The Knicks Fix: After Enlightenment, Laundry
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 this point, it’s just a matter of giving guys the confidence that they need,” Melo said after that game. “It’s not about me trying to go out there and trying to win the basketball game on my own.”
What’s not nearly as important as that moment of trust is the moments that follow it. Melo has to treat this epiphany as routine and not an exception to the rule. That decision to pass to Calderon was, simply, the right play. The payoff was critical only to enforce the trust, but he has to understand that the right play is the satisfaction and the successful ending is merely a result. But it only becomes part of who he is as a player when it becomes part of his routine.
There is a Zen proverb that best explains it: “After enlightenment, laundry.”
A bit too philosophical? Perhaps. But, hey, at least I didn’t get into Albert Camus existentialism.
And let’s not forget who is running this franchise.
From the day Phil Jackson took over, one of his main goals was to transform Melo’s game from that of a one-dimensional scorer, to a dynamic talent that could thrive in an unselfish system. It’s something he did with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, though both were much younger in their careers.
When they compare the game’s top players to Melo, they say he doesn’t pass enough. But in order to properly critique his game, you have to understand his thinking. Carmelo isn’t as much a selfish player as he is a self-confident one. In most situations, he believes in his talent more than that of the players around him. He believes it is his responsibility to use that unwavering belief to win the game for his team.
For instance, when he’s passed the ball out of a double-team three times to a wide-open Landry Fields in the corner, the fourth time isn’t going to happen. By that time, he’s telling himself, “I have a better chance making this shot against a double than he does making that shot wide open.”
So, against the Pelicans with the lead slipping away and the desperation to end a long losing streak in his hands late in the game, the fact that Melo made the right play, the instinctual play, and passed the ball to an open Calderon in the corner, took a great amount of surrender to the concept of trust that Phil Jackson has been consistently preaching to his star player.
That shot just had to go in, for reasons that far exceed the critical win it clinched. It needed to go in so Melo could allow himself to trust the system, trust his instinct to make the right play. In a make-or-miss game, where we analyze the shot rather than the play that led to it, the result is the only affirmation.
Since then, we’ve seen Melo continue to lead the team in scoring (he’s averaging 25 points over the last six games), but doing so much more within the flow of the Triangle Offense. His game, while battling through a chronic knee issue and back spasms, is a lot more honest now since the trade that changed the makeup of the roster.
And that hasn’t been lost on Derek Fisher.
“I think Carmelo is continuing to find out more and more how capable he really is of not just statistically leading his team, but emotionally, psychologically, guys are following him and he’s setting the tone out there,” Fisher said.
This came after the win over the Thunder on Wednesday, in which Melo carried the team through the third quarter to match Russell Westbrook’s barrage of scoring, but then yielded to Tim Hardaway Jr. in the fourth quarter, while he was blanketed with double-teams.
It was similar to last Friday’s win over the Magic, when 16-of-18 points down the stretch were scored by three players on 10-day contracts — Langston Galloway, Lance Thomas and Lou Amundson — while Melo drew defenses toward him. On one occasion, Melo tied up his defenders with a big screen that allowed Galloway an open three to seal the win.
The three 10-day players, who essentially replaced JR Smith, Iman Shumpert and Sam Dalembert, have been a revelation for the Knicks and the widely-criticized Triangle Offense. Their play has inspired a renewed belief in the system and, perhaps, has proven that with the right personalities (i.e.: “learners”), it does, in fact, work. Galloway provides aggressive dribble penetration and the ability to shoot the jumper, Amundson runs hard cuts, set solid screens and hustle for offensive rebounds, Thomas does the same and adds a decent shooting touch around the basket and Jason Smith, moved to center, is a very good post passer and mid-range shooter.
They all work well around Melo, who draws so much defensive attention that it opens up opportunities for them.
“That’s kind of what this system is about: just kind of spacing and trying to create something, if not for yourself, than for others, with lots of movement,” Melo said recently. “This is something we kind of thought would be happening earlier in the season. But it’s happening now.”
This is still just a modest stretch of success to end the month of January (4 wins in the last 7 games), but there is no denying that, even in losses, the Knicks look like a much different team than the one over the first 41 games of the season. Still, at 9-38, a lot of fans tell me that playing for lottery positioning is more important to the future than getting wins when you’re 10 games out of a playoff spot.
While this year’s first round pick is extremely important, so is building a culture and an identity that will carry into next season. It is important to show the league, especially prospective free agent targets, that the Triangle does work with the right pieces in place. It’s important for Derek Fisher to show he is not only a capable coach, but one that is gaining valuable experience.
And it’s also important for the ongoing evolution of Carmelo Anthony.
“He’s doing a lot of things that are forcing guys to get to his level,” Fisher said of Melo. “I’m proud of him and I’m excited for where he is right now . . . and where we’re going in the future.
The Knicks Fix: No Tanks, Says Lottery History
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 eighth 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.
Before we get to the numbers that explain why playing for lottery position isn’t a successful strategy, let’s first address the reality of the situation that many fans overlook: Coaches and players aren’t interested in losing games just for the chance they might land a higher draft pick.
“You’re asking the wrong person about that,” Derek Fisher said at practice on Tuesday, before his 6-36 Knicks take on the 8-33 Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night.
“There’s no interest in thinking about which pick we might get based on the way the ping-pong bounces when we play Philadelphia. There’s just no correlation, in my mind. Maybe some people see it differently.”
All people, if they saw the numbers we’re about to show you, would see it logically: Tanking rarely pays off.
Consider that in 25 years of the draft lottery using the weighted system (not the envelopes-in-a-hopper thing from the late 1980s), only three times has the team with the worst record in the league come away with the No. 1 overall pick. So despite having the best chance to win it (25 percent), only 12 percent of the time it has worked out. And one came in the very first year of the weighted lottery system, 1990, when the Nets (17-65) won the lottery drawing and selected Derrick Coleman from Syracuse with the pick.
The only other times the team with the worst record won the lottery came in consecutive years: In 2003, the Cavaliers finished 17-65 and landed LeBron James, and in 2004, the Magic went 21-61 and selected Dwight Howard.
So where is the “lucky” spot? That would be third-worst. Teams that finished with the third-worst record in the NBA have won the lottery six times, the most of any spot in the lottery drawing since 1990. That spot has a 15.6 percent chance to win and has won it 24 percent of the time.
And the fifth spot, with just an 8.8 percent chance to win, is the second-most frequent winner, with five. Second-worst has won it four times.
So I guess you could say if you aren’t going to be a playoff team, it does pay to be among the worst. Just not the absolute worst.
With six wins at the halfway point of the season, the Knicks are on pace for a franchise-low win total. Never in the history of the team have they failed to reach at least 21 wins in a season. But this year, it’s quite possible.
So we looked at teams over the last 10 years at teams that finished with less than 20 wins. When you boast that type of win total, you need a payoff. But for most teams, there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Consider these examples:
The Hawks were an abysmal 13-69, but did not win the lottery. Instead, the Milwaukee Bucks jumped five picks to win it and took Andrew Bogut. OK, so the Hawks didn’t miss out on a superstar, but they took Marvin Williams with the No. 2 pick, with Chris Paul still on the board. D’oh.
With Dwyane Wade sidelined for most of the season, the Heat (15-67) were awful. But with Wade’s fellow Chicagoan Derrick Rose as the big prize in the draft, the Heat were trumped by the hometown Bulls, who jumped a record eight spots to the top pick. The Heat took Michael Beasley with the No. 2 pick and in two years dumped him in order to build the Heatles.
The Kings had the worst record at 17-65 and entered a draft that had a lot of prospects such as Blake Griffin and James Harden. But the lottery was unkind to the Kings, who dropped to fourth overall. The Clippers landed the No. 1 spot and took Griffin. Harden went to the Thunder at No. 3. The Kings got Tyreke Evans, whom they eventually traded away.
The Nets lost 70 games. 70 games! They had the top spot in the lottery, but when the drawing was held, the Nets found themselves leapfrogged by two teams, the Wizards (26-56) and the 76ers (27-55). The Nets missed out on John Wall and instead used their pick of Derrick Favors to trade for Deron Williams later the next season.
The Timberwolves had a 17-65 record that certainly was painful as Jonny Flynn turned out to be a terrible pick in the 2009 NBA Draft and Ricky Rubio was in Spain trying to find a way to avoid coming to Minnesota. A lottery win would have yielded Kyrie Irving and a valuable trade chip in Rubio. Instead, the Clippers jumped seven spots to land in the top spot, which was a pick owned by the Cavaliers via the Baron Davis trade. So the Cavs, after losing LeBron, won the lottery thanks to a trade.
The Charlotte Bobcats had the worst winning percentage in NBA history (.106) with a 7-59 record during the 66-game season shortened by the NBA lockout. A potential superstar awaited in the draft, with Kentucky’s Anthony Davis. But the New Orleans Hornets jumped from the fourth spot to the top spot to claim Davis. The Bobcats took Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the second pick.
Two years later, New Orleans would give up the name Hornets for the name Pelicans and the Bobcats would drop their name to reclaim Hornets. Charlotte probably would have accepted keeping the Bobcats moniker if it meant landing A.D.
Even last season, for as bad as the 76ers (19-63) and Bucks (15-67) were, the payoff did not result in the No. 1 pick. Somehow the Cavs (33-49) leaped 9 spots to to the top and snagged Andrew Wiggins, who they later flipped to Minnesota in the Kevin Love trade.
Milwaukee, which got the second pick, still came away with Jabari Parker, which was a very good consolation prize. The 76ers took Joel Embiid, who has had to sit out this season with injuries and is now reportedly overweight.
See? The Basketball Gods do not reward tanking.
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.”
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.
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.”
— 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.
The Knicks Fix: Melo Not Thinking About Shutdown … Yet
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.
“It’s a thin line to where you want to be labeled as a player, somebody who fought through pain and injury or somebody who played it safe,” J.R. Smith said. “But at the same time, Melo has been doing what we have been asking him to do. It’s just right now he just physically can’t do it.”
After Saturday’s practice, Fisher put the brakes on the idea of shutting Melo down for the season.
“I don’t think ‘shutting down’ is the conversation that we’re having,” he said.
Fisher went on to explain that Melo might likely be shut down for this week, which involves five games in seven days and two back-to-backs. But then the Knicks have a long break between games, with the trip to London to play the Bucks on Jan. 15 as a potential return date.
That game, by the way, is Game 41. The halfway point of the regular season.
There are then only 13 games until another important point in the season for Melo: All-Star Weekend. It’s in New York City this season, with the game at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 15. Make no mistake about it, Melo wants to be in that game, on his home court.
It would be the 8th All-Star appearance of his career and the sixth straight. He’s been an All-Star starter in all but one of his appearances so far.
He’s currently third in the voting among frontcourt players in the East, along with LeBron James and Pau Gasol, which means he would again be a starter on All-Star Sunday at The Garden. It’s a position he certainly covets and you know Jordan Brand would love to have him, and his recently released M11’s, on that stage as well.
Perhaps after that game, he and the Knicks will re-assess where they are and what do do with the rest of the season.
The Knicks visit Memphis on Monday night, which means their first of two meetings with Marc Gasol, who will be the biggest name on the free agent market this summer. So far Gasol has said his plan is to think about free agency in July — but really, how is he not at least wondering about it? — but said he is keeping his options open.
“I won’t say no to anything right now,” he told the Los Angeles Daily News last week. “If it’s presented to me, I’ll think about it. If not, I won’t.”
10 DAYS TO MAKE IT
Starting Monday, teams can sign free agent players to 10-day contracts, which makes it a big day for D-League players looking to get a shot. There are several players in the D-League who could get picked up soon, such as the league’s leading scorer, Brady Heslip (27.7 points per game, 50% shooting from three-point range), or Steph Curry’s brother, Seth Curry, who is averaging 26.3 points and shooting 52.7% from three. 52.7%!
The Westchester Knicks have rookie Langston Galloway, a scoring guard who leads the team with 16.5 points per game and 44.7% shooting. The Knicks love his potential, but because of D-League rules they don’t own exclusive rights to him, so another team could sign him if they want.
Thanasis Antetekounmpo, however, is exclusive property of the Knicks because he was their second round pick. He can’t just be called up, however, as the team still would have to sign him to an NBA contract first.
And, of course, in order for the Knicks to sign anyone right now they’d first have to clear a roster spot because the roster is maxed out at 15.
SPACE JAM BLUE
Larry Johnson co-hosted this past week’s Nothing But Knicks show and in the Twitter segment, answered a few good questions from viewers, including this hypothetical from @harrycalat: “If asked, woudl you appear in Space Jam 2? And in a Knick uni?”
Warner Brothers are reportedly planning a sequel to Michael Jordan’s Space Jam movie, with LeBron James as the headliner this time joined by several other NBA stars. LJ appeared in the first Space Jam, along with Patrick Ewing, but back then LJ played for the Hornets and, therefore, was in teal. But this time around, if he’s asked, he said he’d be in blue and orange.
“I consider myself a Knick now,” LJ told me. “It’s where I finished, it’s where the majority of the best of my career was, right here at MSG. So I would do it in a heartbeat.”