It’s Time to Trust Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks

If you are a New York Knicks fan that was born in the 1990s, like me, chances are you didn’t see much winning at Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately for us the majority of our Knicks memories start off in the James Dolan era, an era that has had enough stupidity, losing, and heartache to last a lifetime. Since making the NBA Finals in 1999 (Patrick Ewing’s final season) the Knicks have posted three winning seasons (2001, 2011, 2013) and have not reached the Eastern Conference finals.

Names like Stephon Marbury, Eddy Curry, and Jerome James have haunted Knicks’ fans for their inept play and Chris Christie-sized contracts. In that same time period management (James Dolan and Isaiah Thomas were at the helm for majority of that time) has let talented players such as Trevor Ariza, David Lee, Zach Randolph, Nene, and Jamal Crawford leave the franchise and find success (and hardware in some cases). All of this would be fine if the team was able to use all the high draft picks from a decade of losing to stock up on young talent? Yet, the most noteworthy draft pick from the 2000s is Danilo Gallinari whose biggest contribution to the team was being thrown into the Carmelo Anthony deal.

Clearly things have been rough, but as the saying goes, “It’s darkest before dawn,” and the 2014–15 season was certainly pitch black in New York. Despite the fan base being energized by the arrival of the “Zen Master” Phil Jackson and new head coach Derek Fisher, the Knicks had the worst season in franchise history, winning only 17 games. Jackson looked at the season as a rebuilding year, not a preview of more to come, and I believe in him.

What I have seen from Jackson since the NBA Draft has given me reason to trust the man who won thirteen championships throughout his career. Jackson is doing something we rarely see in New York sports, building rather than buying. Gone are the days of selling pipe dreams to fans of LeBron James or Kobe Bryant coming to town. Now it’s finally back to the basics, and that is why it is time to start trusting the Knicks.

Bottoming Out

Like a new president assuming office after an unsuccessful predecessor, it is unfair to judge someone who is left to clean up the other person’s mess before getting down to work. Phil Jackson had to clean up a food fight at Madison Square Garden caused by James Dolan (one to always meddle in basketball affairs despite knowing next to nothing) overriding his former president Donnie Walsh. Jackson used the 2015 season to bottom out and start with guys that fit his successful mold. When he was introduced as president of basketball operations Jackson emphasized how he wanted to build that mold.

“I know you all know about the vaunted Triangle Offense, and it’s been maligned in the past few years, but I believe in system basketball, (Knicks GM) Steve Mills came out of Princeton. I came out of a system that we ran here in New York in which team ball was an important aspect of playing, and we believe that’s what we want to get accomplished as we go forward from here.” With that in mind, Jackson started to formulate who he wanted and who he didn’t want moving forward.

Jackson’s first order of business was re-signing star forward Carmelo Anthony to a five-year deal worth $124 million. Next , he sent former Defensive Player of the Year, Tyson Chandler, back to the Dallas Mavericks (along with developing cancer Raymond Felton) in exchange for veteran guard Jose Calderon, young guard Shane Larkin, veteran big man Samuel Dalembert (bought out late in season), and a pair of second round picks. The trade didn’t do much for either team with Chandler and Larkin both playing on different squads this season. Jackson saw the move as a necessary one moving forward.

“The journey to build this team for the upcoming season and beyond continues,” Jackson said. “We have added players with this move that will fit right in to our system while maintaining future flexibility.”

Jackson’s next big move was ridding the team of talented wing players J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in a deal that netted the Knicks a second round pick in 2019. Jackson didn’t mince words when explaining the deal as a cash dump.

“As our journey moves through this season, we will search for the type of players that fit the style we hope to exhibit to our fans. Our desire to improve our ability to compete,” Jackson said. “These transactions improve our flexibility to the current roster and the salary cap for future seasons.”

Smith, former Sixth Man of the Year, and Shumpert were sent to the Cleveland Cavaliers where both played large roles in helping LeBron James reach his fifth straight NBA Finals. Both remain with the Cavaliers after signing free agent deals this past offseason. The final piece was reaching a buyout with the Knicks’ $100 million man Amar’e Stoudemire in February, leaving Jackson with Carmelo Anthony as the sole center piece of the franchise. Jackson could then get down to work.

Draft Night

Those same tortured Knicks fans that saw their team lose almost every season saw their team treat first round picks like vending machine snacks (watching Stephen Curry get drafted the pick right before the Knicks in the 2009 draft still haunts me). Jackson was “rewarded” the franchise’s first top-five draft pick since 1986 (they selected Kenny Walker with the fifth pick that year), landing fourth overall. After missing out on coveted prospects Karl-Anthony Towns (Timberwolves), D’Angelo Russell (Lakers), and Jahlil Okafor (76ers), Jackson set his sights on a seven-foot European with immense talent, Kristaps Porzingis. The Knicks faithful serenaded Porzingis with boos as they saw yet another fumbled draft pick. The 19-year-old, to his credit, was unfazed by the harsh reception.

“Lot of fans weren’t happy they drafted me,” Porzingis said. “I have to do everything in my hands to turn those booing fans into clapping fans. I was happy about it. Want to be part of this organization. The fans are harsh sometimes. That’s how it is in New York, and I’m ready for it.”

Jackson loved Porzingis’ potential and felt that he fit in with the system he and Derek Fisher wanted to run. Tim Hardaway Jr., the 2014 first round pick, did not fit that system and was shipped to Atlanta for the 19th overall pick which Jackson turned into point guard Jerian Grant. Jackson saw in Grant a seasoned prospect (a rarity these days) with a basketball pedigree he can trust (Grant’s uncle Horace won four titles with Jackson and one with Fisher, and his father Harvey also played in the NBA). These are not picks that swing the fate of a franchise immediately, but they are certainly solid building blocks. Ask any Knick fan most will tell you that they are happy to see their team use their picks instead of trading them for garbage players (see Andrea Bargnani).

Free Agency

Free agency has been just as disappointing for the post-2000 Knicks as the draft. Free agency for New York franchises has often been looked at as quick fixes. Everyone wants to play in New York, right? What better place to play than Madison Square Garden? That was the stale sales pitch James Dolan has rolled out for 15 years and thus far it has produced Amar’e Stoudemire and a bunch of bloated contracts to terrible players (Jerome James, Eddy Curry, Stephon Marbury). Jackson seemed to take a much more pragmatic approach to his second year in free agency.

Noticing that flashing his rings can only do so much, Jackson took a much more pragmatic approach in his second free agency period. Big names like LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwyane Wade, and Kevin Love were out there, but Jackson showed little interest, instead shifting his focus to realistic options. Instead of overpaying for someone like Greg Monroe, Jackson paid Robin Lopez $54 million/4 yrs, Arron Afflalo $16 million/2 yrs, Derrick Williams $10 million/2 yrs, Kyle O’Quinn $16 million/4 yrs, and Sasha Vujacic $1.35 million/1 yr. All the players mentioned are capable players with Lopez being the sole double digit cap hit at $13.5 million per year.

An approach like this not only continues to build the franchise brick by brick, but frees up the team to still go after the big fish in future free agency. Kevin Durant hits the market next season, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry in 2017, and DeMarcus Cousins in 2018. All these guys will take a serious look at the Knicks and now the Knicks won’t have to gut their roster because they panic-signed Amar’e Stoudemire. It’s not about whom you buy, but the price you pay and this past summer Jackson spent his money well.

Jackson seemed pleased with his free agency coup. “I think everything went according to how we thought it would go,” Jackson said. “There are some long shots out there that we took. But the reality was we wanted what we got.”

Even better news for Jackson is that his star player was also happy with the moves made. “Honestly, I thought we did a great job just as far as putting the pieces that we need to put together,” Carmelo Anthony said. “We didn’t get DeAndre [Jordan], we didn’t get LaMarcus [Aldridge] and Greg Monroe, but (Robin) Lopez is a great addition. Arron Afflalo, I played with him a long time in Denver. [Kyle] O’Quinn is a great pickup; I think guys will like him. He’s a big guy, power forward. Derrick Williams, we’re going to get him right. He seemed focused. And then rookies, KP [Kristaps Porzingis], I had him with me last week working out at my gym. We’re just trying to start this thing off right.”

A New Era

Building a winning team in New York isn’t easy. We New Yorkers are impatient people who only care about winning, not about the process. To rebuild in New York you have to be able to withstand the ire of the anxious fans, the overcritical media, and unreal expectations. Building is not part of our vocabulary unless you’re talking about an actual building, when it comes to sports we only know the words “winning” and “championships.” It can be hard for a general manager to do his job in such an environment, which is why Phil Jackson has won me over.

Jackson has stuck to his guns since arriving in March of 2014. He has removed all the players he believes will not work in his system and replaced them with cheaper alternatives. He has used his first round draft picks rather than flipping them for an aging veteran. In just the first couple preseason games we have already seen the Knicks play more team basketball than they did all of last season.

There have been more pick-and-rolls and overall ball movement in their first three regular season games this season than there were in all 82 games last season. I’m not saying the Knicks are a playoff team based off four preseason games, but I am saying that what Jackson building is real. Whatever happens from here on out is up to the players. Jackson has set this team up for success, and in the end that’s all he is supposed to do. These are not the same old James Dolan era Knicks. It is time to believe in our Knicks again, New York.

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Originally published for the Sidelines Magazine November 2015

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