As Carmelo Anthony faced the reality of a third straight season without the playoffs, he sat across from Phil Jackson in his exit interview and asked the questions that were the most important for the two of them, together, to answer.
“How do we get better? How do we move forward?” Melo said.
He then added, “How do we take advantage of this window that I have?”
Initially, the sense most people were getting as a 32-win season ended was the moving forward part would be done with dynamic rookie Kristaps Porzingis as the centerpiece of a youth movement. There was a feeling that Melo was no longer the present tense.
But Jackson, noting Porzingis’ affinity for Melo, decided to give it one more shot.
“Realistically, we know were going to be competitive,” Jackson said after all the work was done, “because we have some very competitive players.”
What Jackson, and general manager Steve Mills, did was follow the formula that always worked in the past when it comes to maximizing the investment in Melo: surround him with experienced, alpha veterans (see: 2012-13).
It starts with Derrick Rose, who will be the catalyst of the Knicks offense, but he says not to expect the score-first mentality from him that he showed during his best years in Chicago.
“[This team] allows me to be the point guard I am,” he said. “With the Bulls, I had to learn how to score the ball in crazy ways because I had to adapt to the league. But coming here, I have so many options.”
The first will be Melo, who had another terrific experience winning his third gold medal for the U.S. at the Olympics in Rio this summer. It’s well documented that Melo has had strong seasons after playing in the Olympics. After winning gold in London in 2012, Melo went on to win the NBA scoring title and led the Knicks to a 54-win season and the Atlantic Division title. After winning gold in Beijing in 2008, Melo led the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals.
Both of those years he had strong point guard play. With the Knicks, it was Ray Felton and Jason Kidd. With the Nuggets, it was Chauncey Billups.
This year, he has Rose, a former MVP who has spent the last two seasons trying to regain his form as one of the game’s top scoring point guards following some devastating knee injuries.
“My job,” Rose says of Melo, “is to push him in ways he’s never been pushed before.”
Rose has great optimism because this was the first offseason in several years that he didn’t spend it rehabilitating an injury. But he missed five preseason games and seven practices during due to a civil trial, so there’s still some catching up to do.
“It would’ve been nice if he was here and played and got in a rhythm with guys,” Hornacek said. “We do have some days of practice before the first game. Even after the [season opener], we’ll have time to do things.”
Of course, the most important thing is that he’s healthy and the focus will be to keep him healthy. Brandon Jennings provides some insurance for that, but also provides consistency off the bench with another scoring point guard who thrives in pushing the pace.
The Knicks were last in the NBA in fast break points (8.4 per game) in each of the last two seasons. That expects to change dramatically with Rose and Jennings in the lineup and new coach Jeff Hornacek encouraging a quick-strike mentality.
“Everybody better be ready,” Jennings said, “‘cause we’re coming.”
With ball-dominant guards now on the roster, Melo will be allowed to play more like the Olympics version of himself — a sniper with less emphasis on isolation — which he welcomes at this stage of his career.
“That’s the goal, to kind of look at things differently and do things differently,” Melo said. “With these [point guards], they push the pace and get defenses to play different styles of defense. We can be a very good offensive team.”
Oh, there will be Triangles involved, but it’s expected to be less methodical and more method. There is also the development of Porzingis to consider and how Hornacek has plans to exploit his intriguing talents on the offensive end. Porzingis spent the summer in the weight room to build up his lower body strength and improve his stamina, which ran low midway through last season.
“It was all for a purpose to be better on the basketball court,” he said. “Not just stronger.”
He also worked on his feathery touch from the perimeter and, with added arc on his shot by Hornacek’s instruction, he could become a deadly threat from the corner three.
Speaking of which, Courtney Lee was added to provide a desperately-needed three-point prowess (the Knicks have been among the bottom third of the NBA in utilizing the three-point shot) and perimeter defense. Joakim Noah is expected to be the defensive anchor he’s been throughout his career while also providing the Knicks with one of the best passing big men in the game, which is essential in the Triangle Offense.
Noah, who missed some time in the preseason because of a hamstring injury, is another player the Knicks have to keep healthy. He missed the first three preseason games because of a hamstring issue.
The center position is one spot where the team lacks depth right now and Jackson admitted that depth was somewhat of a concern for the roster. The starting five, on paper, is as good as any first five in the Eastern Conference outside of Cleveland.
“I think if everybody stays healthy,” Lee said, “everybody is on the same page, the same common goal and everybody makes those sacrifices, I think it can be a pretty scary lineup, man.”
But there are questions to be answered about Hornacek’s rotation off the bench, which includes Jennings and returning glue-guy Lance Thomas.
Where does it go from there? Justin Holiday came over from Chicago in the Rose trade and Bulls reporters raved to me about his potential. Kyle O’Quinn showed up for training camp in much better shape than last season with a focus on running the floor. European imports Willy Hernangomez and Mindaugas Kuzminskas could factor into things, as well as undrafted free agents Marshall Plumlee (center) and Chasson Randle (guard). And don’t forget about Sasha Vujacic, the reliable veteran who can play multiple positions.
This is the third edition of Jackson’s rebuilding plan for the Knicks, which began with a dismantling of the roster early in the 2014-15 season. That year resulted in just 17 wins, the lowest in franchise history. What followed was the progression to a 32-win result last season, with the team holding .500 for more than half the season until injuries sandbagged a 22-22 start.
There are greater expectations this season. The players know it, too. There’s always a pressure to playing in New York, but this new group seems to embrace that and reigniting the passion of the rambunctious 1990s teams.
“I see us as the old Knicks,” Jennings said. “I’m gonna be the one starting stuff on the court. Joakim is also, so we’re going to be like Anthony Mason and John Starks. We’re going to be the ones that just like always starting crap.”
Where things finish matters most and that remains unpredictable. Jackson often referenced a high-risk/high-reward mentality he learned from his time with Jerry Krause in Chicago. This team has a high ceiling, there’s no question about that, but can they realize that potential?
“I think the unknown of everything,” Melo said, “is what excites me more than anything.”