Less than 3 1/2 years into his five-year journey to bring the New York Knicks back to prominence, Phil Jackson is leaving Manhattan. His tenure as the Knicks’ president of basketball operations was marked by losing — great, heaping gobs of losing, as the team went 80-166 in his three full seasons in charge. It was marked by zealous adherence to the primacy and precepts of his preferred triangle offense, regardless of the results on the floor or the pushback from the bench and locker room.
It was marked by internecine strife, with the Zen Master spending fall and winter publicly warring with Carmelo Anthony over the star’s unwillingness to waive a no-trade clause (that Jackson freely gave him) to better facilitate a rebuilding effort (that Jackson put behind the 8-ball by giving what remains of Joakim Noah $72 million) before spending spring and early summer battling with and eventually dangling Kristaps Porzingis over a missed exit interview.
It wasn’t, like, the best tenure.
It’s over now, though, a “parting of ways” that has sparked elation in some circles but that still leaves the Knicks in an uncertain position mere days before the start of the 2017 free agent season. Focus now shifts to where the franchise turns for its next leader; general manager Steve Mills will run the day-to-day operations for now, but Toronto Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri is reportedly at the top of Knicks owner James Dolan’s list and a number of other sharp options — recently ousted Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin (and his top lieutenant, Trent Redden), arguably vindicated Process server Sam Hinkie, any of the many fast-rising front-office types highlighted this spring by ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz — are potentially on the table.
There’s cause for cautious optimism in Dolan’s general commitment to steering clear of meddling during Jackson’s reign. There’s also the ever-looming specter of old villains, and the chance that one of the NBA’s most dysfunctional franchises manages to once again find a way to make a bad situation even worse.
While we wait to see what big move Dolan makes at the top of the org chart, though, a modest proposal: maybe, for now, just chill out. Focus less on trying to drastically overhaul everything about the on-court product and who’s running it right now, and more on giving what you’ve actually got a chance to do what it can do divorced from the context of trying to jam a round peg into a triangular hole.
Jackson hired Jeff Hornacek, whose Phoenix Suns teams relied heavily on attacking in the spread pick-and-roll and played at the NBA’s seventh-, third- and fourth-fastest paces during his time in the desert, and spent a year pushing and pulling over triangle supremacy as the Knicks sputtered. Let Hornacek run his stuff his way, without the restrictor plate on. Let him do it with Noah suspended and, later, with his expensive deal on the bench, while All-Rookie Team selection Willy Hernangomez gets a longer look at center. And, hopefully much more often than last year, let Porzingis play center alongside Anthony at power forward in a five-out, pace-and-space approach alongside multiple wings who can shoot.
As presently constituted, the Knicks’ only guards under contract are Courtney Lee and No. 8 overall pick Frank Ntilikina. To whatever extent Mills/Insert New Knicks Boss Here spends in free agency — the Knicks could have between $20 million and $25 million in cap space — it should be spent on more guards who can shoot and defend. Let Derrick Rose walk rather than pay him not to fit. If the price tag on Patty Mills doesn’t get stratospheric, be in there. Try to bring back reserve wing Justin Holiday, and while you’re at it, beat the bushes to try to find the next Justin Holiday, because New York desperately needs dudes with long arms who can move their feet on defense and shoot. Like, even more than most teams in the NBA.
If Anthony still wants to be here, then let him fire, and let Porzingis launch. Let them spend more time guarding their natural-at-this-stage position — Kristaps close to the basket protecting the rim, ‘Melo working against burlier fours rather than chasing smaller swingmen — and let their offensive possibilities overwhelm the defensive deficiencies inherent in a roster that still skews too heavily toward the frontcourt with too few answers at guard. (Ntilikina, hopefully, will come to help here in time.) Let delightfully odd Lithuanian swingman Mindaugas Kuzminskas run, slash and be free.
The Dolan-era Knicks don’t have much experience with being fun. In fact, the two most notable recent examples of fun New York teams came about largely by accident. The brief burst of Linsanity in February of 2012 doesn’t happen if Mike D’Antoni doesn’t run out of healthy bodies and need to reach down to the end of the bench, and the Knicks don’t win 54 games and the Atlantic Division in 2013 if frontcourt injuries don’t force Mike Woodson to play ‘Melo at the four with a two-point-guard backcourt of Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd to maximize ball movement and spacing. Dolan can learn from those happy accidents, though.
He can empower his coach to try to score a buttload of points with the very fun weapons he has, feeding plenty of minutes to the three young pieces with which Jackson restocked the cupboard before his departure while adopting a version of the style that delivered the last competitive iteration of the club. He can throw caution to the wind and begin the process of building a modern NBA team around his franchise tentpole by putting an emphasis on playing a fun, wide-open brand of ball that maximizes his skill set. He can try to turn the page and get New York back on his side by presenting a product worth watching.
For a franchise that’s lacked consistent direction for years, there are worse ways to go than the direction of pursuing joy. The Knicks might be terrible again next season, but they can at least be the right kind of terrible. They can try to be fun again. A novel concept, I know, but it might just be an idea whose time has come.
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