Phil Jackson is in the early stages of molding the New York Knicks into a contender. Jackson re-signed Carmelo Anthony and established new head coach Derek Fisher. However, the roster will need more pieces to complement Anthony and a new outlook on playing style to compete in the Eastern Conference next season.
The Knicks' roster has been subjected to significant changes. New York lost two starters, Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler, to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and Samuel Dalembert.
Ellington and Jeremy Tyler were subsequently traded to the Sacramento Kings for Quincy Acy and Travis Outlaw. One can argue if these trades push New York closer or further away from an NBA title but Jackson is looking at the bigger picture—a picture that’s still blurry at this point.
Looking through the rosters across the league, it’s clear the Knicks won’t contend for a championship in the 2014-15 season. The nuances in their coaching strategy, implementing the triangle offense, building team chemistry and weeding out parts that don’t fit will take at least a full season.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards—all currently considered top-tier teams in the Eastern Conference—added key players to their rosters. The Wizards acquired a proven veteran in Paul Pierce, and the Bulls signed Pau Gasol as they anticipate the return of Derrick Rose.
The addition of Kevin Love and LeBron James catapult the Cavaliers into competition to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. These major offseason moves place all three teams in contention to win now, while the turnover on the Knicks roster signals a rebuilding period.
The growth process will be painful but necessary. Players must alter their mindset to operate efficiently within Jackson’s game plan. The triangle offense places emphasis on making good shot selections, court vision, movement without the ball and court spacing.
Here’s a basic summary of how the triangle offense works.
Here's the relative fluidity Fisher and Jackson hope to see from their players in the near future:
Fisher’s top priority heading into the new season is the lack of ball movement displayed last season. The Knicks ranked 28th in the league in assists, averaging 20 assists per game. Much of this was due to frequent isolation play. Many practices will be spent on getting the ball to the right player at the right time in specific situations.
Jackson made note of the lack of chemistry in an interview with Ian Begley of ESPN.com with this statement: “Watching them play I saw guys that looked at each other like, 'You didn't back me up, you weren't here when I needed help.' There just wasn't the right combination or feel (where) it felt like everybody was in synch all the time.”
Another question mark when fitting the pieces of the roster into the triangle is developing Andrea Bargnani’s court vision from the post position.
Luc Longley, Shaquille O’Neal and Gasol were all able to raise their assist averages playing within the offense on championship teams. None of these centers became prolific passers, but they succeeded in drawing the defense in and kicking the ball out to perimeter shooters, or making an accurate pass to the player cutting to the basket.
Bargnani doesn’t garner enough attention in the paint to collapse a defense. Throughout his career he has been highlighted as a good shooter at his size—to elevate his game play he’ll have to become a proficient passer.
Anthony’s weight loss is great for self-preservation but it takes the Knicks a step back as contenders. According to Melo’s trainer Idan Ravin, via Marc Berman of the New York Post, the star forward’s weight loss was inspired by wanting to set an example and lead the locker room vocally.
But was the weight loss necessary to achieve the role as an absolute leader? Psychology lessons on how to motivate his teammates would have been more suitable than burning calories at the gym for Anthony’s vocal leadership deficiencies.
On the court Melo has been exceptional.
Over the past three seasons with the Knicks he’s developed into a clutch player and led the team into the playoffs in two of his three full seasons with the team.
A confidant of Anthony was quoted in the New York Post per Berman as saying, “He wants to be as athletic as he was when he was a rookie. Plus he wants to be a facilitator in the triangle and speed will help that.’’
The major caveat to Anthony’s commitment to becoming a better facilitator at the 3 is the fact he flourished as a high-scoring power forward.
In his last two seasons playing at the 4, he has vastly increased his points per game average and three-point shooting percentage. This past season, Anthony’s three-point shooting reached 40 percent. In the 2012-13 season Melo won the scoring title averaging 28.7 points per game.
It’s also worth noting he worked out with Hakeem Olajuwon prior to that season to improve his offensive attack in the post. The hard work paid off.
Anthony’s ability to back down a defender in the post to reach a certain spot on the floor will be challenged with a heightened difficulty as players will attempt to box out his thinner frame.
The Knicks' scoring consistency takes a significant fall following Melo’s 27.4 points per game. Streaky shooter J.R Smith averaged 14.5 points per game as the second-leading scorer on the roster last season. Anthony won’t have much support as a facilitator on a team previously ranked 20th in the league in scoring, at 98.6 points per game.
The reason behind Melo’s weight loss is logical, but it comes a bit prematurely as the roster lacks enough scoring which would allow him to focus on other parts of his game.
The offseason trade sending Chandler back to the Mavericks is a major detriment to the Knicks' interior defense. Dalembert will pose a threat inside, but he lacks the ability to play extensive minutes to help the Knicks sustain a solid front at the basket. Last season, he averaged 20.2 minutes per game in 68 starts with the Mavericks.
Chandler averaged 9.6 rebounds per game with the Knicks ranking 26th in rebounding. Without Chandler, expect players averaging double-doubles like Love, Joakim Noah and Al Jefferson to dominate the paint.
Anthony grabbed a career-high 8.1 rebounds per game as the second-leading rebounder. As a nimble small forward in the upcoming season he will contest for fewer rebounds when the Knicks need it most. Every other player on the roster averages fewer than seven rebounds per game.
The Knicks will depend on a mix of Amar’e Stoudemire, Bargnani and Dalembert for the bulk of their rebounding—all of whom have struggled in the category or will play limited minutes in the upcoming season.
Expect New York to struggle with making stops on the defensive end and creating second-chance opportunities on offense.
Improvements to reach a level of contention will require shrewd roster moves, progression from key players on the bench and exploring trade scenarios.
The starting lineup should feature Dalembert, Bargnani, Anthony, Smith and Calderon. Dalembert must be on the court to compete on the boards.
At center, Bargnani struggled last season in rebounding, grabbing 5.3 rebounds per game. The Knicks should look to bring in another defender in exchange for Bargnani before his contract expires at the end of the season. The core of the defense needs improvement.
Another defender is insurance for Iman Shumpert if he continues to struggle. On offense, he struggled as a jump-shooter; 330 of his 484 shot attempts were jump shots on 37.8 percent field-goal shooting, via nba.com. Fortunately, the third-year guard is capable of using his athleticism to attack the basket, taking advantage of the spacing within the triangle.
As a defender he’s still worth a spot in a starting lineup; it’s also the reason he remains on the trade block. Begley reports that Shump could be on the move, with an excess of guards on the roster. Shumpert’s upside is a valuable trade tool, and for the right deal he’s expendable for an established player.
It’s about winning championships. Established productive players trump potential productive players. The Cavaliers’ front office would agree, as they traded away promising rookie Andrew Wiggins for Love.
The Knicks are well-known for trading budding players too soon, but Shumpert’s trade value is worthy of landing a game-changer alongside Anthony.
Smith was openly shopped around to other teams after his shoelace antics, but still he remains, and he will expect to be a starter in the upcoming season.
If Smith’s request isn’t granted by Fisher, it will be difficult to put trust in his temperament. He still has two years on his contract, and it won’t be easy moving a publicly disgruntled player.
Placing Melo back at the 3 creates competition between Shumpert and Smith as the starting shooting guard; Smith played at the 3 while Melo played at the 4 last season.
Shumpert needs to regain his confidence on the court. Fisher can benefit from utilizing his energy as a spark off the bench. The gradual reintegration of Shump’s talents as a sixth man also helps avoid another headache from Smith.
Significant skill development from the bench will be essential in propelling the Knicks to the next level. The management of Stoudemire’s minutes should benefit Cole Aldrich. The 6'11" center played sparingly in his first season in New York, but he displayed a glimpse of his potential, averaging 14.8 points per 100 possessions via Basketball-Reference.com.
Second-year guard Tim Hardaway Jr.’s rookie season was so impressive that he’s already coveted by the organization. According to another Begley report, the front office isn’t looking to move Hardaway—and rightfully so. He averaged 10.2 points per game as a 36 percent three-point shooter, showing early signs of stardom as a rookie.
The Knicks will reap the benefits from the budding sharpshooter off the bench in crucial moments.
It’s too early to place value on first-round draft pick Cleanthony Early’s NBA projection. However, his physical attributes are valuable to the triangle offense.
Early has similar physical advantages to Melo—he can play a backup role at the 3, or stretch the floor as a 4. The ability to score in the paint and drive the lane creates more scoring opportunities within the triangle.
Rebounding isn’t his strong suit, but if he learns to use his body frame to crash the boards, he will quickly find himself in the rotation.
The Knicks have undeveloped talent with a system that needs to be tailored to their roster strengths. The fit between Jackson’s triangle offense and the players is inconclusive, and as a result it’s fair to say that the Knicks won’t contend this year.
Instead, Coach Fisher will experiment with starting lineups, rotations and play-calling, in an effort to get the most out of a season of learning.
More changes are inevitable as the anticipation for a talented free agent pool follows in the 2015 offseason. At that point, the Knicks will make significant moves to complement their franchise player and push the younger talent.
Until then, championship contention is a distant goal—an objective Knicks’ president Jackson views as achievable with patience.