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Phil Jackson entered this season believing that the New York Knicks, the team he was hired last March to overhaul, were "going to be a playoff team." They, um, aren't, having rolled up the third-worst record in the NBA, ahead of only the 8-40 Minnesota Timberwolves and 10-39 Philadelphia 76ers.
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It's been a mostly miserable few months, from the "not ready for showtime" season opener through a trio of dismal losing streaks — seven in early November, 10 from late November through early December, a franchise-record 16 from mid-December through mid-January — that had the Knicks flirting with the worst kind of history, left the Madison Square Garden faithful seeking the protection of anonymity. All that's left now for Knickerbocker backers is to look forward to a lottery in which New York actually owns its own first-round draft pick, to write free-agent fan fiction two years in advance, and kinda-sorta wish the team would take it easy with all this recent winning.
So no, things haven't gone quite as the Zen Master drew them up, and he admitted it in no uncertain terms during a lengthy recent interview with Harvey Araton of The New York Times:
[...] it didn’t take long after Jackson sat down for a recent interview over lunch to admit that his debut as an N.B.A. executive has been sobering, stressful and, during early morning reflections, doubt-inducing.
“Like nothing I’ve seen before,” he said of the Knicks’ first 41 games, of which they lost 36, a half-season of hell. “So far, my experiment has fallen flat on its face.” [...]
[...] And yes, Jackson said, he also knows that reconstruction could be as tricky as installing the triangle, and the trust he has — from [Knicks owner James] Dolan and long-suffering Knicks fans — may not last long.
That is why he offered his mea culpa for this season at a news conference last month and perhaps why, a second time, he referred to his work to date “as an experiment that certainly hasn’t worked.”
While Araton's lunch with Jackson took place before the Knicks won five of their last seven heading into Tuesday's matchup with the Boston Celtics, you'd suspect that improving from 5-36 to 10-38 doesn't alter his outlook too much.
At issue, though, is the nature of Jackson's "experiment." Is it more about bringing the Knicks back to the title-contending status of his days as a Knicks player in the late 1960s and '70s, or about proving that the triangle offense — the system he deployed en route to 11 NBA championships as the coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, and the system he brought protege Derek Fisher in to install as the Knicks' bench boss — can still produce a winner?
The answer, as Araton writes, is something of a mixed bag, which can complicate things:
By last spring, James L. Dolan, the executive chairman of Madison Square Garden, had offered Jackson a reported $60 million over five years, autonomy in running the Knicks as team president and — for the sake of his legacy beyond wins and losses — the opportunity to plant the triangle in the heart of another premier N.B.A. market.
“It was part of my thinking,” he said of — once and for all — popularizing the system he learned from its innovator, Tex Winter, when both were assistant coaches in Chicago. “There are some principles of the offense that I did feel were being overrun, or disregarded.” [...]
But as to skepticism about whether he can make the triangle work in a league in which no one else plays it, Jackson said: “I’m not daunted by the number of people who have commented that this way of playing is arcane, that the game has moved on. The game has moved on.”
He also believes that the game, stylistically, moves in mysterious ways.
“I think it’s still debatable about how basketball is going to be played, what’s going to win out,” he said, leaving no doubt of his disdain for the point guard dominating concept of “screen-and-roll, break down, pass, and two or three players standing in spots, not participating in the offense.”
But while Jackson might not like the Rocketsization of contemporary NBA basketball, he says he understands the value of adjusting to account for the changing times, telling Araton that Fisher is free to tinker with the system and "to do the innovation with today's type [of] player." That's important, because while the Knicks' predictable defensive failures — they allowed 108.9 points per 100 possessions through the first 41 games, 29th among 30 NBA teams — were a major contributing factor to all that early-season misery, it was New York's persistent struggle to get acclimated to the triangle that earned all the attention.
The drumbeat started in September, with Jackson emphasizing the importance of Anthony — whom he'd just signed to a five-year, $124.1 million contract to be the foundation on which the Knicks' rebuild would rest — finding his place in the offense through cutting, passing and continually committing to keeping both ball and body moving. It continued during preseason, with Anthony saying the triangle's installation was slow in coming and J.R. Smith saying the team could take months to get in rhythm with it.
As the Knicks' offensive struggles became readily apparent a couple of weeks into the season, even NBA Commissioner Adam Silver remarked on the team's clearly labored attempts to think their way through their possessions rather than flowing, reading and reacting. After he and teammate Iman Shumpert were traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in an early January three-way swap, Smith echoed those eye-test concerns, calling the triangle "almost too much thinking."
To be fair, Smith also later told NBA.com's David Aldridge that he was disappointed that he didn't make things work:
I wanted to be one of the players that understood it, that got it. The two greatest players in the world at my position played in it, and thrived in it, got all the accolades and championships and whatever else came with it. I wanted to be a part of that significant group.
But while J.R. didn't exactly invite comparisons to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant during his time in the triangle, he did lay bare a key issue with the Knicks' simultaneous pushes to install a new (well, new-old) offensive system and overhaul their roster. With so few Knicks clearly earmarked as part of Jackson's long-range vision — only Anthony and Jose Calderon have guaranteed contracts stretching past the end of next season, and Jackson's reportedly very eager to move the final two years of the Spanish point guard's deal — it can be difficult to get full buy-in to a long-term project from vets who feel like management's already thinking about who'll be replacing them in the near future.
“Everybody in the building was pretty much walking on eggshells so it was kind of hard to prosper in that way, especially when you are not accustomed to it,’’ Smith told Kevin Kernan of the New York Post.
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that the Knicks' recent uptick in fortunes has come thanks in large part to contributions from players who might be more accustomed to handling the sort of uncertainty that comes with not knowing if you're going to have an NBA job tomorrow.
Behind contributions from the likes of rookie D-League call-up Langston Galloway and well-traveled frontcourt short-timers Lou Amundson and Lance Thomas — along with, of course, Anthony's return from the knee injury that's still expected to require surgical repair and a soft run of competition — the Knicks have looked significantly better, more capably running the triangle while sprinkling in more spread-pick-and-roll play, and working more determinedly on the defensive end. They've outscored their opponents by just under three points per 100 possessions over the last seven games, a top-10 mark in the league during that span, largely by moving the ball better and doing a significantly better job of preventing opponents from jacking 3s with impunity, as Joe Flynn notes at Knicks blog Posting and Toasting.
But just because the Knicks have looked more like an actual NBA team with several lightly regarded players working hard, that doesn't mean that higher-profile talent will necessarily flock to the World's Most Famous Arena to try to tailor their games to New York's style. More from Araton:
[...] the feeling on the N.B.A. grapevine is that force-feeding the triangle to players who struggled to grasp its numerous options and who didn’t have enough job security to be invested in the process was akin to demanding that one-and-done college players take advanced calculus.
As much as Jackson has argued that the triangle is just an organizational means of executing basic basketball, providing a foundation of order to empower the players, he conceded that leaguewide perceptions of the system as too complex could create a compromised reality in relation to free agent recruiting.
“Of course it’s a concern of mine, the perception that it’s too difficult to learn or too difficult for today’s players to embrace,” he said. “But I think anyone that believes he’s a total basketball player is going to want to do it. [...] We’re not going to punch all the right buttons in the process of doing this. But we’re looking for multiple talents, drive, intelligence, guys that will play defense. We hope to develop a team, and there are a lot of agents out there looking to find a good spot for their players.”
Jackson's job come this summer will be to land one of those "total basketball players" at the top of the 2015 NBA draft, and then to make judicious use of the roughly $30 million in salary cap space New York's likely to have to spend on "multiple talents." For what it's worth, Jackson demurred on the idea of going big-game hunting this summer — he "called that thinking part of a quick-fix mentality that had been the Knicks’ undoing in most of the years since their last championship team [...] in 1973," according to Araton.
If he misses in the draft and throws good money after bad on the open market, then we'll see more of the same sad story at MSG; if he can stick to the blueprint and hit a home run with a rookie, fortunes might change for the better. For now, yes, Jackson's experiment is an unquestioned failure. It could only take a couple of well-chosen elements, though, to catalyze a drastic change.
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