As the Phil Jackson era begins for the New York Knicks, they will have to keep in mind as they move forward that the changes available aren't necessarily the best moves to make.
After a 37-45 season, maintaining the status quo is not acceptable, and the Jackson-led front office has already made an important step affirming as much by firing Mike Woodson.
Woodson entered this season with a 72-34 record as Knicks head coach, but he presided over a 2013-14 campaign plagued by stubbornness and discord in strategy. The defense was hopeless and the offense only showed glimpses of respectability in the second half, after too many months of losing.
There was dysfunction in the ranks both on and off the court and no leader emerged to maintain order. For all his prior accomplishments, the blame must lie at Woodson's feet. He wasn't the only culpable party in a squandered season, but he was as big a part of his ball club's suffering as anyone else.
Jackson only joined New York's front office in an official capacity in March, but he understood Woodson's role in the team's struggles. As Bleacher Report's Howard Beck pointed out in his analysis of the firing, the new Knicks exec is placing his care in building the future of the organization, not in any sort of sentimentality.
Jackson expressed respect for Woodson. He said Woodson was not solely to blame for the Knicks' failure. And then he declared, "But the time has come for change throughout the franchise as we start the journey to assess and build this team for next season and beyond."
Change throughout the franchise.
Translation: This is just the beginning.
Removing the old coach was the obvious first step to fixing the flaws of the old guard. Picking the right guy to replace him is the next step.
In order to figure out who that is, we must consider the man tasked with hiring him.
Jackson has 11 rings as a coach and negligible front office experience—nothing beyond temporary consulting roles. He's a staunch believer in system offenses, particularly the triangle that keyed his successful sideline career. And though he surely won't be entirely hands-off with the players, he knows what good can come from empowering a charismatic figure with a clear, intelligent vision of how to do things.
That's what makes Steve Kerr—currently "deep in discussions" to succeed Woodson, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt—an ideal fit.
There is risk in turning over a franchise in such tumult to a first-time head coach but a strong working relationship between Kerr and Jackson would quell any concern.
Kerr, a former Jackson point guard from their Chicago Bulls days, would likely bring the triangle to the Knicks. Even more significantly, he is used to working under Jackson's tutelage; he's more likely to welcome Jackson's input on coaching matters than to rebel against it.
Make no mistake: Kerr isn't the front-runner for the job just because Jackson can meddle with him. He wouldn't put anyone in charge he didn't feel could succeed autonomously, but the fact that Kerr trusts Jackson's mentorship helps.
In fact, a Kerr-Jackson tandem could be a symbiotic, two-way-street relationship.
Though a promising coaching prospect, Kerr has never done it before, but he was a successful GM with the Phoenix Suns. He'll be able to advise Jackson on front office matters just as Jackson will with coaching.
That would create an interesting coach-president dynamic but building through synergy would certainly portend a new era in New York.
As for how that duo would go about reinventing this Knicks team, the key is the foundation of the product already in place.
The Knicks need to re-sign Carmelo Anthony. If he's really committed to winning in New York and will take less than the max, that's the dream scenario, but if they have to pay full price, so be it.
Melo is a superstar, and he is therefore, from a future planning standpoint, irreplaceable. Missing on LeBron James in 2010 taught the Knicks not to assume it is their divine right to boast one of the league's handful of truly great players. New York has advantages in trying to retain Melo, and they must utilize them.
But even with the financial incentive and familiarity that New York has, Jackson and Kerr would still have to pitch Anthony on how they plan to win.
Firstly, signing Kerr sooner rather than later would help. Better to give him as much time as possible in which to cultivate a relationship with Anthony and earn his trust.
Then they would have to sell the triangle, how instrumental it was to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant becoming champions, how Melo and his arsenal of offensive moves could reach even greater heights within this system. Furthermore, Jackson and Kerr need to explain how implementing the triangle in a potentially rough 2014-15 season would pay dividends thereafter.
Persuading Melo of this last point is key; though the Knicks can sign him to a fifth year when other suitors can only offer four, New York needs to convince him that his championship window, which could be four years elsewhere, would be just as long and even more fruitful if he stays.
Assuming he does, at least for that first year of his new deal, Melo's supporting cast will be largely the same. Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, Andrea Bargnani, J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton will still be on the bloated books, per Sham Sports, so not much can change.
Of those five, only Chandler is remotely movable, though doing so would accomplish nothing; New York's options in a Chandler trade would be to either take back a useful player on a multiyear deal (which will not help the Knicks land another star in the summer of 2015) or to dump him and some cap fodder for a first-round pick and access to the full mid-level exception (they can only pay the mini now).
The best-case scenario there is a future first-rounder and a little more than $2 million in extra spending money this summer. So Tyson stays.
That leaves the two young Knicks with real trade value: Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. And in a bit of twisted logic, Hardaway Jr. is actually the guy they should look to trade first.
He's both better than Shump on offense and has a higher ceiling on that end. Then there's also the fact that Shump is entering the final year of his rookie contract, while Hardaway just finished the first year of his.
All that makes TH2 seem like a player New York should try to keep around, but think about it this way: He has all the same strengths J.R. Smith has—though Smith is actually the superior defender—and the Knicks can't get rid of Earl for another two years. They just don't need multiple volume-scoring shooting guards, regardless of what a nice young talent Hardaway Jr. is.
As indecisive and hapless as Shump appeared this past season, when his head is in the right place, he can still be at least a serviceable offensive player and an ace defender; other than Chandler, no Knick comes close to fitting that latter billing.
Maybe Kerr and Jackson can put his mind at ease, maybe not. Either way, the Knicks would be selling low on someone who could fill an area of need.
Hardaway Jr. is a surplus player who could garner slightly greater value in a trade than Shumpert would. If moving TH2 helps the Knicks land a young point guard or shore up their interior defense, it's worth parting with the young scorer.
It's not the most savory decision, but it's the most sensible one. Aspirations will be high during Jackson's first summer running New York's front office, but to do his job right, he has to stay grounded.
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