When the 2014-15 season drew to a close, marking the end of Phil Jackson's first full year in an NBA front office, the New York Knicks had struggled their way to a meager 17 wins. Now, less than one week into 2016, New York has already exceeded that total.
A 98-90 victory over the Miami Heat did the trick, shining a positive light on a campaign that's already been filled with significant improvement. The Knicks may not emerge as a playoff squad in a jam-packed Eastern Conference, but the progress is still blindingly evident.
And Jackson's influence is everywhere.
Even if rookie big man Kristaps Porzingis' biggest "highlight" of Wednesday night came on a missed transition dunk, and he struggled to corral a physical Chris Bosh during the second half, his impact remains palpable. He didn't have a particularly gaudy line against the Heat but still made his presence felt by blocking shots, crashing the boards and helping space out the court for a team that sometimes struggles from the perimeter.
If nothing else, his energy was contagious.
"Especially as a rookie, I haven't seen him back down from anybody," Knicks center Robin Lopez told reporters after Porzingis' kerfuffle with Kent Bazemore in a recent victory over the Atlanta Hawks, via CBS Sports' Ananth Pandian.
That mentality is evident on a regular basis, whether Porzingis is continuing to challenge shots after getting posterized by Bosh or following up his missed slam with nary a backward glance. Some first-year players would allow such an embarrassing moment to affect them, but the Latvian 7-footer already shows a lack of short-term memory when necessary.
Porzingis, who was most assuredly the crown jewel of Jackson's offseason rebuild, isn't the only Zen Master product who is making an impact. Scan the roster, and you'll find plenty of promising role players who appear capable of sticking with this squad as long-term pieces for the ensuing upward climb.
Arron Afflalo only produced nine points on 4-of-10 shooting from the field in the South Beach victory, but he's been on a torrid pace in recent outings. During the two games prior, he'd averaged 30.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists while dropping in nine of his 10 attempts from beyond the arc.
On the interior, Robin Lopez has been masterful, anchoring the defense with his rim protection and providing efficient offensive contributions that rarely see him venturing from his comfort zone. Every once in a while against the Heat, he would torture Hassan Whiteside with a series of post moves en route to a season-high 19 points. That ability to pick his spots serves as a solid microcosm of his entire year in a Knicks jersey.
Jackson acquired both of those guys this summer, as the executive decided to make a number of smaller signings that would help change the culture of this organization instead of going for an ill-advised, all-in-one-year rebuild. Derrick Williams, whose energy allowed him to produce 13 points and eight boards in the Wednesday night victory, falls into the same category.
The Knicks aren't yet to the point where they can consistently topple upper-tier foes, but the signings have all helped give them upside on any given night while securing a more promising future.
That upside also exists because Jackson's impact isn't limited to the players he brought in during the summer months. The incumbent players are also developing, and we need only look at Carmelo Anthony for evidence.
Always an impressive scorer, Anthony dropped 25 points on 9-of-12 shooting against his good friend Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Heat. But he also showcased his distributing skills, dropping four assists as he looked to get everyone involved.
Couper Moorhead @CoupNBA
It's not just Carmelo's passing, but his managing of the offense that's been great. As good as I've seen him play Miami, 9-of-11 or not.1/7/2016, 2:13:25 AM
As Jared Dubin wrote for Bleacher Report at the end of 2015, "Anthony is obviously the Knicks' best scorer, but he is also probably their most effective passer at this point—Jerian Grant can't get on the floor because teams don't respect his jump shot, and Jose Calderon can't draw multiple defenders toward his dribble because he's not a threat to drive."
Heading into this latest contest, Anthony had assisted 20.2 percent of the Knicks' makes when he was on the floor, giving him his highest assist percentage since the 2011-12 season by a rather significant margin. And that says nothing of the unselfish plays and moments of leadership that don't necessarily lead to dimes.
The new faces in New York are all key, and they'll be quite important as the rebuild continues. Hell, they're already crucial to the current turnaround, as even a 30-win season would stand in stark contrast to last year's 17-win futility.
But the mentality shift from Anthony is similarly vital, and it doesn't appear as if that's changing anytime soon.
This past offseason, there was legitimate reason to doubt Jackson's ability in a front-office role. His first summer in charge of the Knicks didn't go too well, and he failed to land any big fish from the 2015 free-agency pool.
Now, it's a whole lot easier to have confidence in the basketball lifer as he continues moving this New York organization in the right direction—first toward respectability and then toward contention.
Hello, Big Three
When Kevin Love posts only eight points and nine rebounds but the Cleveland Cavaliers still manage to drop 121 points in a victory over the Washington Wizards, someone else must have played pretty well.
In this case, two other superstars lit up the scoreboard.
LeBron James was an obvious stud Wednesday night, exploding for 34 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, one steal and one block. Despite his heavy hand in the offensive flow, he turned the ball over just twice while shooting 12-of-22 from the field and 4-of-9 from downtown.
Remember when James couldn't manage to find twine when he was shooting from outside the paint? So much for that, as he's heating up and still managing to attack the hoop with aplomb, as he did when Otto Porter got caught too close to him in the right corner:
But James' heroics aren't anything new. It's a bit more significant that Kyrie Irving also caught fire in a marquee matchup with John Wall, since the talented point guard is only just finding his rhythm after his knee injury forced him to join the 2015-16 campaign in medias res.
Seeming to alternate isolation attacks with James, Irving dropped 32 points, five rebounds, three assists, two steals and one block while missing only eight of his 22 looks on the night. He didn't shrink from the big moments either, scoring 10 consecutive points early in the fourth quarter to turn a game tied at 95 into one featuring a 105-95 advantage for the Cavs.
Before this outing, Cleveland's net rating was a staggering 22.7 when Irving shared the court with Love and James. Even if it drops slightly after Wednesday night's competitive affair, it'll still be in jaw-dropping territory.
Beating this squad with all three stars healthy and humming along isn't going to be an easy task for anyone.
Indy Can Still Win Old-School Games
Even though the Indiana Pacers are trying to play around with small-ball lineups and a quicker pace in 2015-16, they haven't forgotten how to win tough contests that feature more physicality. That's what the new year has apparently been all about.
Indiana opened the 2016 portion of the calendar with a low-scoring victory over the Detroit Pistons and then fell in overtime to the Miami Heat in a grind-it-out affair that finished at just 103-100 after 53 minutes of action.
Candace Buckner @CandaceDBuckner
These last few #Pacers games have taken on a certain ‘smash-mouth basketball’ like quality.1/7/2016, 2:03:38 AM
Now, the Pacers have added a 95-86 victory over the Orlando Magic to their growing tally of wins, shutting down the opposing shooters and bullying them in the paint throughout Wednesday night. As good as Paul George has been on the offensive end, we also have to credit interior defenders like Ian Mahinmi, Lavoy Allen and Jordan Hill—yes, even Jordan Hill—for the success.
Indiana may be playing a more glamorous style of basketball this year, but that doesn't mean it can't come out on top in multiple ways.
Head coach Frank Vogel wouldn't have it any other way.
Late Heroics from the Usual Detroit Suspects
The Detroit Pistons' 99-94 victory over the Boston Celtics didn't come easy, especially because the C's relied on a balanced attack that saw all five starters score in double figures. Heading into the final quarter, Detroit was poised to fall on the road, staring down a nine-point deficit.
But the Pistons managed to outscore their opponents 33-19 during the last 12 minutes, and the two men leading the charge were exactly the ones you're probably thinking about.
Reggie Jackson recorded nine points and an assist on 3-of-6 shooting from the field during the fourth quarter, while Andre Drummond chipped in six points and two rebounds—including this fallaway, twisting jumper to tie up the contest:
That was actually the last shot he made during the successful outing, as he went to the bench with 6:13 remaining and never returned, possibly because of a collision with Amir Johnson. But as soon as he left, Jackson scored all nine of his points—a streak interrupted only by a triple from Anthony Tolliver.
Even though Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aron Baynes and Stanley Johnson all did their parts in the final minutes, it was the dynamic guard who helped his team pull ahead, serving as the Detroit MVP of the night.
If you weren't already convinced both Jackson and Drummond should be All-Stars this year, just go watch tape of the fourth quarter.
New Orleans Pelicans Waste Another Gem from Anthony Davis
Heading into Wednesday night's loaded slate of NBA action, only Draymond Green and Blake Griffin had managed to record at least 26 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in a single outing during the 2015-16 season. If you also look for two steals and three blocks, not a single player had posted such a line.
But Anthony Davis did against the Dallas Mavericks. Better yet, he recorded only three turnovers in 42 minutes while bearing heavy offensive responsibilities.
It still wasn't enough to drag the New Orleans Pelicans to victory, as they fell to the Mavericks by nine points, dropping to a miserable 11-23 on the season. Davis tried his darnedest to get NOLA back into the game, throwing up eight points, six rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block during the final 12 minutes, but it wasn't enough to overcome the lackluster efforts of his teammates.
Let's put this in perspective.
Between the 26-spot he dropped on his own and the seven dimes that led to 18 more points (four of them resulted in three-pointers), Davis was directly responsible for 48.4 percent of the Pelicans' production in the losing affair. And that's without counting any passes that resulted in free throws or any secondary assists.
Now, not even the backward strides from the Western Conference as a whole are keeping the Pelicans within shouting distance of a playoff berth.
It's time to blow things up, join the tanking race and look for another superstar in the draft. After all, fighting for a lower seed and a first-round matchup with the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs is the unfortunate alternative.
Davis doesn't just need more help. He deserves it.
The Kevin Durant Train Starts Rolling Again
After missing one game to let his sprained toe recover, Kevin Durant returned in a 112-94 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. He made only two of his 10 shots from the field during the first half, but a third-quarter explosion allowed him to regain his torrid scoring pace.
Emerging from the locker room of Chesapeake Energy Arena after halftime, Durant refused to miss.
In the third period, he recorded a ridiculous 13 points and nine rebounds, knocking down all five of his shots from the field. Whether he was corralling an air ball and slamming home the follow-up attempt or curling around a screen and drilling a trey, he played like the rim was the size of a hula hoop.
Sure, the 20 points, seven rebounds and seven assists from Russell Westbrook were nice. So too were the 29 combined points from Anthony Morrow and Dion Waiters, as well as the steady play of Cameron Payne off the pine.
But Durant is the headliner here because he's now dropped at least 20 points in each of his last 21 outings. The streak dates back to Nov. 10, when he left an outing against the Washington Wizards with 14 points in just 16 minutes, 45 seconds.
He has a way to go before he matches his streak of 56 consecutive contests scoring 20 or more, but it's still notable that this is only the 10th time in the last five years someone has done so in at least 20 straight games.
But this is the third time Durant has gone streaking in such fashion. Even after all of his foot surgeries, he's just that good.
LaMarcus Aldridge Becomes a True Spur
Did LaMarcus Aldridge have any ailing injuries that would keep him out of a Wednesday night contest with the Utah Jazz? Nope.
Instead, head coach Gregg Popovich decided to keep him out for rest purposes. And in doing so, he finally made the big man a true member of the San Antonio Spurs, as the classic "DNP-Rest" has become synonymous with the organization that manages players so well throughout the season.
Tom Haberstroh @tomhaberstroh
LaMarcus Aldridge is 30 years old and the 30-6 Spurs are resting him at home tonight in a non-back-to-back situation. Pop gonna Pop.1/6/2016, 5:56:25 PM
His absence didn't end up mattering.
The Spurs still blitzed the Jazz for a 123-98 victory that gave them their 13th 20-point win of the season. And interestingly enough, that makes it back-to-back contests in which San Antonio has won with that exact score.
Big-Man Matchup of the Night
We're going to ignore the rest of the slopfest that was the Denver Nuggets' 78-74 win against the Minnesota Timberwolves, one in which the two teams combined to shoot just 37.1 percent from the field.
All that matters here is the matchup between Jusuf Nurkic and Karl-Anthony Towns—the first clash between two centers who should both play large roles in their teams' respective rebuilds. While the latter is the front-runner for Rookie of the Year, the former came off the bench to continue his gradual return from injury.
Nurkic ended up dropping 15 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and five blocks, which gave him a line that only nine other players have matched or exceeded in 2015-16. In fact, just 23 other players have ever posted such numbers during or before their age-21 season, and this Bosnian big man makes it 24.
For the Wolves, Towns was equally impressive with his 14 points, 14 boards, two dimes and two rejections. This time, 13 other players have matched or exceeded the totals during the current season, while 50 have previously done so before the conclusion of their age-21 go-round.
This first battle was inordinately impressive, even if their teammates were anything but.
Coaching Gaffe of the Night
C.J. McCollum wasn't hurt. Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts wasn't even using the Popovich strategy and giving one of his key players some rest.
The Blazers just messed up.
"McCollum was left off the active list in place of rookie Luis Montero," Casey Holdahl reported for Forward Center. "Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts signed off on the roster after which it was delivered to the official scorer. Once the list is signed by both coaches, as was the case Wednesday night, the active list is set."
Even when the Blazers realized their mistake and appealed to the referees, it was too late. McCollum was forced to sit out, and Montero made his seventh appearance of the season, playing three minutes and bricking his only shot from beyond the arc.
Would the shooting guard's presence have made a difference in the 109-98 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers? There's no way to tell, but Stotts has to be kicking himself as Rip City attempts to stay alive in the hunt for a Western Conference playoff spot.
Ideally, Portland would miss the playoffs by at least two games or still earn a berth, just so it can look back at this moment and laugh.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are from Basketball-Reference.com or Adam's own databases and are current heading into games on Jan. 6.
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