The Knicks Fix: Jackson Learning from History

It started, for the Knicks, at the end. After the 1973 championship, the Knicks had one last run in them, to the Eastern Conference Finals in ‘74. The following season, after a first round ouster, two of the championship era’s cornerstones, Willis Reed and Dave DeBusschere, retired.

There wasn’t much coming via the draft, as the Knicks had just two first round picks between 1972-1976. Mel Davis, from St. John’s, was the pick in ‘73. And in 1975, with the 9th overall pick, the Knicks took Gene Short from Jackson State. Short, brother of Purvis Short, played just 27 games for the Knicks, who passed on Gus Williams and Lloyd B. Free, among others, in that draft.

Rebuilding after the championship era was done with money, not drafting. Neal Walk and Spencer Haywood were acquired in 1975, followed by Bob McAdoo in ‘76. The Knicks failed to make the playoffs.

Phil Jackson was part of these teams and when he took the job to run the franchise four decades later, he was reminded of the past.

“Some of the people that have been fans of this team have told me many times, there’s been this impression that maybe the team should blow it up and should start over again and it’s never happened,” Jackson said in his media address last Saturday. “It’s always been going after the next big star . . . We all know that history of the Knicks in the past.”

Phil Jackson discusses the Knicks' struggles this season, the team's ability to attract free agents in the offseason, when Carmelo Anthony might return to the court and much more.

Jackson not only mentioned Haywood and McAdoo, he also brought up the name of Antonio McDyess, whom the Knicks traded for on draft night in 2002 (along with the 7th overall pick, Nene). McDyess, who was recovering from a major knee injury, suffered yet another one in the preseason that year and the gamble proved costly.

After that it was one reach after another, from McDyess to Stephon Marbury to Eddy Curry and Amar’e Stoudemire. Now, here’s Carmelo Anthony, who was just re-signed to a five-year, $124 million contract.

“We kept searching for the next star to change our fortunes and it’s never happened over the last 45 years or so,” Jackson said.

Actually, the change in fortune came with Patrick Ewing. But he wasn’t a star they attracted with money. He was the No. 1 pick in the 1985 draft and a cornerstone for the most successful 15-year run in franchise history.

But when that run ended, McDyess was an ill-fated attempt to find a player to replace Ewing, who was traded in 2000. Instead of letting Ewing’s contract expire and carrying the salary cap space into free agency, the Knicks tried to trade Ewing for pieces that would keep the team competitive. The main pieces of the deal were Glen Rice and Luc Longley.

Neither lasted long in New York.

Ewing’s tenure should be the example for Jackson. Like past greats, such as Willis Reed and Walt Frazier, Ewing was a draft pick; a home-grown, developed talent that was good enough to build around. But to get to Ewing, the Knicks had to endure painful seasons, such as the one in 1984-85 that saw Bernard King blow out his knee and the team lose the final 12 games of that season.

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The mistake made after the Ewing draft was in not recognizing the potential in a Ewing-King tandem. Instead, GM Al Bianchi and rookie coach Rick Pitino felt it was better to move on from King just as he was coming back from the knee injury. King went on to become an All-Star again with the Bullets.

And Ewing went throughout his career begging the franchise to find him a No. 2 scorer who could take on some of the burden. Instead, the small forward spot was a turnstile of Kenny Walker, Johnny Newman, Kiki Vandeweghe, Xavier McDaniel and Charles Smith. Help finally arrived with Latrell Sprewell, some 10 years too late.

But it shows you that not just star-chasing has cost this franchise over the last 40 years. It has also been drafting decisions and use of draft picks. For instance, the Knicks landed Micheal Ray Richardson with the fourth overall pick in the 1978 draft. Richardson was a four-time All-Star, a two-time All-Defensive selection and led the NBA in steals  three times in his career.

However, that date, June 9, 1978, should have greater meaning in Knicks history than it does because that was the day the team decided to pass on drafting Larry Bird.

Bird was draft-eligible because of his redshirt year after transferring out of Indiana, but was telling teams he planned to stay one more year of college at Indiana State. That kept most teams from taking him, because of the fear of waiting a full year before he would turn pro.

The Knicks that season won 43 games and reached the second round of the playoffs with Haywood, McAdoo, an aging Earl Monroe and a rookie named Ray Williams. So rather than investing time into one of the college game’s most dynamic scorers, the edict was to draft a player who would be immediately available.

Two picks later, the Celtics snatched up Bird’s rights. Years later, Red Auerbach admitted that if the Knicks had taken Bird, he would have drafted Richardson.

A quarter century later, Isiah Thomas used two unprotected first round picks and a lot of cap space to attempt yet another quick fix rebuild. He acquired a young center, Eddy Curry, who was a bit of an enigma despite his talent, from the Chicago Bulls in 2005. Curry, laden with a huge contract, battled weight and motivation issues while the two picks turned into LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah.

Both players are stars in the NBA, while Curry is no longer in the NBA.

So as Jackson begins his effort to do what hasn’t been done here in 30 years, completely rebuild the Knicks, it should be encouraging to know that, for once, Knicks leadership has a keen, first-person understanding of past mistakes.

He has Melo and a potentially high lottery first round pick to start with. The rest depends on learning from history and not succumbing to the pressure of impulse buying and quick fixes.

This is the toughest part of a rebuild, enduring the demolition stage. But it’s also the easiest. The biggest challenge lies ahead in the decisions made and the impact they will have over the course of the future of the franchise.

No pressure, Phil.

“The reality is, this is probably the best way to go about the business: to begin, to restart and do it the right way,” Jackson said, “and put it together in a way that really makes sense.”

FIXINS

— Jackson said “no one should be surprised” with anything the team does from here on out and suggested he and GM Steve Mills plan to be active before the Feb. 19 trade deadline. There is a report that the team is shopping more veteran players.

The team also acquired two very sizable trade exceptions in the JR Smith/Iman Shumpert deal, with one at $6 million and another at $2.6 million. Trade exceptions can be used by teams over the salary cap to acquire a player for up to the amount of the exception. You can’t use an exception to sign a free agent, but you can use it in a sign-and-trade. These exceptions expire on Jan. 15, 2016, so they don’t need to be used right away. But they do count against the salary cap in the offseason, so the team might look to use it then or waive them.

— As we’ve told you, Carmelo Anthony plans to try to play though his knee issues for a few more weeks because he want to play in the All-Star Game here in New York City on Feb. 15. Melo is expected to earn a starting spot on the East team by way of fan votes. Jackson said the decision to play right now “should be up to him” and mentioned surgery as “a last resort” but one that should help improve his injury, which, by the way, has never been officially identified by Melo or the team.

Speaking of Melo, Jackson offered this interesting comment about the team’s star:

“He questions his leadership role and his part in all this and we want him to know and reassure him on that regard that we believe help is on the way and he’s gonna have support.”

Lou Amundson, who was acquired from the Cavs in the JR Smith/Iman Shumpert trade, then waived and then subsequently re-signed to a 10-day contract (for flexibility purposes), joined elite company, according to NBA.com’s Hangtime Blog. He is one of only a dozen players to play for at least 10 different teams.

Amundson, once he gets into a game, will have played for the Jazz, Sixers, Suns, Warriors, Pacers, Timberwolves, Bulls (literally three minutes), Pelicans, Cavaliers and now Knicks.

The NBA record in a single career is 12 teams, done by Chucky Brown, Jim Jackson, Tony Massenburg and Joe Smith.

Amundson probably should rent here in New York, as well, but whenever he settles down long enough to call one city home, he will have a pretty cool jersey collection to display.