Phil Jackson had just been asked about the goals and expectations of his third season at the helm of the Knicks franchise. This offseason yielded his most ambitious effort in rebuilding, which included a blockbuster trade for a former MVP (Derrick Rose) and a $150 million spending spree in free agency, and the Knicks have the makeup of a team that, as he put it “has the potential of really being a good basketball club.”
How good? Jackson was asked what would constitute a successful season.
The author of the book, Eleven Rings, didn’t hesitate.
“Championship,” Jackson replied.
There was then a long pause.
The word echoed off the white concrete walls and polished hardwood of the cavernous two-court practice gymnasium nestled in a leafy corporate park in the Westchester town of Greenburgh. Jackson sat on a stool, with a backdrop behind him featuring a large logo commemorating the 70th season in franchise history, facing the media at Friday’s annual pre-training camp press junket. The word floated overhead and billowed through the two lonely banners from 1970 and 1973 — the only two titles in those previous 69 seasons — that hang adjacent to him at the far end of the building.
It doesn’t matter how far they were from his location when he spoke that word. Those banners loom very large for Jackson, a member of both title teams, in a multitude of ways.
Steve Mills, his general manager, who has been present at enough of these functions over the last decade to know what usually happens next, stared at the ground and didn’t change his expression. Jeff Hornacek, the new coach who is still very new to the ways of New York, couldn’t suppress a grin and let out a chuckle.
And then Phil nodded.
“That’s not our expectation,” he eventually clarified. “We’re not saying we’re going to do that. But that would be a successful season.”
It was a bold choice of words, but not a bad way to re-set a standard. It’s something Carmelo Anthony has been asking – no, begging – for over the last few years.
Jackson explained that winning a championship is what every team wants to do and that’s how you measure the success of a season. If you don’t win a championship, you then work backward from there with self-checks: Did we improve? How can we improve more?
On paper, Jackson and Mills have already improved the talent. Let’s go out on a limb here and call this the most talented starting five the Knicks have had since Jackson’s tenure began. You start with Rose, who finished last season strong, and Melo, coming off a solid Olympic performance, and Kristaps Porzingis with a year of NBA experience and some added muscle. Add the experience and 3&D ability of Courtney Lee and the anchorman, himself, Joakim Noah, and that’s as good as a five-man unit as you’ll find in the East outside of Cleveland.
I defy you to give me a better starting five aside from the defending champs. My Twitter (@alanhahn) awaits your response.
But there is, of course, a major cause for concern, which put a governor on the revving engine of excitement in this new season.
“The only thing that’s going to compete with them being successful or not successful,” Jackson said, “is the injury factor.”
It’s undeniable. It’s why ESPN’s analytics forecasts a 34-win season for this group. It’s why Las Vegas Sports bookmakers put the over/under at 38.5 wins, but it’s also why Vegas has taken more bets on the Knicks to win the NBA title than any other team, despite the 80-1 odds.
The Knicks have the makings of a high-risk/high-reward team.
Rose, after dealing with major knee injuries over the last few years, just had his first offseason in which he was not focused on rehabilitation. The Knicks signed Brandon Jennings as insurance, but his injury history includes a ruptured Achilles in Jan. 2015.
Noah was a Defensive Player of the Year winner and MVP candidate just two years ago, but since then has dealt with knee and shoulder injuries that had the Chicago Bulls believing his days as an effective starter were over.
Melo has been hampered by knee and ankle injuries over the last three seasons and Porzingis broke down physically late last season after taking a pounding playing in the mosh pit that is the NBA’s painted area.
So the question isn’t whether or not the Knicks can be a good team. They have enough talent, especially their starting five, to be good. The question is, can they be on the court together for at least 70 games?
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And if they’re not, with so much invested in the starting five, Hornacek will have to be a master mixologist with his reserves. After Jennings, he’ll be relying on late-bloomer Lance Thomas, who had a terrific first half last season with a shot at Most Improved Player before a knee injury severely limited his effectiveness. There’s also Justin Holiday, a piece in the Rose trade that many in Chicago say the Knicks got a steal. And also Kyle O’Quinn, a player who arrived in free agency with great anticipation last season, but didn’t seem to find a role or a fit in the rotation.
Remaining questions involve unknown international commodities such as center Willy Hernangomez, a 2015 second round pick known mostly as Porzingis’ buddy, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas, a versatile guard/forward who showed intriguing potential in the Olympics for Lithuania.
Will they be up to the task when called upon? In games against the NBA’s elite, it’s the second quarters and late third quarters — when the bench comes in — that can be the difference between a win and a loss. And with health such a concern for this team, bench production and reliability will be vital.
“We hope we have a strong enough bench behind us,” Jackson said. “We hope we have enough strength to cover injury if we have injuries in the process.”
Jackson’s concerns are hardly trivial. In fact, they’re enough to limit the potential of this team from not competing for that word, championship, but limit them from even qualifying for the chance to play for it.
But the possibilities are endless for this team, which makes recalls a similar feeling to the 2012-13 squad of greybeards who built a 54-win season and hung a banner for the Atlantic Division.
That year stands as an isolated success in an era of constant rebuilding. For Jackson, this year is intended to be part of the progression under his command.
And as it sets to begin Tuesday at West Point, even he admits, “There’s an excitement about it.”