The Knicks Fix: Jackson Assessing Knicks’ Learning Curve

So at least now we have a timetable.

“Thanksgiving through December,” Phil Jackson said.

“That’s when we say, if you haven’t gotten it by now, we’ll have to really think about if you’re a learner or if you’re not a learner as far as individual ballplayers, at that time.”

Phil Jackson discusses what he calls a "tough start" to the Knicks season, the positives he's seen from the team and dealing with injuries.

Jackson addressed the media before Monday’s loss to the Hawks, which dropped the Knicks to a 2-6 start, to support the efforts of Derek Fisher

and the coaching staff and remind everyone that he forecasted a challenging start as the Knicks learn the Triangle Offense. He said he sees “growth in this team” and believes that “we’re playing the game much better.”

However, he added the Knicks are “still quite a ways from their execution capabilities as a team.”

No one ever said this roster was the final product. In fact, with an abundance of salary cap space awaiting over the next two summers, it’s safe to say everyone recognizes this to be just the start of Jackson’s rebuilding plan for this team. While he praised several players for their work in the system — Iman Shumpert, for one — Jackson also didn’t hide the fact that the team will need to make moves to upgrade the talent and to find more players that better fit the style of play.

“You want to have all five players work well in a system,” he said, “because all five players are involved . . . Without a fully-functioning group, sometimes it stagnates out there. We’ve seen that and we’re hopeful some of these players will catch on.”

And the ones that don’t won’t be square pegs forced into round holes. They will, when possible, be replaced by round pegs.

Those who scoff at the Triangle Offense claim it’s only successful when you have superstars, like Jackson had with the Bulls (Jordan/Pippen) and Lakers (Kobe/Shaq, Kobe/Pau). While that is true of any system, to find the necessary synergy to make the system effective, you need to have players who are comfortable playing within it and, most importantly, can think it.

Carmelo Anthony, unquestionably a star player, is proving he can thrive in the system as more than just a scorer. After posting a strong stat line of 25 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists in the loss to Atlanta on Monday, Anthony is averaging 20.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists on the season. That’s well-rounded production and considering that he’s shooting an uncharacteristic 39.1% from the field, his scoring should go up.

We are still seeing some Iso-Melo late in games. But truth be told, those mid-post isolation sets are not “breaking the Triangle” plays. If you watch carefully, you will see the Triangle is set on one side of the court with Melo on the weak side. It was something Jordan, Pippen and Kobe both went to, as well. What Melo needs to continue to improve upon is how to recognize double teams and be willing to pass out of it, even in crunch time. That’s the trust factor we’ve often talked about, but Melo gets antsy when the team needs a basket and the ball isn’t in his hands.

“He’s going to want to step up at that time and help the ballclub with what he’s known for and what his genius is, which is scoring,” Jackson said of Melo. “That sometimes is frustrating to not be able to get there and do that.”

Alan Hahn and Al Trautwig give their thoughts on Phil Jackson's assessment of the Knicks start to the season.

There were a few times down the stretch in the loss to the Hawks on Monday where it seemed J.R. Smith could have taken Kyle Korver one-on-one to the basket. But Smith seemed content with getting Melo the ball and then watching him go to work on the mid-post. Meanwhile at the other end of the floor, the Hawks kept their starting point guard, Jeff Teague, on the bench because second-year guard Dennis Schroder was shredding the Knicks in the pick-and-roll.

Most nights it’s going to be your star. But some nights you need a second or even third guy to step up and get the job done at a high level.

“We have to find ways [for players] to be at their best,” Fisher said. “We need 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 guys to really be able to hold it down out there.”

This is why the assessment period is so important. As we reach mid-December, when the trade moratorium is lifted on players signed or acquired in the summer, you begin to see activity among teams that come to the conclusion that what they need for their system is not on their current roster.

The Knicks are learning a new system. Jackson wants to see not just who can play, but who can learn, the best.

GRIP IT & RIP IT

The Triangle Offense should eventually unlock more options as the team gets more familiar with it, but right now, in it’s most basic stages, the Knicks are not getting a lot of production around the basket. In other words, “easy” scores.

Going into Monday’s game against Atlanta, the Knicks were scoring just 12.4 points per game on “drives” — which involves anything that starts around 20 feet from the basket and results in a shot within 10 feet, according to SportVu. But since we know that dribble penetration isn’t a major part of the Triangle, let’s look elsewhere.

Consider that 33.9% of the offense in the first seven games came from “mid-range” shooting, which was the highest rate in the NBA. But the problem is the Knicks shot just 40.9% from the mid-range, which was 12th in the league. For a team that prioritizes the mid-range shot, they clearly need to be a better mid-range shooting team.

Within that, we see the Knicks struggled with pull-up jumpers (at least one dribble before a shot), of which they recorded 20.8 attempts per game, the 10th most in the league, according to NBA.com. They shot just 30.8% in those scenarios, which is 26th in the league.

So where are the Knicks most successful in the mid-range? In the Catch-and-Shoot situations. Going into Monday’s game, they attempted 28.4 catch-and-shoot shots per game, which was the 4th most in the NBA. They also made 48.6% of those shots, which was the 2nd best rate.

So, yes, less dribbles, more quicker decisions, lead to success.

By the way, after years of being among the league’s leaders from beyond the arc, the three-point shot isn’t exactly a lost art here in New York. The Knicks went into Monday’s game shooting a league-high 41.7%. But they only attempted 17.1 3PTA per game, which was the seventh-lowest in the NBA.

THE ORIGINAL ‘DOCTOR’

Ernie Vandeweghe, father of Kiki, passed away Sunday at the age of 86. A star from Oceanside, Long Island and Colgate, he was a member of the Knicks team that went to three straight NBA Finals from 1951-53. Knicks coach Joe Lapchick allowed him to attend medical school while he played and a few times because of school he would arrive late to games.

So before there was Dr. J, there was Dr. Ernie.

I heard a great story involving Vandeweghe from the 1951 playoffs. The Knicks met Bob Cousy and the Boston Celtics and the teams split the first two games of the best-of-three. In Game 3, the score was tied at 87 and Vandeweghe, a 77.5% free throw shooter that season, missed a pair of critical free throws with 17 seconds left. Harry Gallatin corralled the rebound and Lapchick quickly called timeout.

He then instructed the team to get the ball back to Vandeweghe. Someone in the huddle then blurted, “But what if he gets fouled?”

Lapchick replied, “Any idiot can make one of three.”

Sure enough, Vandeweghe was fouled and made one free throw to break the tie. And the Knicks won.