Blueprint for Phil Jackson to Build NY Knicks a Winner Around Carmelo Anthony
The plan is still to build everything around Carmelo Anthony, who can opt out of his contract at the end of the 2013-14 season and become an unrestricted free agent. But as Jackson stated during his introductory press conference, via Newsday's Al Iannazzone, "I have no problem committing in saying Carmelo is in the future plans."
Especially since the Knicks have no money in their coffers to spend during the upcoming summer festivities, keeping 'Melo in an orange-and-blue uniform is priority No. 1.
But what else does Jackson have to do in order to build a contender? What's the time frame on this project?
Questions still swarm around MSG like vultures, but the newly hired president of basketball operations has the ability to resuscitate this franchise and restore it to its 1970s glory.
It just won't be easy.
Figure out How to Keep Carmelo Anthony, Then Do It
It's easy to assume that Jackson's presence in the front office of Madison Square Garden ensures Carmelo Anthony's continued tenure with the Knicks. But that's not necessarily true.
The credibility Jackson brings with him eases the process of re-signing 'Melo, but it in no way guarantees that he'll choose to stay in New York above fleeing for a new destination with a more promising immediate future.
ESPN's Stephen A. Smith (h/t HoopsHype.com) basically said as much (though in stronger fashion, of course), on First Take the same day as Jackson's introductory press conference:
I was told this last week, I was told a few days ago, I had it reiterated to me by somebody I trust yet again this morning, that Carmelo Anthony is gone, he is leaving New York city. There are those like myself who still hold up the possibility that that may not be true (...) but for what I'm being told, he is gone. And he is gone because he's at the mindset that in order to achieve any amount of success he would had to sacrifice not just this this year but next year as well, because of this current roster.
There's certainly a chance 'Melo leaves. But there's also a chance he stays, which is what Jackson is banking on.
Building around the All-Star forward must remain priority No. 1, because he's easily the most talented player that Jackson has access to, whether in the near or semi-distant future. The Knicks don't have enough cap space to go after any marquee free agents in 2014, and no one is a guarantee to join the MSG residents during the 2015 offseason.
Should 'Melo demand a max contract, Jackson should have the contract offer already drawn up so that he can immediately hand his top star a pen and have him sign on the dotted line. Ideally though, Anthony is willing to take a pay cut and promote the building of a stronger team in the future.
"As far as the money, it don’t really matter to me," Anthony told Frank Isola of the New York Daily News while explaining he'd be willing to take less than a max deal: "If I go somewhere else, I get paid. If I stay in New York, I get paid. As far as the money goes, it’s not my concern. My concern is to be able to compete on a high level, a championship level, coming in this last stretch of my career. I want to compete at that level."
The Knicks should be hoping those aren't just empty words, but they should also be prepared to act if they are.
Start Instituting a System in 2014-15
The 2014-15 season is essentially going to be a wasted one.
Without any cap space for maneuverability and no draft picks to make the rebuilding process any easier, the Knicks are going to be heading to war with a roster that looks almost identical to the current version. There will be new veterans and minimum-contract players, but that's about it.
Again, this is assuming 'Melo stays.
Although Jackson is a magician when it comes to basketball, he can't help this severely flawed team compete with the true elites of the Eastern Conference. Maybe he'll steer them into the playoffs—he probably will—but the Knicks feel doomed for a first- or second-round exit at best.
But while the season might be wasted from a win-loss perspective, Jackson can use it to his advantage.
He has to find a new coach to replace Mike Woodson and begin instituting a system that maximizes the talent on the roster. That way, it's already in place heading into 2015-16, so there's less of a learning curve when the Knicks are actually expected to compete for a title. New players will still have to adapt, but that's a universal truism, not just something that would apply to a New York team with a changed system.
Jackson could hire Steve Kerr, or he could bring in someone with far more experience on the sidelines—Jeff Van Gundy or George Karl, for example. Once his man is holding a clipboard, he could either institute the vaunted triangle offense or roll with a new strategy that wasn't used during his ring-winning heyday.
Regardless of the specifics, Jackson has to make establishing a system other than Mike Woodson iso-ball one of his top priorities.
"I believe in system basketball," the Zen Master said during his introductory presser, via CBS Sports' Ken Berger.
Chuckle Gleefully Throughout That Same Season
The 2014-15 season ultimately doesn't matter because the Knicks are going to have the ability to completely retool during the 2015 offseason.
Just look at what's on the books past next season:
- J.R. Smith, player option for $6.4 million
- Raymond Felton, player option for $4 million
- Pablo Prigioni, non-guaranteed $1.7 million
- Tim Hardaway Jr., club option for $1.3 million
- Carmelo Anthony, fully guaranteed for however much he agrees to
Even if all options are picked up and 'Melo is handed a max deal, the Knicks are going to have space to sign two near-max players or one standout with a max contract and then another eight-figure player.
We'll get to the specifics in a bit, but it's important that Jackson recognizes this and acts accordingly.
If the losses pile up—especially for a man who has experienced nothing but success during his time in the NBA—it can be tempting to make a panic move.
Just think about the salary the Knicks will have at their disposal during the 2015 offseason and remain patient. And if things are going better than expected, feel free to chuckle gleefully knowing that the rebuild is already ahead of schedule.
Cash in During a Talented 2015 Crop, Big Three Style
Heading into the 2015-16 season, the Knicks will have Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni and Tim Hardaway under contract, barring any unforeseen long-term additions during the upcoming offseason.
That basically means that a standout free agent can fill any position.
Felton clearly isn't the answer at point guard. 'Melo and Hardaway are naturally a shooting guard-small forward pair, but they can each move up a position as well. That gives the Knicks the option of adding either a 2, 3 or 4 without getting in the way of those two keepers.
And without Tyson Chandler, who becomes an unrestricted free agent that offseason, center is wide open.
Fortunately, the Knicks have both money and the opportunity to shore up any position. And since 'Melo's scoring is so potent, New York can pursue either a secondary scorer or a player who specializes in other areas with each available spot.
Thanks to the wealth of free agents in 2015, the Knicks can target players like Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love, Paul Millsap, Jeff Green, Kyrie Irving, Kenneth Faried, Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and many more. Some of those players are restricted free agents or have player options contained in their deals, but New York still has at least somewhat of a chance to acquire them.
Can you imagine the Knicks somehow acquiring Rondo and Gasol and then pairing the dynamic two-way players with the scoring force that is 'Melo?
It's a pipe dream, but those are allowed now that Jackson is running the show.
Fill Up the Roster with Phil-Approved Players
Once the stars are in place, it's all about finding players who complement them.
Oh, and they should probably be Phil-approved players, though I'm not talking about bringing Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Shaquille O'Neal and Toni Kukoc out of retirement.
That means the Knicks should look primarily to specialists and cerebral standouts who can maximize their talents in a team-oriented system. We're talking about shooters like Mike Dunleavy, underrated defensive stalwarts like Tyler Hansbrough and plenty more.
As Harvey Araton writes for The New York Times:
Jackson has lamented how the N.B.A. game relies too heavily on the point guard to create off the dribble or a high screen. He espouses the near-rhythmic movement of five players to connect stars to their teammates.
Maybe Jackson is running the triangle. Maybe he isn't.
Regardless, the step of this blueprint that involved creating a system a year in advance means he'll have a fantastic idea of how to fill up the roster with players who are conducive to winning basketball. And given his team-oriented philosophies, he'll be able to maximize those contributions, much as R.C. Buford does with the San Antonio Spurs.
Rather than trying to make headlines or appease the CAA, Jackson will actually be doling out contracts with the intention of creating the best possible team.
It's a welcome change.