New York Knicks Offseason Road Map
What can the New York Knicks do this offseason to rejuvenate this historic punch line of a franchise? What are their limited, mangled options, now that James Dolan, in his infinite lack of wisdom, has renewed Phil Jackson's contract, hobbling the Knicks with two more years of a president hindered by his own genius, not to mention Dolan himself?
If only the Zen Master would listen to his own good advice.
In his book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, he writes that "the most effective approach is to delegate authority as much as possible and to nurture everyone else's leadership skills as well"—that "Leadership is not about forcing your will on others" and "Winning is about moving into the unknown and creating something new." Yet he's been unrelenting in his crusade to force every new head coach to run the same offense he ran with the L.A. Lakers and Chicago Bulls.
He wrote about the need for players to have "compassion for each other" but did not show his players that compassion himself.
He wrote, "The soul of success is surrendering to what is," yet he has had roughly 8 million different players on his roster since he took the job in perpetual efforts to change what is.
So, first: Jackson should reread Eleven Rings. After that, here are the next six items on his offseason to-do list.
1. Rescue the Relationship with Porzingis
Jobs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 through 483 for Knicks management are to make things right with Kristaps Porzingis.
OK, so the kid skipped his exit interview with his boss. And OK, he skipped that meeting but made time to tweet a photo of his "great visit" to the National Basketball Players Association office.
If you think skipping the meeting was bad form, well, remember this: He's a 21-year-old kid with only two years of experience, and over that time his performance has far exceeded his ego.
Conversely, his boss has demonstrated an ego far exceeding his performance as an NBA front office executive, he's a 71-year-old man with 50 years of experience and he ought to know better.
Despite his sterling coaching record and playing reputation, Phil Jackson has spent his recent years on the Knicks being the most selfish teammate.
Porzingis' moves are cheeky. However, they also show that he knows his worth, and he is using the official and legal means available to him to voice his professional concerns and control his destiny to whatever degree possible. He's showing once again that he is older and wiser than his years, and that's a quality anyone should want in a franchise player.
It's on Jackson to fix this relationship. Not on his insubordinate young unicorn.
2. Fire Rambis and Hire Real Defensive Coach
This team needs a coach who can teach defense. Although the Knicks did pretty well holding teams below their shooting efficiency, they let them shoot too often. They were worst in opponents' second-chance points and 23rd in points allowed overall, letting up 108 a night.
Associate head coach Kurt Rambis was granted the job of heading up the Knicks defense in early November. Although backed at the time by hearty, sincere endorsements like Jeff Hornacek's "it could've been anybody" and Carmelo Anthony's "it is what it is," the Knicks' ineffective D shows that Rambis is not the guy for the job.
Hornacek might not be that guy either, but he needs someone on his bench who is, and he needs the authority to choose that person for himself. It's been difficult to judge Hornacek as an individual, knowing that Phil Jackson's right-hand man is a yoke around his neck.
The Rambis struggle is real. As The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowksi wrote April 15:
After his first season as Knicks coach, Hornacek is still trying to incorporate a system that is foreign to him, armed with a Jackson-installed assistant coach, Kurt Rambis, who is beyond unpopular with the players, league sources said. When players want coaching and teaching, they get yelling, sources said. Most wonder about Rambis' allegiances, because after all, he's Jackson's guy, not Hornacek's.
It isn't all Rambis' fault, though. All the Knicks coaches were prone to answering nearly any post-halftime sideline interview question about defense with a ramble about "effort" instead of substantive suggestions about tactics.
What the Knicks need is someone like the Pacers' longtime assistant Dan Burke (a top-rated assistant by NBA GMs) who can teach team defenses, scout opponents and know how to apply the right defense to each opponent.
As Bleacher Report's Yaron Weitzman described last month, the Knicks already have young big man assistant coach Dave Bliss helping with player development by hitting the court with Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez and D-ing them up until they elbow him in frustration. Adding another young coach who could directly challenge players on the floor during practice by playing against them, but is specifically focused on defense and also captures the ear of veteran players, could be another missing piece.
3. Train Coaches in Triangle Pedagogy
If Jeff Hornacek is indeed committed (or resigned or shackled) to the triangle offense, then he and the entire coaching staff must know how to teach it.
Wouldn't it be nice if they had someone around who could do that? Oh wait...
Jackson did come to practice in March and give a triangle lesson directly to the players. Sasha Vujacic, who played for Jackson during his championship years with the Lakers, told reporters March 10: "I think [the younger players] were soaking in every single second of it. They were really paying attention. And I think they've learned in a half-hour a lot. ... Everybody was just excited about it, and to see all the guys learning and being taught by one of the best of all time was just great."
However, it's the coaches, not the president, who run practices. It's the coaches, not the president, who call out plays from the sideline during a game. It's the coaches, not the president, who require the trust of their players in clutch time.
So the lessons need to come directly from the coaches' mouths...just not Kurt Rambis' mouth.
Maybe the word "triangle" can be axed from the vocabulary if it's so distasteful, but the principles themselves—spacing, passing, cutting, teamwork—should be taught and drilled via the Zen Master's approved pedagogy.
In any case, these mandatory professional development training sessions need to happen, and before training camp, beyond the eyes and ears of the players.
4. Go Low for Melo
For years, Carmelo Anthony said he wanted to play and win in New York. He suited up and hustled through three-quarters of the last game of the season, even though the Knicks had long been eliminated from the playoffs. He has two years left on his contract (the second of which has an early termination option) and a no-trade clause.
And yet, after the final buzzer of game 82, Melo behaved like a man who was saying goodbye.
Long after the rest of the team hit the showers, Melo was still on the court signing autographs, taking photos and handing out sneakers to fans. He took his time. He dawdled.
He said to reporters that night: "I would love to be back. I would love to be back. But there are some things I would love to see different."
That was before Jackson finally broke his public silence, only to say that he felt Melo "would be better off somewhere else" and double down on his criticism of Melo's ball-hogging, while denying that it was a criticism at all. Chances are, these were not the sort of differences Anthony is looking for.
The New York Post's Marc Berman reported Thursday there could be renewed hope for a deal with the Celtics, with Phil Jackson intrigued by Jae Crowder and the Celts coaches interested in Anthony, according to a league source. (This might benefit New York, who could use Crowder's rebounding and defensive muscle in the middle of their lineup.)
Yet, other than his desires to get away from MSG without screwing over his young pal KP, Melo has no incentive to let himself be traded away at all, and certainly not for equal value. Why weaken his new team just to help his old, unappreciative team? He could simply stick to his guns and wait for the richest team in the NBA to buy him out of his juicy contract.
Jackson has given away valuable players for absolutely nothing before. Why not this one?
5. Find a Point Guard...Again
Hey, the Knicks need a point guard!
The franchise has only had 11 different point guards on the roster in the past five seasons. Pablo Prigioni, Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Toure' Murry, Shane Larkin, Jose Calderon, Alexey Shved, Jerian Grant, Brandon Jennings, Derrick Rose and Chasson Randle, if you're counting. That's not to mention Tony Wroten, who never got into a game, nor combo guards Langston Galloway, Sasha Vujacic and Ron Baker.
That's not weird, right?
Rookie backup Chasson Randle is signed through 2017-18, but Derrick Rose is a free agent. Despite Rose's electric performances this year as an individual, the team's collective failure makes it unlikely the Knicks will re-sign him. So here we are again.
The 2017 NBA draft is, fortunately, lush with point guards. If the Knicks do luck into the No. 1 pick (which they have a 5.3 percent chance of achieving), they might even snatch up UCLA's Lonzo Ball. If not, they could happily settle for Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox or Frank Ntilikina from France. (Unless Jackson ignores the fact that it's a PG-rich draft and decides to pack his roster with more 7-footers.)
On the free market, they could try to woo Jrue Holiday—not only Justin Holiday's little brother but a superb defender and distributor who averaged 7.3 dimes per game and ranked 14th league-wide in defensive win shares and third among point guards in defensive real plus-minus. Another free-agent option is George Hill, who not only shot 47.7 percent from the field this season but was No. 8 in defensive win shares and 10th among point guards in DRPM.
6. Re-Sign Justin Holiday & Ron Baker
Two of the only pieces of the New York Knicks defense that consistently worked were guards Justin Holiday and Ron Baker, who could often be found teaming up to trap the likes of Jimmy Butler, Steph Curry, Kyle Lowry and Tony Parker.
Both are free agents this season and will likely be looking at offers from less dysfunctional teams. Although Baker made an impression on the league with his grit and playmaking in battles against the Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks, Baker is just leaving his rookie year. He might be persuaded to stay with the Knicks, seduced by the promise of minutes.
Holiday might be more choosy. After proving his value and his sturdiness by hitting the hardwood in all 82 games this season and logging the best shooting and rebounding of his career, the 28-year-old guard may try to secure a long, profitable contract. He could even unite with his brother, but in the Big Easy instead of the Big Apple.
The key point is this: Before Knicks management starts messing around with new players—before the draft, before trades, before free agency—it needs to take care of what's at home.