Phil Jackson admittedly walked into a ready-made situation with the Lakers. He had been part of the building process as an assistant coach with the Bulls. But here in New York he begins the first ground-up renovation of his career.
And it starts tonight at Madison Square Garden, where his NBA career began, against the franchise where his championship legacy was created.
The notion that the Knicks, with most of it’s core still intact from an underachieving 37-win team last season, will be instantly better should be dismissed before the ball is even tipped off. Both Jackson and Derek Fisher
have already acknowledged this is a work-in-progress. The only thing that can be promised is the group that takes the court is far from the final product. There will be changes along the way.
Yes, this is only the beginning. And that’s something we are used to around here, since this marks the fifth new beginning in the last 13 years.
Some say New Yorkers don’t have the patience for rebuilding. Knicks fans have proven that theory wrong. Through numerous changes in the front office and in head coaches over the years, hope has been invested and, save for the 54-win season two years ago, there has been no profit to celebrate.
So why will this be different?
1. Culture – Jackson is a presence and a proven leader who creates an environment and quickly recognizes who does and who doesn’t thrive in that environment. The Knicks have gone through many different leadership changes, which has created a great deal of inconsistency at the top of the organization.
During the 1990s, there was consistency, which allowed a culture to exist and perpetuate. The franchise, with Patrick Ewing as its face, had an identity. Jackson’s first mission is to create a culture and his presence, and reputation, allows it to grow.
2. Action Jackson – Jackson has no serious investment into anyone on the roster aside from Carmelo Anthony, who signed a five-year deal. So when it comes to playing time and trading time, the only decision that should matter is what advances the cause.
Don’t expect Jackson to hesitate when it comes to upgrading the roster. Dumping a $3 million veteran (Travis Outlaw) to make room for an undrafted free agent (Travis Wear) who has better upside in this system is a perfect example of why there is a new approach in the front office.
3. System – First you need to understand that the Triangle Offense is not some magical system that is impossible to stop and makes bad players good. What it is, however, is a system that sets a foundation of style of play. It’s an identity. There could be a situation where a marginally-skilled player may fit much better than a skilled player. It demands more from you mentally than physically, which means high-IQ over high-flying.
And it takes time not only to find the flow that is necessary for it to work, but also to recognize who fits and who doesn’t. This is not as simple as D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less, where a journeyman such as Chris Duhon can record 22 assists running pick-and-roll but good defenses can exploit and bad shooting nights can destroy. This is going to take time to get right, but it has a bigger payoff in the end once synchronicity is achieved.
4. Carmelo Anthony – He has taken ownership, which is critical to the process. When your best and highest paid player has bought in, there is no one else on the roster who can rebel. Melo may not be the leader that Ewing was, but over the last two years he has shown to be the consistently reliable presence that Ewing was night-in and night-out.
His fitness level is a great example of this. Melo, like Ewing, still needs a supporting cast and some no-nonsense types to be voices in the locker room, but they are one step ahead in the building process with him here.
5. Leadership – Derek Fisher has a lot to learn when it comes to game management, for sure, but while he hasn’t experienced the job in the first seat on the bench, the last few years of his career has been in a player-coach role. And being a leader is something that came natural to him from the beginning of his career.
It’s not the leadership of a superstar who had players follow him, either. It’s the leadership of a self-made man who has shown genuine interest in his teammates on a personal and professional level and earned the respect of his peers from his worth ethic and determination. The Knicks have had many coaches over the last decade. How many of them could you say commanded the respect that Fisher already does?
6. Youth – The Knicks have had young teams before. The 2005-06 team had eight players on the roster that were 25 years old or younger, but had leadership issues. This year’s team has six players under the age of 25 and you could argue with Jackson and Fisher, they are in better hands. Tim Hardaway Jr. has the potential to be an explosive scorer off the bench, especially if he adds the ability to drive to the basket and draw fouls. Iman Shumpert could thrive as a defensive stopper under Fisher, who took pride in his defense as well.
And many critics around the league believe Cleanthony Early
was the steal of the NBA Draft last June, when the Knicks landed him in the second round. He’s still raw, but with the proper development and time, he could become a valuable piece in this build. Let’s also say that Fisher brought with him from Oklahoma City two heralded player development coaches in Brian Keefe and Joshua Longstaff, both of whom played a big role in the growth of the Thunder’s young talent.
7. More Youth Ahead? – The Knicks own their 2015 first round pick, so if they don’t make the playoffs, they will be in the lottery. And even if they are in the playoffs, when the Knicks have kept their picks, the scouts here have proven they can find talent late in the first round.
8. Cap Space – Yes, we all know what comes on July 1. Or, better yet, what goes. Several large contracts expire, which will put the Knicks well under the salary cap for the 2015-16 season. There is still some maneuvering to do and technicalities such as “cap holds” make it difficult to report an exact figure, but there is expected to be enough room to allow for a max contract or the ability to sign (or acquire) two players to large deals.
9. Even East – With the breakup of the Miami Heat, the Eastern Conference has become a lot more competitive, but also a lot more wide open. The Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers expect to be among the best, but you also have to consider the Washington Wizards as a sleeper. There will be far more competition night to night and that parity could keep the race a lot tighter. It may allow the Knicks time to grow during the season and make a strong second half push.
10. Division By Multiplication – The Toronto Raptors are the favorite to repeat as the Atlantic Division champs, but they are not a juggernaut that can’t be beaten. The Brooklyn Nets have a terrific coach in Lionel Hollins and a good starting five, but health and depth are always an issue for them. One way the Knicks can ensure a playoff berth is to win the division and the lack of one dominant team allows them to believe that is possible if they can stay within reach.
11. Legacy – This job is personal to Phil Jackson. During the years he was beating the Knicks in Chicago and even during his time with the Lakers, he always talked with emotion about the Knicks and the state of the franchise. He won six rings with the Bulls and five with the Lakers, but winning just one in New York, and returning this franchise to the heights where he saw it as a player under Red Holzman, would be the ultimate final achievement in his Hall of Fame career.
That’s our list of 11. Do you have any other points to add? Post a comment below or tweet at me!