The last time that Phil Jackson was a member of the New York Knicks, he was not known for being a "Zen Master" or for having more championship rings than fingers. As a player in the 1960s and '70s "Action Jackson" was known for his incredibly long arms—a 6'8" player with the wingspan of a seven-footer.
In the first couple of months of the 2014 offseason, executive Jackson looked all Zen Master. While New York fans grew increasingly nervous as more coach-less weeks rolled by, his mysteriously peaceful smile never wavered.
In the past few weeks, however, Action Jackson has returned, his long arms reaching all over to pull together what will hopefully be the Knicks' next championship team—the first one since he played here.
Is all this motion moving the Knicks in the right direction, though? Here's the mid-offseason report card for Jackson & Co.
Points for: Hiring Jackson associates who know the triangle offense and have already won multiple rings together.
Points off for: Missing out on first choice; paying a head coach with no coaching experience one of the highest salaries in the league, per Other League.
Points in question for: Deliberately choosing a head coach with no coaching experience.
UPDATED Monday, July 14: With one more assistant job left to fill, the Knicks brass may still earn an A in coaching, but for now, they have secured a solid B.
After firing the entire coaching staff in April, the Knicks have, so far, gotten precisely the kind of coaches Jackson wants: Former colleagues with experience running or teaching the triangle offense. Head coach Derek Fisher (hired June 10) and associate head coach Kurt Rambis (hired July 7) both won championships with Jackson's Lakers—Fisher as a player, Rambis as assistant coach. The Knicks are also adding another Jackson-era Lakers' scout and assistant, Rasheed Hazzard, and two of the Thunder's assistants Fisher worked with during his time in Oklahoma City—Brian Keefe and Joshua Longstaff—an NBA source told Marc Berman of the New York Post.
Although appointing a man with no coaching experience to the top job may raise a few eyebrows, Fisher's resume does include five rings, 15 trips to the playoffs, seven years as president of the NBA Players Union and a long career as point guard slash on-court coach.
Those admirable qualities do not entirely justify Fisher's fat contract, though. Yes, as Howard Beck of Bleacher Report explained, although Fisher's contract "could be worth $25 million over five years, the deal includes a number of team options, as well as potential bonuses, according to a league source. Fisher's first-year salary is closer to $4 million." Nevertheless, it's peculiar that Fisher has the chance to make more next season than Rick Carlisle or Tom Thibodeau.
It remains to be seen whether Jackson will be a backseat coach, but Derek Fisher isn't worried. Fish said in his post-game interview Saturday, "One thing I know about Phil that I've known for a long time, especially playing for him, is that he's not a micromanager."
Rambis' experience coaching a triangle offense is inconsistent. Though he thrived as assistant to Jackson, he failed to implement it in Minnesota during two years as the Timberwolves' head coach.
What could still get the Knicks an A? Rounding out the coaching staff with another character who fits the M.O.—like Jim Cleamons, the fomer Milwaukee Bucks' assistant who was just let go during the Jason Kidd move—or hiring Patrick Ewing, a 12-year assistant coach whose retired No. 33 flutters above the Knicks players' heads during every home game.
Points for: Addressing, with one trade, three major problems—team chemistry, point guard weaknesses and a lack of picks in a very deep draft.
Points off for: Leaving the 5 spot thin.
New York shipped embattled point guard Raymond Felton, disgruntled center Tyson Chandler and the last year of Chandler's fat contract to Dallas, and brought home the Mavericks' strong starting point guard Jose Calderon, promising back-up point guard Shane Larkin, seasoned center Samuel Dalembert, deep bench guard Wayne Ellington and two second-round draft picks (Nos. 34 and 51).
The Knicks struggled at the point all season. This trade ousted the worst offender (Felton). Although Calderon's stats aren't much different than Felton's, Calderon's shooting was far more accurate and he helped guide his team to seven games against the champion San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 NBA playoffs.
Larkin is a good complement to Calderon and Pablo Prigioni. He's a 5'11" sophomore, but his speed and court vision are impressive and his starts in the Summer League have shown abilities to run a triangle offense, create fast-break opportunities and drive the lane.
As for the frontcourt, Dalembert only averaged 20.0 minutes per game for the Mavs last season and his main backup, Cole Aldrich, only averaged 7.2 MPG for the Knicks. Aldrich will certainly get more minutes in 2014-15 (he's earning them right now in the Summer League) but the 5 spot is still a bit thin.
Knicks executive Larry Johnson addressed that issue when talking to Alan Hahn at the Knicks' Summer League game against the Portland Trail-Blazers Saturday. Johnson acknowledged that the big men will need to "step up on the defensive end" now that Chandler is gone, but he said that they do not necessarily need a traditional center. He said:
We've got some athletic big guys that can get up and down, that can shoot threes. That's what this league's been looking for ever since Dirk [Nowitzki] came into the league. Everybody wants that 4, that spread-the-floor four. I mean, everybody's trying to do it, and this year I think we have a better chance of getting that done with the bigs we got this year."
Hopefully Amar'e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani, Jeremy Tyler and Kenyon Martin are on board with that plan. (Martin is also a free agent. The Knicks have not yet re-signed Martin, but he has told Peter Botte of the New York Daily News that he would "love, love, love" to come back to New York.)
The Mavericks trade was high cost and high return. The second trade was low cost and possibly no return.
At the 11th hour on draft night the Indiana Pacers traded their No. 57 pick to the Knicks for cash. Buying a second-round draw was a great idea, but in order to get full points, they'd have to get the most with that choice—and although the Knicks did well in the draft, that particular pick may never make New York's roster.
Points for: Lucking into a talented young back-up for Carmelo Anthony; bringing in another defense-minded guard-forward.
Points off for: Using two picks on players they might stash overseas; passing on Patric Young.
Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. The Knicks got lucky when Wichita State stretch forward Cleanthony Early fell down low enough for them to grab him at No. 34. Early's already making a splash in the Las Vegas Summer League with monstrous dunks and big blocks.
With the No. 51 pick the Knicks selected Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Delaware 87ers guard-forward and brother to Giannis, the Milwaukee Bucks' "Greek Freak." In his Summer League appearances, Antetokounmpo has wowed with his hustle and defensive peskiness (like Iman Shumpert at his best).
However, an NBA source told the NY Post's Marc Berman that the Knicks drafted Antetokounmpo with plans to stash him overseas for a year. The Knicks have not announced any decision yet.
With the No. 57 pick they bought from the Pacers, the Knicks took Louis Labeyrie, the Frenchman playing for Paris-Levallois in the Eurocup League, who will also be stashed overseas—which means he might never come to New York. Labeyrie is not on the Summer League roster.
Instead of Labeyrie, the Knicks could have nabbed Florida center-forward Patric Young, who they were rumored to be eyeing before the draft, per Berman. Young went undrafted and is now playing in the Summer League for the New Orleans Pelicans.
FREE AGENCY: A+
Points for: Re-signing Cole Aldrich and re-signing Carmelo Anthony for less than a max deal.
Points off for: Nothin' at all.
With Tyson Chandler shipped off to Dallas, it would have been awful nice to convince Pau Gasol to put on a blue-and-orange jersey. Saturday Gasol tweeted that he was headed to Chicago, but no contract has been inked just yet. The Knicks shouldn't count this as a loss, though, because Gasol was always a long shot.
Without Pau or Tyson, the Knicks frontcourt needs all the help it can get. So Friday night's announcement that New York re-signed center Cole Aldrich after two incredible starts in April and a good showing in the first two Summer League games, is quite good news. They also waived big man Lamar Odom, who Phil Jackson said in a statement was "unable to uphold the standards to return as an NBA player."
Oh, and you might have also heard that some guy named Carmelo Anthony has agreed to re-sign with New York. As reported by Frank Isola for the New York Daily News Saturday, Anthony has ended negotiations with other teams and is finalizing what will likely be "a five-year contract worth approximately $120 million that will include an early termination clause."
UPDATE: Sunday, Anthony himself announced his intention to re-sign, on his new official site, ThisIsMelo.com, saying:
In the end, I am a New York Knick at heart. I am looking forward to continue my career in Orange & Blue and to work with Phil Jackson, a champion who builds championship teams. Madison Square Garden is the mecca of basketball and I am surrounded by the greatest fans in the world.
Sunday, the Knicks confirmed, on their website, that Anthony will re-sign, but did not disclose the terms of the deal.
UPDATE: Jackson has confirmed that Anthony structured his deal to give the Knicks more cap space in 2015, per Berman.
This is un unqualified victory. Carmelo Anthony was not only the second-highest scorer in the league last season, he was the most reliable man in a Knicks jersey from October to April.
What raises the grade from an A to an A+? Offering Anthony the max deal and signing him (probably) to a little less. Whether this is a credit to 'Melo being generous or the executives being wily, it is a win for the Knicks.
SUMMER LEAGUE: B
Points for: Triangle offense, ball movement, fast-break points and good performances from draft picks.
Points off for: Sloppy defense.
Two games in, the Knicks are the only team in the Las Vegas Summer League to have a player ranked in the top five for scoring (Tim Hardaway, Jr., 25.0 PPG), rebounding (Cole Aldrich, 15.0 RPG) and assists (Shane Larkin, 5.0).
Viewers got their first glimpses at boys in Knicks jerseys running a triangle offense. It did not start out with a bang; during the first half of Friday's opening game versus Dallas they spent too much time hovering around the arc.
However, by the second half, the offense showed all the things that were absent last season: Ball movement, fast-break offense, points in the paint, hustle and chemistry. If the starting lineup takes to the triangle as well as the Summer Leaguers have, the season could be very bright indeed.
Shane Larkin looks calm and in control at the point and turns on his considerable speed to break down defenses. Cleanthony Early is powerful. Thanasis Antetokounmpo is tenacious. Tim Hardaway Jr. is...big. He's been hitting the gym and has the shoulders to prove it but don't worry. His muscles are not slowing him down or impeding his shot.
So why not give the Knicks Summer League team the A? Sloppy defense. Although they held both the Mavericks and the Trail-Blazers to under 70 points, it was more of a failure of the opponents' offense than a sign of great defense. Although both Antetokounmpo and Jeremy Tyler were making their opponents work hard for their buckets, the team was disorganized, leaving perimeter shooters wide open far too often.
Cautious optimism. That is what the Knicks and their fans should feel.
The true success of offseason moves won't be known until next spring, but Action Jackson and his crew have given New York some good reasons to buy season tickets for the early-bird price.
Follow Sara Peters on Twitter @3fromthe7.