Carmelo Anthony smiles widely when he talks about Kristaps Porzingis. If you've known Melo long enough, you know he has tossed praise around to different players, but rare is it with the enthusiasm he shows when the discussion turns to "KP". Perhaps it's because, in Porzingis, Melo sees a lot of himself. The appreciation grew quickly through a tumultuous summer that began with public criticism of the Knicks decision to take the 7-foot Latvian teenager with the fourth pick in the draft.
And there was also the subsequent source-based reports that Melo wasn't happy with it.
"It seems like none of this stuff fazes him," Melo told me. "And I like that. He has a little chip on his shoulder."
In the countless hours of discussions during this offseason of review and rethinking, Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher had finally reached a point in their relationship where respect finally went beyond the stage of being polite. One would think after all of the years they spent together as coach and player, there would no longer be a boundary between them. But over the first season together in New York, there was an obvious tip-toeing both did around each other.
What they learned in meetings with each other and general manager Steve Mills is that "orientation process," as Jackson called it, had to come to and end. The more they worked together in the offseason on building almost an entirely new roster, the more they realized that they, Fisher said, "found a better rhythm" and, as a result, wanted to maintain that into the season.
"Derek's going to ask me to be a little more present this year," Jackson announced on Friday, when he, Mills and Fisher had their first media session before training camp opened.
We know the Knicks will be in Milwaukee on opening night and we know they’ll be home watching the games with the rest of us on Christmas and we know they’ll be in Indiana for their final regular season matchup.
The question is, when this schedule is over, where will they be?
After a busy offseason of rebuilding by Phil Jackson and Steve Mills, the new-look Knicks, with a healthy Carmelo Anthony, begin the season on Oct. 28 against the Bucks in Milwaukee. Since so many of you ask, let’s take an early guess at the opening night starting lineup...
The fact of the matter is, the Knicks missed out on the biggest name in free agency. So did 28 other teams.
Marc Gasol was the one marquee name the Knicks were going to chase with the fervor of their 2010 pitch to LeBron James. Gasol fit everything the Knicks wanted and needed as they rebuild the franchise not just in talent, but in philosophy and character.
Gasol never put himself on the open market. He wants to stay in Memphis and made that abundantly clear. No other team, not even the San Antonio Spurs, got audience with him.
So, for the Knicks, instead of eating up the largest portion of their salary cap space on one player, their Plan B became an effort that was quite opposite of the way the team has done business in the past.
You’re mad, but you aren’t quite sure why you’re mad. You’re also confused because while you may have booed the Knicks decision to select Latvian big man Kris Porzingis with the 4th overall pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft, some of the loudest critics of the franchise over the last decade came away praising the work of Phil Jackson and his staff.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” ESPN draft guru Chad Ford tweeted during the draft. “Kris Porzingis and Jerian Grant? I’m loving the Knicks draft.”
Grant, who was selected at 19th overall by the Wizards, who flipped him to the Hawks, who traded him to the Knicks in exchange for Tim Hardaway Jr. (got all that?), is a nice pick up. A big guard who can get to the rim and also shoot the three, Grant is a four-year player from Notre Dame who comes with maturity and a high basketball IQ.
I remember how abruptly the conversation with Dell Curry ended that night during the 2009 NBA Draft. We had been in contact for weeks leading up to the draft discussing the mutual admiration between his son, Steph, and the Knicks.
Going into that night, the Knicks were, as Steph said himself, “the best fit.” He spoke openly about his preference to land at the Knicks pick, at 8th overall, and play in Mike D’Antoni’s offense. Even his agent, Jeff Austin, made it clear to other teams, including the Warriors, that Curry’s focus was on New York.
We know what happens next. The Warriors, undaunted, took Curry at No. 7, just one pick before the Knicks were on the clock. Donnie Walsh, then president of the Knicks, was devastated.
“If they were one spot higher,” Austin told Harvey Araton recently, “where would they be now?”
Six years later, the Warriors are the world champions and Curry is the MVP. The Knicks are back in the lottery and are eyeing another Curry-like scenario in D’Angelo Russell.
If we follow the spiritual logic of Phil Jackson, the basketball gods owe the Knicks. After competing to Game 82, to the point of winning three of their final six games to earn one win more than the Minnesota Timberwolves out of the first seat in the NBA Draft Lottery, the Knicks saw the system bump them down two big spots.
On Tuesday night, the Timberwolves were rewarded for their ineptitude by being only the fourth last place team to win the lottery since the weighted system was instituted in 1990. They were the first since the Orlando Magic in 2004.
The Knicks, who sat in the second seat, dropped to fourth overall. They were leapfrogged by the Lakers (21-61), who lost eight of their final nine games of the regular season.
So while we’re all bemoaning the Knicks late, meaningless wins that, in hindsight, cost them the No. 1 overall pick, we could also say their losses cost them the second and third picks, as well.
The worst the Knicks could have fallen was 5th. This is still the franchise’s highest draft position since it won the very first lottery drawing in 1985 and landed Patrick Ewing.
Carmelo Anthony’s season ended after the All-Star Game in February, which gave him a lot of unwanted free time. Melo’s restlessness led him to watching NBA games on the West Coast late into the night. Enough that his wife, Lala, would have to tell him to turn off the TV and go to sleep.
When he was around the training center, Melo would linger around Steve Mills’ office and discuss players around the league that caught his interest. Players who might fit well with him and the way the Knicks hope to play next season.
And now with this Knicks season over, the focus on the critical offseason now shifts to the all-important execution phase.
Tim Hardaway Jr. is what they call a legacy player in the NBA. We're seeing a wave of second generations -- sons of fathers who played in the league -- in today’s game that include Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Love, Wesley Matthews, Austin Rivers, Gerald Henderson and Andrew Wiggins, among a few others.
Many of them, like Hardaway Jr., are kids who grew up in the NBA environment. They knew the league from the eyes of their fathers and their experiences toddling along with them to practices and games. They forged friendships with other Basketball Silver Spooners and also their father's teammates.
Hardaway Jr. was 8 years old when he met Anthony Mason, who had two boys, Anthony Jr. and Antoine, around the same age. Mason joined the Miami Heat that season and became fast friends with Heat veteran Tim Hardaway Sr. He took a liking to Tim Jr., as well, and would take the time to talk and play basketball with the younger Hardaway..
Eventually, the math has to change.
Phil Jackson has been using addition by subtraction formulas over the first year of his tenure, right up to Thursday’s NBA Trade Deadline. And while some hopeful fans were left disappointed when the Knicks weren’t involved in anything substantial before the deadline -- where over a dozen players dealt in a frenzy during the final minutes -- one thing we can assure is this: the Knicks won’t be wallflowers from this point on.
Fact is, they can’t be. In 29 games, this season will be over. Come July 1, only four players will remain under contract. Jackson has no choice but to begin the rebuild after spending the second half of his first season dismantling the roster.
First things first: the final stages of demolition.
His eyes were fixed on Jose Calderon, with his hands on his knees, watching as if he were looking through the knothole of a fence. The ball left Calderon's hands and you could see the anxiety build in the eyes that watched the ball arc to the basket.
Carmelo Anthony gave trust yet another try. This time it paid off. The ball swished through the hoop, The Garden erupted with cheers and Melo dropped his head with relief, clapped his hands and headed to the huddle.
That shot, which helped clinch a win over the Pelicans earlier this month, effectively ended the franchise-worst 16-game losing streak. It also began a building process that Melo has been through before and has been a struggle for him.
At the end of the 2008-09 season, after the Knicks had already been eliminated from playoff contention, the team won three of their final six games of the season. It brought Mike D'Antoni's record in his first season as Knicks coach to 32-50. Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, the Golden State Warriors won four of their last eight to finish 29-53.
Later that June, the Knicks waited with the 8th overall pick, poised to select Steph Curry. They missed him by one pick.
By three wins.
Looking back with crystal ball hindsight, it's easy to say former team president Donnie Walsh should have ordered D'Antoni to lay down in those final six games. It's situations like this that encourage the idea of tanking.
But, actually, history tells us otherwise.
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 Daniels, 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.
The reality of the Knicks 5-31 record, and the rash of injuries that has limited the roster, promotes a change in philosophy for the season. And with Carmelo Anthony dealing with a sore knee that has caused him to miss three (and a half) of the last nine games, the question that comes up involves whether or not the Knicks star should continue to play on the injured knee.
Derek Fisher on Friday acknowledged there have been conversations about exactly that lately with Melo.
"I think everybody is smart enough to realize, calendar-wise, timing-wise, that there may come a point that's the decision that needs to be made," Fisher said. "But that we can't force Carmelo to that point just yet."
It's never an easy thing for a player, especially a star player, to do when his team is struggling the way the Knicks are this season; to shut down for the year and leave them to finish up.