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How Phil Jackson Can Make The Most of His Relationship with James Dolan

Soon, it’ll be officially official. With a press conference on Tuesday morning, the New York Knicks and Phil Jackson will announce the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Maybe. Or maybe it goes up in flames. It’s tough to say with such a volatile situation. There are ways that this partnership can work; there are ways that it can spontaneously combust.

The process that leads to glory or desecration starts well before anything basketball related enters the picture. As Jackson would readily admit, the NBA is, like any and everything else, a relationship business. Large and small, the connections between the various organisms create the league’s environment, within which all of the various comings and goings of the association take place. For Jackson and the Knicks, one power struggle in particular has established an early primacy. Just how can the Zen Master and his new boss, James Dolan, get along?

The question is often framed through a lens of adversity. Opponents of the deal — and of New York’s modus operandi – insist that no one man, regardless of his qualifications and patience, can break the tyranny of Dolan and his various associates. The best basketball minds are doomed to fail in Madison Square Garden’s hallowed halls; what chance is there for a relative neophyte like Jackson, even with his sleeve-length litany of past successes? Advocates of Jackson’s arrival — and those a step shy of advocacy who hold out hope, as stupid as hope might be — tailor their arguments around said credentials. Surely a man of 13 rings who fought the bear in Chicago and Los Angeles has the wherewithal and guile to fend off the overbearing, incredibly visible hand of the restricted market the Knicks have created. Not forever, of course, but long enough to bring a title home. Might there be enough sand in the hourglass to offer New York that one chance?

Either way, Dolan and Jackson, behemoths of ego, are held up as titanic kaiju. Two monsters poised for battle, as humanity scrambles for cover. May chaos reign.

And entropy will emerge victorious should Jackson choose to battle Dolan. It’s a fight that Jackson cannot win, no matter the ammunition he brings. Dolan has all of the security, all of the leverage and all of the resources. Though he might win small victories here and there, an antagonistic relationship gets Jackson nowhere in the grand scheme of things — except to a new book deal and an enlarged bank account.

Phil knows this. It’s why his tenure in New York will be less Godzilla and more Inception.

Or more Zen, if you prefer. In Throwing the Elephant: Zen and the Art of Managing Up, by Stanley Bing, there’s a chapter dedicated to an important insight into personal dynamics. Where there are varying degrees of power between two people, the person in a lower position must often employ a particular tactic to advance an agenda, especially against an obstinate or intractable boss. As the book phrases it, one must “convince the elephant that it was the elephant’s idea” — that is, convince the elephant that its very existence was the idea of that same elephant. More generally, the concept is to persuade powerful people that your ideas are actually their ideas.

You see it in advertising constantly. When’s the last time that a big, successful corporation directly told you go out and buy their product? They’re never so bold. Take the “give a luxury car as a gift!” commercials that are omnipresent during the holidays. No one in those ads encourages you to do the same or says that you should buy their car, whether for yourself or a loved one. Instead, the concept is presented to the consumer, along with pricing information. The company lets you connect the dots. Hey, that’s something you could do, if you’re an affluent member of society, anyway. And when your significant other shrieks with delight on Christmas morning, guess who gets to take credit for the idea? Hint: it’s not the car manufacturer.

That’s right: it was your idea the whole time! You just needed the subtle push of the car commercial which was specifically designed to make you do exactly what it wants.

In order for the relationship between Jackson and Dolan to work, this is the kind of approach that Phil needs to take. He can’t fight Dolan and get things done. The key to fixing the Knicks will be Jackson’s ability to communicate his plans for the team in a way that not only brings Dolan on board, but makes the owner think that he’s Sultan. And as long as it works, he can think that all he wants. Jackson’s perfectly content being Grand Vizier.

Pictured: Phil Jackson, left, and James Dolan, right. (Image by merkal_kahil via Flickr)

Pictured: Phil Jackson, left, and James Dolan, right. (Image by merkal_kahil via Flickr)

If it works, it can work on a grand scale. This is about more than just the NBA team; though Brooklyn has stretched the limits of the CBA’s ability to institute spending restrictions on the on-floor talent, the fact remains that a team can leverage its financial advantages only so much when it comes to roster construction. But that leaves a huge swath of places where New York can use its ability to print money to climb head and shoulders above the rest of the league. That starts with the D-League and the Knicks’ new, directly owned team in White Plains, New York. The Knicks can dump as much cash as they see fit into their still-unnamed affiliate. With the D-League to allow players to wear player tracking technology in game, New York could set the curve on the collection of physical, biometric data. With enough resources allocated to the task and freedom for smart, driven people to put the data to work, the Knicks could be one of the first teams to take the step from that information being merely descriptive — how does this player move? How quickly? What kind of stresses does he experience? — to a prescriptive and predictive level. Given the way a player moves, how do we build a training regimen to maximize his growth — and how do we prevent the kind of fatigue and stresses that lead to injury? That’s a hugely important next step that very few teams have even started toward. With the right amount of curiosity, New York could be one of the first.

That applies for the Knicks organization as well. New York has been an “early adopter” of several different technologies — the SportVU player tracking cameras, as noted by Lowe in his piece linked earlier, but also the aforementioned biometric tracking devices from Catapult Sports, which influenced the way the Knicks rehabilitated Jason Kidd last season. The only limits to New York’s potential applications of and developments in analytics is are management’s level of commitment to the technology and their willingness to employ the resulting information.

Jackson undoubtedly has his own ideas and priorities for the future of the franchise. Regardless, their only chance of manifestation rests in Jackson’s ability to convince Dolan that the best-laid plans of New York’s basketball operations people actually originate from the unfettered figurehead. A successful plot successfully implanted succeeds twofold, reaping the rewards of a job well done and sowing the seeds of trust in the heart of Dolan. Let’s not forget, this is a man of unwavering loyalty to the people he considers unassailable; for reference, look no further than Pope Isiah Thomas. An in with Dolan is an in for life, and one that opens all possibilities. Jackson’s job isn’t to install regime change in a glorious revolution; he’s a Yeerk from Animorphs, burrowing deep into the brains of the operation to control things from inside the mind of the one in charge.

With the Knicks, a team for which money is no object, everything’s on the table. And if Jackson can sway Dolan into thinking that he’s the one who put the meal on the table, a team plagued by an abundance of famine might finally get to feast.

Andrew Lynch

When God Shammgod created the basketball universe, Andrew Lynch was there. His belief in the superiority of advanced statistics and the eventual triumph of expected value-based analytics stems from the fact that he’s roughly as old as the concept of counting. With that said, he still loves the beauty of basketball played at the highest level — it reminds him of the splendor of the first Olympics — and the stories that spring forth from the games, since he once beat Homer in a game of rock-paper-scissors over a cup of hemlock. Dude’s old.