derek. We’re prepared to do all we can do to appeal to our choices.

Q. These are long days. What do you guys do when you’re not working?

MILLS: I don’t know what we’re going to do now. We were watching the finals and hockey.

JACKSON: He walks his dogs.

MILLS: I walk my dogs.



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