Can Changing NY Knicks' Culture Overcome Short-Term Roster Problems?

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Can Changing NY Knicks' Culture Overcome Short-Term Roster Problems?
Richard Drew

It seems to many a forgone conclusion that the New York Knicks—coming off a disastrous year and an ill-fated attempt at a playoff push—will be ripe for a renaissance in 2014-15.

Assuming Carmelo Anthony stays, the thinking goes, there’s simply no way the Knicks won’t find a way to leave last year’s embarrassment distant in the rearview mirror.

But for as much as New York has preached a commitment to rejiggering its organizational foundation—an overture first sounded by new president of basketball operations Phil Jackson—the team faces a rather perilous impediment: a hamstrung roster that will only get marginally better, if at all, in the short-term.

Of course, the elephant in the room remains Anthony’s impending free agency, by which Melo will presumably forgo the final year of his contract with the Knicks.

The caveat, of course—and it’s a big one—is New York’s ability to offer Anthony somewhere in the neighborhood of $34 million more than any other team.

Many, including the New York Daily News’ Mitch Lawrence, see the combination of beaucoup bucks and a bright stage as the chief reasons why Melo will ultimately remain a part of the Orange and Blue.

That brings us, appropriately, to the Knicks’ rumored interest in TNT analyst and former Phoenix Suns general manager Steve Kerr to be New York’s next head coach—as soon as the seemingly imminent firing of Mike Woodson is made official, of course.

Viewed through a certain lens, the pursuit of Kerr—owing to his profound experience playing in the triangle offense as part of Jackson’s three-peating Chicago Bulls of the late 1990s—would seem more a strategic move than one aimed at a greater cultural change.

But if Jackson has indeed requested full front-office autonomy, and if he genuinely views this position as a kind of “philosopher in chief” (a phrase first coined by Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck), then every move—from the seismic to the seemingly mundane—must be seen as part and parcel with that transformative aim.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In hiring Kerr, Jackson would be both acknowledging his commitment to a particular offensive system, while at the same time conceding the need for a genuine fresh start in the lately languid halls of Madison Square Garden.

At least one current Knick has heeded the message.

A lot around here is made of personnel,’’ center Tyson Chandler recently told Marc Berman of the New York Post following the former’s exist interview with Jackson. “I don’t think that’s it. I personally think you have to bring a winning culture out here. Until that’s established, you can rotate players as much as you want, it’s not going to make a difference.’’

Chandler’s remarks invite the questions: In the chicken-egg calculus of NBA franchise management, how big a role do—or should—personnel changes make in improving the overall environment? Might it be more important to establish the cultural cachet first, thereby making it easier to attract the kind of players that fit the proverbial mold?

Approached from this perspective, the words Chandler chose were no accident. With one year left on his contract and little to no chance of being traded, he understands he—and in some ways the Knicks writ largely—can’t afford to let the moves define the movement.

Quite literally can’t afford: With close to $91 million in committed salaries heading into the 2014-15 season, per ShamSport.com, any additions the Knicks make will have to be made at the fringe’s fringe. Should Anthony bolt, the Knicks would still be upward of $9 million to $10 million over the expected luxury tax.

Either way you slice it, New York is looking at a short-term scenario wherein any roster upgrades are bound to be prohibitively expensive—even for a media mogul of James Dolan’s considerable caliber.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Fans are already looking at the summer of 2015, with its sterling class of free-agent stars, as the moment when Jackson's magnetism will work the most magic. Until then, and almost irrespective of Anthony's looming decision, there are liable to be plenty of organizational growing pains—so it goes with a roster that remains conceptually ill-fitting.

In the meantime, the Knicks might be able to land a few aging veterans to help expedite Jackson’s cultural coup, something the "Zen Master" has arguably already attempted with the recent signing of former Los Angeles Lakers acolyte Lamar Odom.

Odom’s personal struggles have been well-documented, so much so that one can’t help but question how, exactly, his signing amounts to any kind of cultural clarion call.

It’s a fair question. But if remarks he made during his inaugural March 18 press conference can be believed, Jackson’s commitment to his players is one he feels is paramount to a healthy basketball organization—a family, in the truest sense possible:

They should have the security in knowing that they’re going to be supported by the organization and the coaching staff. It’s a very tenuous world as it is to be a player. So, putting yourself on the line, you need to have that support. This is something we want to build for them.

Even if Odom’s basketball tank winds up empty, the message his signing sends, both as a bellwether for the imminent installation of the triangle offense and as a gesture of genuine basketball loyalty, is an important one.

No one, least of all Jackson, expects the fumes wrought by Dolan’s truly toxic tenure to be aired out over a single summer. And it’ll likely be years before the effects of Jackson’s influence, from front-office changes to free-agent signings, are fully felt.

But so long as each and every move points to some kind of method—moral as much as mathematical—Jackson and the Knicks can at least begin the process of proving that, with the love and respect that only a true family reflects, the finances will take care of themselves.

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