Are New York Knicks Closer to NBA Title Contention Than We Think?

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Are New York Knicks Closer to NBA Title Contention Than We Think?
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Professional athletes tend to avoid being overtly political. But that doesn't stop them from talking like a politician.

Case in point: the New York KnicksCarmelo Anthony, who recently told ESPN’s Jeff Goodman that his decision to return on a five-year, $124 million tender—this after weeks of suitor speculation—wasn’t “about the money.”

"I want to win. I don't care about the money," Anthony added. "I believe Phil [Jackson] will do what he has to do to take care of that…I don't think we're that far away. People use 'rebuilding' too loosely.”

The first part is, of course, pure fantasy. If money were really a distant second in the cost-benefit calculus, Anthony could have signed for the mid-level exception.

Might he be right about New York’s championship prospects?

JACK SMITH/Associated Press

Here’s what we know: In the pantheon of NBA legends, Phil Jackson has a permanent, gilt-plated seat at the head table. What he accomplished as a coach—corralling egos the size of solar systems and channeling them to championship ends—is practically beyond reproach.

How will that translate to front-office success under one of the most maligned owners in history? This is the million-dollar question.

To his credit, Jackson wasted little time putting his stamp on New York’s near-future prospects, dealing Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to the Dallas Mavericks for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and a pair of 2014 draft picks (Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo).

Not only did the trade land New York a triangle-ready point guard in Calderon; it set as an explicit goal something which had long since fallen off the Knicks’ radar screen: collecting assets.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

More importantly, the deal gave the front office some much-needed short-term flexibility—likewise a recent organizational afterthought.

To be sure, the resulting roster is nowhere close to contention-ready. It's in how it sets a philosophical tone; the way in which it portends a path even on the fringes: That’s where the value lies.

It goes without saying that Jackson’s next big focus will be on next summer’s talent bonanza, when Marc Gasol, Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge, Goran Dragic and a host of others—including, perhaps, Kevin Love—are all slated to become unrestricted free agents.

To have any shot of attracting anyone from that crop, near devoid as it is of championship wares, will demand the Knicks recapture some modicum of credibility.

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Making the playoffs would be a start. But even that shouldn’t be the egg-burdened basket. Rather, Jackson—along with first-year head coach Derek Fisher—must prove the triangle can thrive with Anthony as its focus and fulcrum.

For his part, Jackson, during his introductory press conference on March 18, all but assured it could be done (via Yahoo! Sports’ Dan Devine):

"I think there are a number of things I see Carmelo doing as he moves forward, and I said—I think I was on record a year ago—that I think Carmelo, as great a player as he is, still has another level he can go to,” Jackson Said. “Together, with the team we create, he can get there."

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Even if the team’s 2014-15 campaign ends with another mid-April vacation, the near-$40 million in subsequent cap space is sure to draw at least passing free-agent interest.

Whatever his reputation in greater NBA intelligentsia, Anthony remains a player with considerable clout among his peers—a gravitas powerful enough to invite and maintain his own basketball orbit.

It’s Jackson, though, who must push the planets through.

To what degree he succeeds will depend heavily on how serious James Dolan is about giving his supposed savior strategic carte blanche, something the Cablevision scion all but guaranteed during Jackson’s aforementioned first presser…before very nearly going back on his word during a front-office house-cleaning one month later (per Frank Isola of the New York Daily News).

Richard Drew/Associated Press

Since then, Dolan has, judging by the silence, backed off. Whether or not he remains in the shadows—particularly if New York stumbles out of the regular-season gate—is an altogether different and more difficult question.

Still, for all of his boss’ bygone boondoggles, Jackson understands quite clearly a once tried and true mantra of the Roman Republic: True power lies with the people.

The people, in this case, are New York’s long-suffering fans. Keep them in your corner, there’s scant chance of Dolan commencing a coup.

As Bleacher Report’s John Dorn wrote back in April, what’s at stake is nothing less than historic glory, both for the Knicks and for Jackson himself:

Even if Phil exits the team's front office prematurely out of frustration with Dolan, it'd be the owner's reputation that suffers the blow, if he truly couldn't get out of his own way yet again. Jackson should have leverage in this regard, knowing that if he walks away, Dolan—certainly not Jackson—would then be pinned the unwavering, uncooperative loser.

But if he constructs the first Knicks team to bring a trophy to the Garden in more than 40 years? Jackson would cement his legacy as the best coach, the best champion and the best basketball mind the league has ever seen.

Short of grabbing hold of the coaching reins himself, however, Jackson must trust his front-office wizardry to somehow translate to on-court promise. Then and only then will the pomp and circumstance of that first presser—imbued with calls for community and accountability—prove prescient.

How many moves before the Knicks become contenders? Five? Ten? A dozen? One single incendiary signing next summer? A Magic 8-Ball’s as good a guesser as any.

Are they closer than we think? When your fans count sorrow in scores of years, you have to be.

For the Knicks to exorcise these decades-held demons, Jackson's gambits will have to pay off more often than not. Judging by the early returns, though, that's a bet Knicks fans should feel fairly comfortable in making.

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