For four years in the late 1990s and the turn of the century, Heat-Knicks was the most riveting rivalry in sports.
It hasn’t quite been the same since, with the Heat bottoming out in 2007-08 and the Knicks never able to measure up to Miami during the Big 3 Era.
Phil Jackson hopes to change that. No, the Heat wasn’t discussed during the recent news conference in which Jackson was introduced as the Knicks’ new president and savior.
But building a super-team that can compete with the Heat, or snagging some of Miami’s stars, would move Jackson a step closer toward his 14th championship and validate Knicks owner James Dolan’s five-year, $60 million investment in the Zen Master.
“That,” Jackson said, “would be the pinnacle, a capstone, on the remarkable career that I’ve had.”
Though he attended their recent game in Los Angeles, Jackson hasn’t been traveling with the Knicks, who visit the Heat on Sunday as they continue their pursuit of Atlanta for the eighth playoff seed and a first-round meeting with Miami or Indiana.
For the 68-year-old Jackson, the real work will begin this offseason, when he tries to tweak a roster that will be well above the salary cap.
It will be a new challenge for a basketball savant who won six titles as coach of the Chicago Bulls and five with the Los Angeles Lakers but has never been an NBA executive before.
Although the Knicks will be capped out this summer, with more than $90 million in salary commitments for 2014-15, they have only $12.6 million in obligations for 2015-16. Carmelo Anthony — whom Jackson wants to re-sign — will take up more than $20 million of that space if he opts out and signs a new contract this summer.
Free agent frenzy
But with Amare Stoudemire ($23 million), Tyson Chandler ($14 million) and Andrea Bargnani ($12 million) all coming off the books in the summer of 2015, Jackson — in 15 months — will have virtually a clean slate to duel with Heat president Pat Riley for the game’s brightest stars.
The 2015 free agent class could include LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Anthony (if they don’t opt out this summer), as well as Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge, Boston’s Rajon Rondo, San Antonio’s Tony Parker, Minnesota’s Kevin Love, Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, Atlanta’s Paul Millsap, the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan, Memphis’ Marc Gasol and Phoenix’s Goran Dragic.
“There’s a scenario he can get three All-Stars, can use the lottery pick to try to trade for one,” ESPN’s Bill Simmons said.
The New York Daily News reported that James “will look at” the Knicks if he chooses to postpone free agency a year until the summer of 2015.
An associate has said that James is happy in South Florida and expects Cleveland to be the only other team he would consider if he opts out this summer, with the Heat the front-runner to keep him.
The question is whether Jackson will become as exceptional a recruiter, and an executive, as Riley has become.
Among Heat players, Udonis Haslem seems convinced Jackson will succeed. “The name and body of work speaks for itself,” Haslem said. “He has the recipe for winning. Guys will jump on board.”
But Shane Battier said whether Jackson can match Riley’s success “depends on how much he wants to work. His knowledge is undeniable. Pat is a tremendous worker [besides] having tremendous knowledge.”
ESPN Radio analyst and former Heat coach Stan Van Gundy isn’t convinced Jackson will lure a lot of stars to New York.
“I definitely don’t think a player makes a decision based on a front-office guy he’s going to have limited contact with,” Van Gundy said. “They’re not going to play for personalities.”
Simmons, TNT’s Kenny Smith and ABC’s Doug Collins said one key is how much time Jackson spends in New York, where he lived as a player.
Jackson, who played 10 years for the Knicks and two for the Nets, said he will buy a residence in New York but has suggested he would still spend some time in Los Angeles, where his fiancée, Jeanie Buss, serves as president of the Lakers.
“Well, moving to New York is a big challenge to me, because last week, it was 80 degrees in L.A. and I was hanging out at the beach with the water out in front of the house. It was beautiful,” Jackson said at his March 18 news conference, the only time he has spoken to reporters since joining the Knicks.
Jackson said he would be “moving back and forth. There are some medical things I have to continue to have in L.A. I have four children that live in California, eight grand children; six of them live in California. So there’ll still be ties there but [New York] is where I’ll establish myself.”
TNT’s Smith said on ESPN Radio that “a lot of people are comparing him coming to the Knicks with Pat Riley coming to the Heat. But the difference with Pat Riley is he’s there every day, at every practice, at every game.
“That’s what attracts free agents to Miami, that he knows he’s going to be there if there’s an issue. That will be the biggest challenge. If he isn’t, and one of the top players hasn’t seen him in three weeks … that might be more of a hindrance that a help. It’s kind of like telling your kids to clean your room from a phone call … It's difficult to do that.”
Simmons is particularly skeptical.
“He has never done this job before,” Simmons said. “He's in his late 60s. He doesn’t have a great history working with others. He feuded with [Bulls owner] Jerry Reinsdorf … and [former Bulls general manager] Jerry Krause [and Lakers GM] Mitch Kupchak. The only one he got along with was [deceased Lakers owner] Jerry Buss.
“This is 41 years now of [the Knicks] just trying to grab the big headline. They never come up with a long-term plan. The one time they had it was with Patrick Ewing. Jackson will be  at the end of this contract. If you’re going to spend $60 million, spend it on someone we know can do a front-office job. I have no idea if Jackson can do it. It was a Hail Mary. I'm skeptical of moves made when a team has no other options.”
Other pundits are more optimistic. “I think he’s able to turn this around really fast,” ESPN’s Jalen Rose said. “When Phil walks in the room and puts those 13 rings on the table, [free agents] are going to listen,” he added.
That certainly worked with Riley in recruiting James and Bosh to Miami.
“When Pat Riley took over, he learned the ropes, but he had the people he had relationships with,” Collins said. “You need people you trust.
“The big part of Phil Jackson is the aura and charisma he brings walking into a room. To put his fingerprint on that franchise, he’s going to have to be around that franchise [a lot]. I think he will. He's not failed at anything he's done yet.”
New York wish list
Jackson, who didn’t play on the Knicks’ 1970 championship team because of spinal-fusion surgery but was a key reserve on their 1973 championship team, said he wants a team “in which injuries are limited” and “a system so that balls can move, passes are made and people make cuts and create open opportunities for teammates. These are things that are important to me.”
His first big decision will be whether to hire a new coach to replace Mike Woodson, which many expect. TNT analyst Steve Kerr, who played for Jackson in Chicago and has expressed an interest in coaching, has been mentioned as a possibility.
Re-signing Anthony will be the other offseason priority.
“There’s no doubt about Carmelo being one of the top scorers in the league, maybe the best individual isolation player in the game,” Jackson said. “I have no problems with … saying Carmelo is in the future plan.
“Carmelo, as great a player as he is, still has another level he can go to. And I hope together, with the team we create, he can get there.”
Whether Heat-Knicks returns to its halcyon days hinges not only on whether Riley can keep the Heat among the league’s elite, but whether Jackson can lift the Knicks after a decade of mediocrity.