Phil Jackson set up his office at the MSG Training Center in a strategic place; some distance from the locker room and training area, but with a one-way window that looked into the gym. It was from there the new Knicks president began his observation.
His presence is formidable, so people tend to be on their best behavior in his presence. The window, however, offered him the ability to see without the filter of awareness.
And what he saw motivated the first significant roster move of his tenure.
“We had to change some of the chemistry of this team,” Jackson said. “To do that, we felt it important to bring in some new personnel and start with some character guys we feel can carry us forward.”
Coincidentally, Tyson Chandler was supposed to be a character guy, but from the end of the 2012-13 season through this past season, Chandler seemed noticeably detached and didn’t hide his displeasure with the defensive system, and the offensive game plan. By the end of the season, it had become abundantly clear that he was ready to move on.
Jackson accommodated by sending him back to Dallas, where he won a championship in 2011, along with embattled point guard Raymond Felton, for a package that included Jose Calderon, Sam Dalembert, rookie Shane Larkin and journeyman Wayne Ellington, plus two second round picks.
We’ll get into the veteran players in a moment, but let’s first focus on the draft picks, because there is some significance in them when it comes to this “culture change” Jackson has begun to orchestrate. Oh and let’s also keep in mind the greater value in stockpiling assets.
Only 24 hours prior to the NBA Draft on Thursday, the Knicks didn’t have any picks to make. Their first-rounder went to Denver (and later to Orlando) in the Carmelo Anthony trade, which stings a little more considering that Melo has since opted out of his contract to become a free agent.
(See when you trade a future first for a superstar, you do so believing that the star will lead you to Top-10 finishes, which render the picks relatively expendable. Worst case scenario is that the star wants to leave the same year you could really use that lottery pick to rebuild.)
When the Draft concluded, Jackson and the Knicks produced two new assets to the franchise.
Jackson said he and his scouting staff had “earmarked some players” in the Draft “that will give us some of the things we’re looking for: Activity, competitiveness [and] guys who get after the ball.” This accurately describes their two picks – Cleanthony Early of Wichita State at No. 34 and Thanasis Antetokounmpo (Giannis’ older brother) of the D-League at No. 51.
Both are athletically aggressive players who have NBA bodies and physical tools. Early has some offensive upside, though scouts say his shooting touch is streaky. Antetokounmpo is very raw offensively, but has already shown tremendous defensive potential in the D-League this season, especially in transition.
Later on Thursday night, the Knicks went on to purchase the 57th overall selection, made by the Indiana Pacers, who selected 6-foot-10 forward Louis Labeyrie of France.
The Knicks will have an interesting Summer League roster this year, which is something we haven’t been able to say in a while. Consider the potential to see All-Rookie selection Tim Hardaway Jr., Larkin, Early, Antetokounmpo, Toure Murry and Jeremy Tyler on the roster in Las Vegas next month.
Larkin fits a role that I’ve been saying is a necessity for this team for years: A change-of-pace backup point guard. There were some reports that the Knicks may use Larkin as an asset, but Jackson spoke as if he had plans for him.
As Jackson said, Larkin “really didn’t have a chance last year” in Dallas because of a broken foot injury he suffered just before Summer League, plus he played behind veterans Calderon and Devin Harris. Jackson called Larkin, son of former Major League Baseball All-Star Barry Larkin, a “highly thought of young player who changes the speed on the floor. We think he’s going to be effective doing that. He’s kind of a change-of-pace guard.”
People I’ve talked to say it’s reasonable to project Larkin to be most effective in a JJ Barea/Norris Cole role for the Knicks.
Calderon would move into the starting point guard role and Jackson noted that the veteran from Spain “organizes a team quite well,” and pointed to his ability to push the pace and shoot threes. The biggest concern, of course, is that the point guard position has become the most difficult to defend in the NBA and Calderon, at 32, may be athletically over-matched against the likes of Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Damian Lillard and the like. So is this where Iman Shumpert has to emerge on a consistent basis?
Jackson admitted perimeter defense remains an area of great concern. “That’s something we’ve missed here the last couple of years: The ability to stop the ball,” he said.
Something else you’ve heard a lot about from myself and Wally Szczerbiak on our Knicks postgame shows on MSG Network.
By trading away the team’s defensive anchor in Chandler, it would seem the Knicks’ defense becomes an even greater issue for Jackson to address. Dalembert provides similar length and shot-blocking, but he’s no Tyson Chandler. Still, he is much more affordable and does have a just partial guarantee salary that could allow the Knicks some payroll flexibility should they need it in free agency.
But, again, let’s not overlook the value in collecting assets. Picks, prospects and expiring contracts are all critical pieces in completing any all-star caliber player. So with his moves on Draft night, was Phil Jackson building for the long-term future, or the immediate future?