With Big Trade, Phil Jackson Prepares Knicks for Painful , but Overdue, Rebuild

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJanuary 7, 2015

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NEW YORK — One by one, Phil Jackson summoned his new charges to his office last April, and one by one, he asked this bedraggled assortment of professional basketball players to assess themselves.

Jackson had held the title of Knicks president for just five weeks before the 2013-14 season reached its merciful end, and so many questions lingered.

Who should stay? Who should go? Are there any worthy pieces here? Beyond Carmelo Anthony, is there a single vital cog?

As the Knicks passed through their exit interviews, Jackson quizzed them all: Who is our second-best player? Who consistently brings it, night after night? Who can we rely on?

What Jackson got in return, according to sources, was the equivalent of a team-wide shrug. There was no consensus among the players, no clear No. 2 in the Knicks locker room.

Not Tyson Chandler, the former Defensive Player of the Year, whose spirit had slumped.

Not Amar'e Stoudemire, the onetime franchise savior, whose body had failed him.

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Not J.R. Smith, the mercurial sixth man.

Not Iman Shumpert, the bouncy young wing.   

Blank stares, shrugs, pursed lips. A chorus of ambivalence. Nothing to see here, nothing to salvage.

An agenda for tearing the roster down to the studsor, really, to a single stud, Anthonytook shape sometime thereafter.

Jackson has utilized many tools in his storied careerbooks, incense, drums, yoga, Zen meditationbut fixing the Knicks required a blunter instrument: a wrecking ball.

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 27: Iman Shumpert #21 and J.R. Smith #8 of the New York Knicks inactive against the Sacramento Kings on December 27, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
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So, Chandler and Raymond Felton were shipped to Dallas last June. And Smith and Shumpert were sent to Cleveland on Monday, in what qualified as a pure salary dump. The best asset the Knicks received? An extra $10 million in cap room this summer.

This isn't a rebuilding effort, at least not yet. This is a purgea swift, emphatic push to flush the bad contracts and the bad attitudes, to give Jackson a fresh canvas on which to sketch out the Knicks' future.

It's the right move. Indeed, it's the only sane course.

These Knicks were going nowhere, mired in the NBA cellar with a 5-32 record and a roster bereft of front-line talent. No amount of short-term tinkering could revive them or provide a template for sustained success.

No, this team deserved the wrecking ball, and kudos to Jackson for swinging it this soon, in his 10th month on the job.

For years, Knicks executives chased instant glory and quick fixes, clogging the payroll and costing them any chance for a high draft pick, ultimately ensuring years of mediocrity.

Time and again, Knicks officials have bowed to a false, tired trope"You can't rebuild in New York"out of a fear that the $2,000 seats might go empty.

Credit Jackson for being bold enough to take the tougher path, and for being able to sell it to James L. Dolan, the Knicks' famously impatient owner.

Sure, Jackson has the security of a $12 million salary, but taking this job and this path meant putting his entire reputation on the line. Until now, Jackson has been known only as a winner, an 11-time champion, the Lord of the Rings. In 20 years as a head coach, Jackson never had a losing season.

When he arrived in New York last March, to much fanfare, expectations of instant glory came with him. So Jackson not only had to resist the quick fixes, but the impulse to protect his own, well-cultivated image.

Instead, Jackson maintained a Zen posecalm, patient, with a focus on the process.

The Knicks will head into free agency with a projected $27 million in cap room. That's enough to sign a max player and a handful of solid role players. Or Jackson could opt for depth, spreading the funds among an array of high-quality starters. Or he could play it conservatively and roll some of that cap room into 2016.

Will any stars come? Who knows? There are no guarantees in free agency, as the Knicks learned in 2010 (refresher: LeBron James said no. Stoudemire and Felton said yes.) But in today's NBA, flexibility is critical, and capped-out mediocrity is a slow death.

This summer, Jackson will have the opportunity to completely remake the roster, with players who fit his vision and offensive system. The Knicks will be freed of cap-killers Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani and other assorted flotsam.

This is a rare moment in Knicks history. They will have a high draft picklikely top threein June, and massive cap room in July. Their last top-five pick was in 1986. They've had cap room just once in the last 18 summers.

Monday's trade helped the Knicks on both fronts. With a lucky bounce of the ping-pong balls and a few signatures, this could be a transformative offseason.

This will be a rich free-agent market, with marquee stars Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Goran Dragic and Rajon Rondo, and a number of second-tier talents, including Paul Millsap, Thaddeus Young, Arron Afflalo, Omer Asik, Robin Lopez and Wes Matthews. The restricted free agents include Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green.

Again, no guarantees. But what was the alternative? Keep Smith, re-sign Shumpert and pray for Tim Hardaway Jr. to become an All-Star?

The truth is, the Knicks have no burgeoning stars on the roster and no assets to trade for one. The draft and free agency are their best bet.

It's fair to wonder if Jackson could have fetched more for Shumpert (unlikely), and it's fair to call the Chandler trade a misfire (though it was understandable at the time). But the roster Jackson inherited won just 37 games and had almost zero upside.

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 27: Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks looks on during the game against the Sacramento Kings on December 27, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
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Chandler was dispirited, and disillusioned with some teammates. Felton was an underperforming malcontent. Shumpert has hardly evolved in his four NBA seasons. Smith was a screw-up and a constant distraction, whose Sixth Man of the Year Award looks more and more like an aberration.

So Monday's moves were also about the culture change Jackson promised. Team officials worried that Smith's poor work ethic would influence the Knicks' younger players, according to sources.

The team had similar concerns about Samuel Dalembert, who was habitually late for practice, according to sources. So Jackson waived Dalembert on Monday night, opening another roster spot and saving a few million dollars.

The next move, sources said, might be a trade of Jose Calderon, the 33-year-old point guard acquired in the Chandler deal. The Knicks like Calderon's shooting and his basketball IQ, and they had hoped he might recruit Marc Gasol, his friend and fellow countryman, this summer. But there is a growing sense that Gasol will stay in Memphis. If the Knicks deal Calderon, it means they have given up the chase.

Cynics will call this tanking, and it's not entirely off base. These moves could ensure the Knicks a bottom-three record. But they were heading in that direction even with Smith, Shumpert and Dalembert on the roster, and even with Anthony on the court.

It's also likely, a source said, that the Knicks will ultimately shut down Anthony, who is nursing a nagging knee injury. Anthony has missed seven games, including the last three, but he has so far resisted suggestions to pack it in for the season.

That could change in the coming weeks, perhaps after the All-Star Game in New York, in which Anthony is expected to play.

On Tuesday, Anthony addressed the matter in a video posted on Bleacher Report, saying, "I'm not shutting it down for the season yet."

But at age 30, there is no point in grinding through knee troubles that might require surgery, especially amid a lost season. If the Knicks have any hope of a revival in 2015-16, they will need a fresh, healthy Anthony leading the way.

And Anthony will need help. That is Jackson's task for the next several monthsand the true test of his Zen. Tearing down the Knicks was the easy part.

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


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