Unless they overhaul their point guard play this summer, the New York Knicks won't be able to bounce back from a miserable 2013-14 season.
With Phil Jackson in the front office, Derek Fisher now manning the sidelines and Raymond Felton still New York's starter at the point (as of now), the Knicks have become the subject of digs like this:
And GM who's a better coach than the coach. RT @bigpumpkin4real: Knicks become the first team who's coach is a better pg than their pg— netw3rk (@netw3rk) June 9, 2014
While no one should be clamoring for Fisher to throw on a jersey and start running the offense, there's a distressing amount of truth behind the joke. The Jackson-Fisher coaching comparison is obviously true, but even at age 39 playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Fish understood the importance of staying in front of his man.
Sometimes Pablo Prigioni didn't even seem to understand that most basic responsibility last season. Whether it was Felton or Prigs or Toure' Murry checking opposing point guards, you could be sure that the Knick in question would lose his man trying to navigate around even the simplest of screens.
Things didn't go much better on the other end of the floor.
Every few weeks, Felton had a game in which he consistently got to the rim and finished effectively while hitting his kick-out options, but he mostly failed to turn the corner and coughed up the ball. Prigs' unselfish play could energize the offense for a few minutes per game, but he struggled with a bigger workload. Mike Woodson never trusted Murry to quarterback the ball club, which was probably for the best.
The switch from Woody to Fisher already represents a strong step in the right direction. Many of last season's miscues can be traced back to questionable tactics, ineffective implementation of strategies or both.
Whether or not Woodson wanted the Knicks to switch assignments some of the time or all the time, his players did the latter. Whether or not he wanted the Knicks to fight over screens or slink under them, his players did the latter—if not run straight into them and get stuck. Whether or not he wanted the Knicks to follow his coaching or wallow in disorganized malaise, his players did the latter.
Those issues affected players at every position, but they were the most glaring and most detrimental for the point guards.
When Prigs wound up bodying a center on the block, Murry smashed himself into a screener's torso or Felton slouched and pouted as he brought the ball up, the ramifications spread to the rest of the team—in the form of points allowed and further frustration.
The silver lining of any dysfunctional season is that the new coach has ample video to study of the past regime's errors. Fisher may have never held a clipboard professionally before, but he has studied hours upon hours of point guard film and has an advanced basketball mind. He'll be able to identify the problem areas and work to fix them.
It's possible the new coach will be able to reform the old personnel, but there's only so much he can do.
Prigs mostly struggled due to overuse last season; in about a dozen minutes per game, he could give the Knicks a few productive stints on the floor, but when he plays closer to 20, his 37-year-old legs betray him and he starts reaching and forcing plays like his teammates. Fisher will understand that aging issue quite well and adjust accordingly.
Felton and Murry both have the physical ability to play major minutes, but their flaws are more complicated for Fish to step in and solve immediately.
Let's start with Murry, the more likely one to remain in New York next season. He has nice quickness and on-ball defensive skills, but he's prone to reaching and gets lost tracking his man without the rock. On the other end, he has a faulty jumper and loses the ball too often off the bounce.
Injuries and lack of depth forced Woodson to play Murry at the point, but he's an off-ball guard at the professional level—and only a defensive replacement, if anything. In the 2014-15 Knicks rotation, he'll get the vast majority of his minutes during garbage time.
That leaves Felton—who combined his step-slow defense with 39/32/72 shooting splits last season—as the only viable Knicks point guard to start. And Adam Zagoria of SNY.tv reported that Jackson told Felton he will be traded this summer, so that leaves none currently on the roster.
Considering the struggles of last year's point guard corps, that's not the worst news, but Jackson has very limited means of acquiring new talent.
Felton has two years and $7.7 million remaining on his deal, so it's unlikely the Knicks would be able to move him and upgrade at point guard.
Jackson reportedly wants to trade into the first round of this year's draft, per ESPN New York's Ian Begley. Whatever commodity—Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. or the 2018 first-round pick, basically—the Knicks deal for a pick would take away from their ability to trade for a veteran point guard.
The late-first-round options won't pay immediate dividends. If the Knicks pick up a selection in the 20s, the best prospects likely available would be Elfrid Payton and Shabazz Napier, both of whom would be hounding defensive upgrades, but they both also have ball-security issues and lack the scoring ability to get heavy offensive touches in the pros.
That leaves free agency, where the Knicks only have their mini mid-level exception, which Larry Coon's Salary Cap FAQ reports is worth just $3.278 million in 2014-15 salary.
In order to get a substantive talent boost with that money—note: less than Felton will make this season—the Knicks would need to use the promise of a starting gig to lure someone like Patty Mills or Shaun Livingston, who both came off the bench last season.
So the external options are scant and the internal options are unsatisfactory. So what do Fisher and Jackson do?
Install the triangle, for one. That offensive system, with which Jackson and Fish won five championships together, relies less on the point guard to handle the ball, limiting the detrimental impact the Knicks would get from that position.
Beyond that, the hope has to be that a few simple improvements can go a long way, because that's all the Knicks are able to do.
It's not an implausible position to take. Insert someone like Mills to play hounding defense and launch three-pointers, and that's already a marked upgrade over Felton's ineffectiveness on both ends.
Fail to sign a useful replacement guard or correct last season's tactical shortcomings, and the same troubles return. Even if the point guard plays a reduced role initiating the offense, the hapless defensive play would be enough to doom the Knicks to another year of difficulties.