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Knicks Need Only Look in the Mirror to See Reasons Behind Their Demise

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterDecember 19, 2014

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NEW YORK — During his three-year NBA sabbatical, Phil Jackson wrote another book, watched a lot of basketball and mastered a new form of communication: the tweet.

"11 champ;ipnsikp[ ringhs," Jackson, um, stated on March 27, 2013, in his Twitter debut.

The garbled greeting was a marketing ploy for Jackson's book, "Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success," but he has come a long way since, deftly using Twitter to pontificate, philosophize and tweak.

Now settled into his latest venturethe quixotic attempt to breathe life into the New York KnicksJackson uses the platform to send subtle messages on the state of his team.

On Tuesday, he retweeted a historic photo showing four brothers"Giants. All over 7 feet tall"then quipped, "Where are these guys when you really need them?"

Where, indeed?

While he was at it, Jackson might as well have tweeted out photos of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Robert Horry, Ron Harper and every other disciple he ever coached in Los Angeles and Chicago.

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At this point, even a 53-year-old Dennis Rodman would be an upgrade for a Knicks roster that is lacking both skill and acumen.   

The Knicks are 5-23, the worst start in franchise history, triggering the usual hysteria and Gotham blame games. It's the triangle offense! (Too complicated! Outdated!). It's coach Derek Fisher! (Too calm! Overmatched!) It's Jackson! (Too Zen!)

There are clear growing pains in the first year of the Jackson era, both with the system and the rookie coach, but the Knicks' greatest problem is so much more basic and yet criminally underplayed: It's the talent, stupid.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press/Associated Press

Lost in the hand-wringing and hysteria is the fact that the Knicks have just one above-average player: franchise star/mad hatter Carmelo Anthony. The rest of the roster? A collection of faded stars, underachievers and spare parts.

Aside from Anthony at small forward (who is toiling through back and knee soreness), there isn't a single Knick who ranks among the top 15 in the league at his position. We repeat: The Knicks do not have one player who ranks in the top 15 in the league at point guard, shooting guard, power forward or center.

I count 18 point guards better than Jose Calderon, who is probably the Knicks' second-best player. There are at least 15 shooting guards better than the Knicks' group of Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr.; at least 18 power forwards better than the platoon of Quincy Acy and Amar'e Stoudemire; and at least 20 centers better than the platoon of Stoudemire and Samuel Dalembert.

(That's not just one man's opinion. I consulted a handful of team executives who concurred.)

The picture is even bleaker if you check CBSSports.com's total player rankings, which are based on actual production. By that metric, Calderon ranks 42nd among point guards, Shumpert 31st among shooting guards, Stoudemire 20th among power forwards and Dalembert 36th among centers.

That means several teams have not one, but two players who rank ahead of the Knicks' starter at any given position. Indeed, the Knicks have four starters who wouldn't crack the lineup on a decent playoff team.

This is what Jackson inherited last springa poorly constructed roster with no salary-cap room, no first-round pick and little ability to make significant changes. Even if Jackson had let Anthony leave last summer, the Knicks would have been over the cap.

Oct 13, 2014; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks president Phil Jackson watches the game against the Toronto Raptors during the first quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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It must be noted that Jackson did inherit one other quality player, center Tyson Chandler, but he traded him to Dallas to acquire Calderon. The deal made sense at the time—Calderon fits the triangle, and Chandler was miserable last season—but it now looks like a colossal misfire, with Chandler having regained his form as an elite defender in Dallas.

Instead of Chandler, the Knicks are playing Acy (17 starts), who had never started an NBA game until this season, and Dalembert, who is on his fifth team in five seasons.

Stoudemire, though productive in spurts, is no longer a full-time player and remains a huge liability on defense. Shumpert has never fulfilled his potential, and Smith is still, well, Smith.

Although Calderon is a fine shooter and distributor, he's probably best suited as a reserve at 33.

The Knicks rotation is filled with players who would struggle to earn minutes on a good team: Acy, Shane Larkin, Cole Aldrich, Jason Smith, Travis Wear.

Is it any wonder Fisher has used 14 different starting lineups? Or that the rotation changes game to game?

Beyond all of that, the Knicks have few players who are well suited to the triangle offense, a read-and-react system that requires quick decisions, crisp passing and a high basketball IQ.

Watching the Knicks meander through their sets Tuesday night, Charley Rosena triangle scholar and Jackson confidant (after serving as an assistant coach for Jackson in the CBA)could hardly contain his disgust.

"Everybody's out of position," Rosen said, while the Knicks quickly fell behind the Dallas Mavericks in what became their 22nd loss.

When Jackson took the reins of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1999, he signed two ex-Bulls, Ron Harper and John Salley, to serve as triangle tutors on the court. Fisher has no such luxury. (Jackson tried to convince former Laker Pau Gasol to join the Knicks, but he chose Chicago instead.) The Lakers were also stocked with skilled, high-IQ role players, including Fisher, Horry, Brian Shaw and Rick Fox. These Knicks hardly compare.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press/Associated Press

"If everybody doesn't do their job, then the whole thing falls apart," Rosen said. "If one guy messes up, it doesn't work."

The triangle works best with a skilled big man who can catch the ball in the low post and force the defense to adjust, opening other options. The Knicks don't have that player. They also lack three-point shooters, playmakers and defenders, which would handicap any team.

If the Lakers and Bulls ran 100 percent of the triangle's actions, exploiting every nuance and countermove, the Knicks are using maybe 25-30 percent, according to Rosen. And what they are running, they're not running well.

"They're very slow in coming to their assigned spots," he said, "which messes up their spacing, messes up their timing, makes it easier to defend. They don't set weak-side picks, which negates a lot of the movement."

It was that sort of action, Rosen noted, that the Bulls used repeatedly to get Horace Grant open midrange jumpers. Grant made a living off those plays.

Simply put, these Knicks aren't committed enough to make the offense work as it should.

"Their attitude is, 'OK, I'm supposed to set a pick, but I really want to cut to the basket,'" Rosen said. "So they don't want to work hard, and they don't see how it's advantageous to them. Because they may be two passes away, three passes away from getting a good shot. But they want to be a dribble away from getting a good shot."

Tex Winter, the triangle architect and Jackson's mentor, used to say the triangle was not just an offense but a philosophy. It required a certain amount of selflessness and sacrifice, which the Knicks have yet to display.

"It's not the triangle that's the problem," Rosen said. "It's them." 

Dec 9, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith (8) attempts to shoot the ball as New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) defends during the second half of a game at the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans won 104-93. Mandatory
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In the players' defense, it's probably difficult to make a full commitment when most of them know they will be gone by next season. The Knicks' larger agenda is to leverage their salary-cap room next summer to acquire a second star, or several impact players, which means cutting ties with most of this roster. Nearly every Knick is available in trade right now, which they surely understand.

As Fisher noted earlier this week, "On top of that they're being asked to sacrifice more and do less in order to win, so it's not a great combination for cohesion and team chemistry."

Should the Knicks nevertheless have more than five victories? Perhaps. But not many more. No matter what system they run, or how well they run it, or how hard they play, these Knicks are limited by a profound lack of talent.

It's a waiting game now—a long, depressing slog toward next summer, when the Knicks should have a top-10 pick (their highest since 2009) and salary-cap room (for the first time since 2010), plus a chance to acquire players who fit the Jackson profile.

Phil Jackson may be best known for those 11 sparkly rings and the mystical offense, but his real value in New York won't be known for another seven months. It's nice to have a winning philosophy. It's better to have winning players.

 Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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