Why Phil Jackson's Old Players Don't Make Sense for NY Knicks' Future

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Why Phil Jackson's Old Players Don't Make Sense for NY Knicks' Future
John Locher/Associated Press

Try as one might to idealize Phil Jackson and the impact his guile and stately charm have on the New York Knicks, there has always been one drawback to employing his basketball highness:

The degree to which he values and willingly enfetters himself to nostalgia.

Jackson's trust in the past, his stock in things already done and seen, has been artlessly apparent from the moment he assumed control of the Knicks. It's in Derek Fisher, in Lamar Odom, in Shannon Brown.

Memory-lane obsessions have shaped the Knicks' offseason approach and system. But attempts to relive, to revive the past, cannot define New York's future more than it already has.

There have to be limits. The roster makeup has to be one of those limits. The Knicks' docket cannot read like a who's who of yesteryear and moth-eaten comforts.

Traces of yesterday should, in fact, be taboo, as Jackson is coming to find. New players, relevant talents who augment the Zen Master's time-honored strategies and beliefs are fine.

Using old and familiar faces to recreate a vintage model beyond replication is not.


Old and Familiar Faces

Jennifer Pottheiser/Getty Images

This syrupy sentimental side of Jackson is one the Knicks have already combated. 

Steve Kerr's meteoric rise through available coaching ranks cost the Knicks. Despite having no experience, Kerr was Jackson's first choice to replace Mike Woodson. He was his only choice.

When Kerr decided to join the Golden State Warriors, Jackson and the Knicks were forced to relaunch a coaching search that was never really a search at all.

Hiring Fisher, fresh off the NBA player's boat, had the look and feel of a team settling for option No. 2. Until Jackson spoke, that is, and portrayed Fisher not as a blank slate or empty vessel through which he would deliver his famed triangle offense, but as a premier coaching prospect.

Past experiences mattered, though. Fisher won five championships under Jackson and, as a rookie coach, was and remains someone his Zen-ness can mentor. 

That same mindset was championed when the Knicks hired Kurt Rambis, another Jackson disciple. And, more pertinently, it was upheld through a series of roster decisions.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Odom joined the Knicks midway through April as an out-of-sight, out-of-mind project. They traded for Jose Calderon, a soft-shooting point guard who doesn't need the ball in his hands to be effective and is thus a good fit for Jackson's triangle.

Brown, who won two titles alongside Jackson while with the Los Angeles Lakers—and whose initial arrival admittedly pre-dated Jackson's—played on New York's summer league team as an active wealth of triangle information, as Bleacher Report's Josh Martin explained:

Brown has done far more than that for the Knicks, though. He's been a sage veteran voice for the likes of Tim Hardaway Jr., Shane Larkin, Jeremy Tyler and second-round rookies Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, teaching them how to run the triangle offense that he once mastered under Phil Jackson in L.A.

Former Laker Pau Gasol was also openly recruited by Jackson.

“[Gasol] knows what he has here and what is possible,’’ Jackson said before Gasol signed with the Chicago Bulls, per the New York Post's Marc Berman. “He’d like to play with Carmelo and like to play with a winner. We can’t guarantee that, but with him we can guarantee a much better chance.’’ 

The Zen Master's intentions had never been more clear. The past still mattered. Previous ties counted for something.

Gradually they began counting for less.

After it became clear Odom wouldn't be able to contribute, the Knicks cut him, per Newsday's Al Iannazzone:

Soon after, they severed ties with Brown, as well, per ESPN New York's Ohm Youngmisuk:

Some, like The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring, saw Brown's departure as a tough pill to swallow:

"I figured Brown had earned some staying power—even over a guaranteed guy like Wayne Ellington— because he has preexisting relationships with Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher," Poasting & Toasting's Seth Rosenthal wrote, "and because he joined the SummerKnicks in Las Vegas to help teach the rugrats some triangle."

Indeed, it was a cutthroat move that ignored Brown's willingness to impart triangle wisdom upon New York's younger players within a setting veterans tend to avoid. But it was also refreshing to see.


Letting Go

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images
It won't be all triangle everything in New York.

Business won out over fellowship.

Present and future plans took precedent over the past.

Keeping Brown and Odom would have sapped the Knicks of two roster spots. The value of those slots could be debated if marginal talents such as Wayne Ellington were shown the door instead. Yet what if, to make room for one or both of them, Jackson traded Iman Shumpert or Shane Larkin? Or dumped second-round prospect, first-round talent Cleanthony Early?

More moves are set to follow. Sources told Ian Begley of ESPN New York that Jackson is looking to decongest the Knicks' backcourt logjam, the result of which may include Larkin's, Shumpert's, J.R. Smith's or someone else's exit.

That's just business after already trimming two players who didn't figure into New York's long-term plans. Any forthcoming trade would have been seen differently had it preceded, or supplanted, Brown's and Odom's departures.

And it's important that wasn't the case. Jackson and the Knicks are already placing faith in an antiquated offensive model, as Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan argues:

There’s just one small problem: Since Jackson’s retirement following the 2010-11 season, the triangle has been relegated to relic—a totem, however title reaping, to a bygone era.

In fact, short of Jackson, no one coach has employed the offense, complicated as it is, to anything resembling consistently successful ends...

This is not the mid-2000s anymore. The triangle is essentially nonexistent across the league. Footprints of it remain—Brian Shaw tried to instill certain aspects of it during his first season heading the Denver Nuggets—but just barely.

Rambis is the most recent coach not named Jacked to attempt a full-blown implementation. He failed miserably, posting a 32-132 record through two seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, who never ranked better than 24th in offensive efficiency during that time. 

Willing that system back into prominence won't help the Knicks. It must be changed and manipulated—tailored to better suit today's game that more heavily emphasizes floor spacing and actively dissuades mid-range jumpers.


Discarding Past Comfort for Future Promise

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Adapting the triangle is not an impossible endeavor. There is room for growth and change, as The Star-Ledger’s Dave D’Alessandro points out:

It’s more of a philosophy than an offense. In execution, it is pragmatic: If the spacing is right, and guys don’t loaf through their cuts, and they use all the options available, the triangle creates many more open looks than a conventional NBA set, because a defense tends to flow to the level of the ball.

To the foretime-focused Jackson's credit, he appears willing to make the requisite adjustments.

“He admired San Antonio’s game and how they played, and that’s the way we want to play,” Jackson said of Anthony's return and the Knicks' system hopes, per ESPN New York's Fred Katz.

Mimicking the San Antonio Spurs is not the same as reproducing past triangle success. It's taking aspects of various systems and tactics. At the heart of everything is ball movement, but there is no exact definition of what it is. There is more floor spacing and more passing. 

It's ineffable.

It's different.

Embracing what's different is all part of rebuilding, which is what the Knicks are doing. This isn't a team preparing to win a title next season. Jackson knew that when he took over, and he knows it now.

Next season is a time for change from top to bottom, to move forward, to adapt to Anthony and Tim Hardaway and Shumpert and other cornerstones. It's not a stage on which Jackson, Fisher and past friends can resurrect a dying design.

It's a chance for the Knicks to remake themselves within the structure of today's NBA.

Before Jackson can do that, he must first reinvent himself—a process that is officially underway as he slowly, surely develops the foresight to abandon nostalgic ties.


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