CHICAGO – The Dodgers are not returning to Brooklyn, and neither is Phil Jackson.
Actually, when Phil was playing for the Knicks in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he lived in an apartment in Chelsea in lower Manhattan not far from the Brooklyn Bridge. That’s as close as he’s ever going to be, though I recall him passing by one day during the 1990s when he took his Bulls team for a ferry ride in the midst of a rugged playoff series with the New York Knicks. Phil liked those sorts of distractions for his teams. Given the predictability of sports teams, this officially labeled Jackson an innovator.
But on to the first pro sports team to call Brooklyn home since the baseball Dodgers left after the 1957 season, the former New Jersey Nets.
There have been rumors aplenty since Avery Johnson was fired at 14-14 after an 11-4 start billionaire Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov would lure Jackson out of retirement to coach the Nets. (Since then, they are 5-1 under interim coach P.J. Carlesimo.)
It’s not happening for a variety of reasons. Not totally about living in or near Brooklyn, which I’m fairly sure Phil wouldn’t do, anyway, given he lives along the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles and leaves his Montana home to stay in Los Angeles in the winter because many of his new body parts, like the hip, don’t work as well in cold weather. And who really leaves sunny California for ugly New York, or stepchild Brooklyn?
Yes, I know, Prokhorov makes $20 million an hour, or something like that. It’s no big deal to offer Jackson something he can’t refuse.
I suppose that’s possible, but the larger issue is that the Nets aren’t very good and their payroll is now No. 2 to the Lakers. And for the next three seasons, they are No. 1 in salary commitments, thus leaving them the least flexibility to make changes with a roster that has no chance of winning anything substantial.
Point guard Deron Williams is their supposed star. And he’s the problem, not only because he helped get Johnson fired by criticizing Johnson’s coaching and saying he preferred the offense run by his former coach, Jerry Sloan in Utah. Of course, Sloan resigned because he was fed up with dealing with Williams and Williams’ criticism and self-aggrandizing behavior.
So how classic is that having Williams compare Johnson unfavorably to Sloan?
Williams is in large part the problem. He’s essentially established as the “star” of the team on a level with guys like Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
The problem is he’s nowhere near their class, which was especially apparent when they played together on the 2012 USA Olympic basketball team. Williams was the poorest shooter on the team, and rarely finished games because Chris Paul did.
What happens often in sports is teams trade for or sign players and then want them to be what they need instead of what they are. Williams is a good point guard, but no leader or great talent. He doesn’t have the talent to take over for the team and given his offensive diva-like attitude toward others, he’s hardly a leader.
With the Nets struggling after their fast start, he’s obviously been playing tight and unsettled with the spotlight and pressure on him given he obviously pushed for Johnson’s ouster.
He’s averaging below his career averages in just about every offensive category, and at or near career lows in shooting and assists.
Unquestionably, the Nets spent a lot of money, though sometimes you overpay when money doesn’t mean that much to you. The Nets took on the huge contract of Joe Johnson, bigger even than those of James, Dwayne Wade and Durant, and which has three years left after this totaling about $70 million. But Johnson is a complementary type, isolation scorer.
Center Brook Lopez received a $60 million, four-year extension. But he is one of the worst rebounding centers. Kris Humphries was added at $12 million a year for two years and now has gone to the bench under Carlesimo. And the rest of that bench isn’t very good, anyway.
The Nets are one of the poorer shooting teams in the NBA, ranking in the bottom half to bottom third in about all categories. They are 26th in defensive field goal percentage, one of the best barometers of team defense, and rank 19th in rebounding. They rank in the bottom third to half in assists, steals and rebounding.
Phil Jackson is good; but he’s not that good.
Which doesn’t mean much to Prokhorov, who in a recent trip to Brooklyn to watch his team declared they have “buckets of talent.” That was even as the Nets had a 4-13 record against winning teams while they are 19-15 overall and sixth in the Eastern Conference through Monday.
“Our goal is to be No. 1 in the league,” Prokhorov said, though it was fortunate he didn’t elaborate in what category. By implication it was in standings, but that’s not possible with this group.
Though there is one exception. Dwight Howard hasn’t been doing well and not very pleased with his new team, the Lakers. He is a free agent this summer, and while most assumed he’d extend with the Lakers, their poor play and his obvious discomfort leaves the door open for not resigning. Which could lead to a trade, and it was clear last season in Orlando that he wanted to play for the Nets.
Howard landed in Los Angeles in a multi-team deal, and it’s not quite what anyone expected. Maybe rather than risk losing him for nothing the Lakers make a deal with the Nets. The Lakers under their new coach, Mike D’Antoni, might be better off with Pau Gasol at center.
But Phil, well, I still don’t see Brooklyn in his future. He’s 67 now, and I think his heart was set on one last try with the Lakers. Which if D’Antoni doesn’t turn things around quickly maybe could still happen.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”