If we follow the spiritual logic of Phil Jackson, the basketball gods owe the Knicks. After competing to Game 82, to the point of winning three of their final six games to earn one win more than the Minnesota Timberwolves out of the first seat in the NBA Draft Lottery, the Knicks saw the system bump them down two big spots.
On Tuesday night, the Timberwolves were rewarded for their ineptitude by being only the fourth last place team to win the lottery since the weighted system was instituted in 1990. They were the first since the Orlando Magic in 2004.
The Knicks, who sat in the second seat, dropped to fourth overall. They were leapfrogged by the Lakers (21-61), who lost eight of their final nine games of the regular season.
So while we’re all bemoaning the Knicks late, meaningless wins that, in hindsight, cost them the No. 1 overall pick, we could also say their losses cost them the second and third picks, as well.
The worst the Knicks could have fallen was 5th. This is still the franchise’s highest draft position since it won the very first lottery drawing in 1985 and landed Patrick Ewing.
Carmelo Anthony’s season ended after the All-Star Game in February, which gave him a lot of unwanted free time. Melo’s restlessness led him to watching NBA games on the West Coast late into the night. Enough that his wife, Lala, would have to tell him to turn off the TV and go to sleep.
When he was around the training center, Melo would linger around Steve Mills’ office and discuss players around the league that caught his interest. Players who might fit well with him and the way the Knicks hope to play next season.
And now with this Knicks season over, the focus on the critical offseason now shifts to the all-important execution phase.
Tim Hardaway Jr. is what they call a legacy player in the NBA. We're seeing a wave of second generations -- sons of fathers who played in the league -- in today’s game that include Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Love, Wesley Matthews, Austin Rivers, Gerald Henderson and Andrew Wiggins, among a few others.
Many of them, like Hardaway Jr., are kids who grew up in the NBA environment. They knew the league from the eyes of their fathers and their experiences toddling along with them to practices and games. They forged friendships with other Basketball Silver Spooners and also their father's teammates.
Hardaway Jr. was 8 years old when he met Anthony Mason, who had two boys, Anthony Jr. and Antoine, around the same age. Mason joined the Miami Heat that season and became fast friends with Heat veteran Tim Hardaway Sr. He took a liking to Tim Jr., as well, and would take the time to talk and play basketball with the younger Hardaway..
Eventually, the math has to change.
Phil Jackson has been using addition by subtraction formulas over the first year of his tenure, right up to Thursday’s NBA Trade Deadline. And while some hopeful fans were left disappointed when the Knicks weren’t involved in anything substantial before the deadline -- where over a dozen players dealt in a frenzy during the final minutes -- one thing we can assure is this: the Knicks won’t be wallflowers from this point on.
Fact is, they can’t be. In 29 games, this season will be over. Come July 1, only four players will remain under contract. Jackson has no choice but to begin the rebuild after spending the second half of his first season dismantling the roster.
First things first: the final stages of demolition.
His eyes were fixed on Jose Calderon, with his hands on his knees, watching as if he were looking through the knothole of a fence. The ball left Calderon's hands and you could see the anxiety build in the eyes that watched the ball arc to the basket.
Carmelo Anthony gave trust yet another try. This time it paid off. The ball swished through the hoop, The Garden erupted with cheers and Melo dropped his head with relief, clapped his hands and headed to the huddle.
That shot, which helped clinch a win over the Pelicans earlier this month, effectively ended the franchise-worst 16-game losing streak. It also began a building process that Melo has been through before and has been a struggle for him.
At the end of the 2008-09 season, after the Knicks had already been eliminated from playoff contention, the team won three of their final six games of the season. It brought Mike D'Antoni's record in his first season as Knicks coach to 32-50. Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, the Golden State Warriors won four of their last eight to finish 29-53.
Later that June, the Knicks waited with the 8th overall pick, poised to select Steph Curry. They missed him by one pick.
By three wins.
Looking back with crystal ball hindsight, it's easy to say former team president Donnie Walsh should have ordered D'Antoni to lay down in those final six games. It's situations like this that encourage the idea of tanking.
But, actually, history tells us otherwise.
It started, for the Knicks, at the end. After the 1973 championship, the Knicks had one last run in them, to the Eastern Conference Finals in '74. The following season, after a first round ouster, two of the championship era’s cornerstones, Willis Reed and Dave DeBusschere, retired.
There wasn't much coming via the draft, as the Knicks had just two first round picks between 1972-1976. Mel Daniels, from St. John’s, was the pick in '73. And in 1975, with the 9th overall pick, the Knicks took Gene Short from Jackson State. Short, brother of Purvis Short, played just 27 games for the Knicks, who passed on Gus Williams and Lloyd B. Free, among others, in that draft.
Rebuilding after the championship era was done with money, not drafting. Neal Walk and Spencer Haywood were acquired in 1975, followed by Bob McAdoo in '76. The Knicks failed to make the playoffs.
Phil Jackson was part of these teams and when he took the job to run the franchise four decades later, he was reminded of the past.
The reality of the Knicks 5-31 record, and the rash of injuries that has limited the roster, promotes a change in philosophy for the season. And with Carmelo Anthony dealing with a sore knee that has caused him to miss three (and a half) of the last nine games, the question that comes up involves whether or not the Knicks star should continue to play on the injured knee.
Derek Fisher on Friday acknowledged there have been conversations about exactly that lately with Melo.
"I think everybody is smart enough to realize, calendar-wise, timing-wise, that there may come a point that's the decision that needs to be made," Fisher said. "But that we can't force Carmelo to that point just yet."
It's never an easy thing for a player, especially a star player, to do when his team is struggling the way the Knicks are this season; to shut down for the year and leave them to finish up.
It was August 1973 when Mets chairman Donald M. Grant addressed his floundering team with a speech to keep them playing hard through September, despite being 12 games under .500 with 44 games to go and seemingly out of the pennant race.
It was in that meeting Tug McGraw, the rambunctious closer, jumped to his feet and shouted the now famous rally cry, “Ya gotta believe!”
On Wednesday after practice, following perhaps the most despondent performance of the season the night before against the Dallas Mavericks, Carmelo Anthony employed the phrase to his 5-22 Knicks team that is 6.5 games out of a playoff spot with 55 games to go.
“You gotta believe,” Melo said. “I’ve never been a quitter my whole life. It’s something you gotta believe in, that it will happen.”
Derek Fisher gritted his teeth through his answer as the Knicks once again were unable to meet at the intersection of Focus and Physicality.
“We talked ad nauseum about keeping this team out of the paint,” he said of the Pelicans, who racked up 54 points in the paint in Tuesday’s win over the Knicks. “I’m not sure why we couldn’t hold onto that thought while we were out there on the floor.”
If there was one area the Knicks entered the season with good depth, it was at the two guard position, also known as “shooting guard.” In fact, the concern was how Derek Fisher would be able to get minutes for Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr.
But almost a quarter into the season, all three have yet to make enough of an impact offensively to command the bulk of the minutes or a regular spot in the rotation.
At the start of training camp, the players gathered in a circle around center court for their first official meeting. The new coaching staff assembled around them on the surface of the perimeter. Their collective achievements were promoted thusly:
Meet Joshua Longstaff, the least accomplished member of the staff. He’s only been part of a conference championship team.
In other words, you, players, are surrounded by people who know winning. Every single coach has been to an NBA Finals. All but one has been part of an NBA champion.
So it doesn’t have to be just Phil Jackson -- he of 11 rings -- or Derek Fisher -- he of five -- to raise his voice in demand of a higher standard of play. There is a delegation of accountability in place.
So at least now we have a timetable.
“Thanksgiving through December,” Phil Jackson said.
“That’s when we say, if you haven’t gotten it by now, we’ll have to really think about if you’re a learner or if you’re not a learner as far as individual ballplayers, at that time.”
Shane Larkin is basically performing without a net.
In his second pro season, coming off a rookie campaign that was limited by an ankle injury and now with his second team, Larkin learned last Friday that he does not have a contract after this season.
The Knicks opted not to pick up the third-year option of Larkin’s rookie deal, worth $1.6 million. He will be an unrestricted free agent after the season.
Phil Jackson admittedly walked into a ready-made situation with the Lakers. He had been part of the building process as an assistant coach with the Bulls. But here in New York he begins the first ground-up renovation of his career.
And it starts tonight at Madison Square Garden, where his NBA career began, against the franchise where his championship legacy was created.
Amar’e Stoudemire is playing for his fifth different coach in seven seasons. With the Knicks alone, Derek Fisher is the third coach he’s played for in New York since he arrived as a free agent in 2010.
“Every year,” he said, “has been different.”
As usual, Stoudemire says the latest system he is working in, the Triangle Offense, fits him well. “It will allow me to utilize all of my skills,” he said.
Derek Fisher wrote himself a note before training camp began to prepare him for what would be the first real challenge of his fledgling career as a head coach.
“We have 15 legit NBA players on our roster,” he told himself. “Which is a good thing and a bad thing, because everybody can play because they’re good, but there’s only 48 minutes. So everybody can’t play.”
So what are the Knicks going to look like when the season opens on Oct. 29? Here’s what I’m thinking Fisher may do:
The issues the Knicks showed in Derek Fisher's coaching debut was, as he put it, “kind of expected.” Twenty-eight turnovers, 40.6% shooting from the field, with a defense that yielded 106 points and 48.8% shooting, is hardly the kind of ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new era.
Whenever there is a major regime change with a franchise, there is a desperate need for immediate change. Something to signify that the issues of the past, the troubles that plagued the team before, would be eradicated. That didn’t happen on the first night of preseason and like anyone in charge would do, Fisher shrugged it off.
In the media, we have our own version of the Triangle Offense. The foundation, simply, is that there are three sides to every story: your version, my version and the truth.
Carmelo Anthony has seen this before so it came as no surprise to him on Tuesday when he saw on the ESPN crawl a quote attributed to him claiming he was “the most underrated superstar that’s out there.”
It’s certainly not a controversial statement. In fact, it’s fairly accurate.
Carmelo Anthony’s ‘after’ photos lack the drama of those testimonials you see promoted by Jenny Craig or P90X. This wasn’t like Eddy Curry’s big reveal a few seasons ago after he resorted to a liquid diet and a lot of cardio upon being ordered to get under 300 pounds.
In fact, at Monday’s annual Media Day for the Knicks, the only notable change in Carmelo Anthony is that he's 30-years-old. The last time he was in uniform, he was 29.
Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher took the dais on Friday at the MSG Training Center, along with general manager Steve Mills, to meet the media just days before training camp was -- finally -- set to open in West Point. On the adjacent court, behind a large curtain, bouncing basketballs could be heard. The sound of players getting in their work.
The sound of anticipation for a season.
The fact that the Knicks failed to make the playoffs last season for the first time in four years is not lost on anyone, but what often gets overlooked is that throughout all the issues of a 37-45 season, the team missed a postseason berth by one game.
One. Lousy. Game.
Mathematically, it was actually two games when you consider they did not have the tiebreaker against the Atlanta Hawks, who got in with a 38-44 record.
Wayne Ellington's career with the Knicks lasted but a few weeks, though he certainly didn't expect much opportunity awaited him in New York with the presence of J.R. Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Iman Shumpert on the roster.
The Knicks had been shopping the former first-round pick from North Carolina (28th overall in 2009) right after they acquired him to help make the money work in the five-player deal with the Dallas Mavericks before the NBA Draft. They found a taker in the Sacramento Kings, who were looking to unload Travis Outlaw and Quincy Acy, who both had similar depth chart issues. The Knicks and Kings completed the trade on Wednesday that sent Ellington and Jeremy Tyler to Sacramento for Outlaw and Acy.
LAS VEGAS -- Derek Fisher grinned at the suggestion that the championship success of the San Antonio Spurs this past season -- winning with a foundation of team play over individual talent -- might have helped him sell the message of the Triangle Offense to Carmelo Anthony.
"It's ironic that the Spurs did anything to help me, as a former Laker,” said Fisher, known well for his "Point-Four Shot," the game-winning basket with 0.4 seconds left in a pivotal Game 5 against the Spurs in the 2004 Western Conference semifinals.
LAS VEGAS -- When Carmelo Anthony officially announced his decision to remain with the Knicks, the headline of his website, thisismelo.com, read, "My City, My Heart."
It should have also read: "My Team."
While the critics will point to the massive five-year contract Melo signed to stay in New York -- more than any other team could offer -- that money represents not just the biggest payday of his career and security for his family for generations to come, but also his position among the hierarchy of this franchise. He is part-owner now and responsible for the direction of this team almost as much as Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher.
LAS VEGAS -- Phil Jackson exited Cox Pavilion after the second day of the NBA Summer League still working on a deal to re-sign Carmelo Anthony. There were reports that suggested the seven-time All-Star had decided to return to the Knicks, but Jackson declined to comment on how close the sides were in completing the anticipated deal.
“We don't have anything yet to stack up, so rather than talk about it, I won't,” he said. “We'll wait. We'll be there."
LAS VEGAS -- Phil Jackson grinned at the inquisition, amused -- as we all are -- at the avalanche of information that continues to pummel NBA Free Agency, which hit its moratorium deadline today.
Since 12:01 a.m. this morning, free agents could be officially signed. But as of 2 PM local time here in Las Vegas (5 PM Eastern), there has been no word from Carmelo Anthony.
"Mercury is in retrograde? I think that’s what happens," Jackson said. "Communication broke down.”
Jackson said he has texted Melo since they last spoke last week, but he has not received any replies. Asked if he expected a decision today, Jackson seemed to be as in the dark as the rest of us.
Derek Fisher, like the rest of us, is waiting.
He made his appeal to Carmelo Anthony last week. As a player, Fisher developed a reputation for his ability to command a locker room and motivate teammates with his speeches. Nick Collison, for one, said that’s what he’ll miss most about Fisher’s departure from the Thunder.
How much of an impact did Fisher leave on the young Thunder? Kevin Durant gave him a glowing endorsement in a conversation with Carmelo while the two worked out in L.A. (why didn’t UCLA tweet about that?), according to our friend Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.
There was no chance of getting any sleep.
It was in the final hours of July 7, 2010 when the surrender emerged to the exhausting, relentless pursuit of LeBron James. It had been two years of coverage, speculation and sourcing.
On that final day, the eve of LeBron’s “Decision” show, was one final mosh pit of information about the location of the show and other details. It felt like a victory just to correctly pinpoint Greenwich, CT as the spot. But the Holy Grail, of course, was identifying what team he would choose. At that point, everyone was guessing.
You know when you’ve reached orbit on a story like this? When LeBron’s own PR people start asking YOU where you think he’s going.
It’s been almost a month since Derek Fisher was named head coach of the Knicks, but he has gone weeks without a coaching staff in place and many of you have asked me via Twitter about this. A lot of the hold up had to do with some of the candidates being under contract with other teams (the NBA “year” ends on June 30). So there are still a few dominoes to fall here before a staff can be finalized.
There was signage welcoming Carmelo Anthony to the United Center and a large electronic image of the seven-time all-star in a Bulls uniform. He was met by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and he entered the area by the iconic Michael Jordan statue. And my first thought was if he noticed the large shadow it cast on this sunny afternoon in Chicago.
That’s one of several words that Phil Jackson used to describe the attitude he is seeking from players as he embarks on revamping the roster. Alacrity describes an eagerness, a readiness and, most importantly, a willingness to play the game the right way.
Jackson brought in Jose Calderon, whom he says will “fit into what we’re trying to do” on the court, mainly on offense. There are reports that say the Knicks may attempt to target Pau Gasol, an unrestricted free agent who, at 33, is still considered one of the best passing big men in the game.
Phil Jackson hasn’t been coy when it comes to discussing Carmelo Anthony’s impending free agency, but I thought something he said Thursday night regarding the finances of re-signing Melo should not go overlooked. In fact, it came off as a pretty strong statement intended to clarify some revisionist history about Melo taking less than his max contract that has been perpetuated for public consumption.
Phil Jackson set up his office at the MSG Training Center in a strategic place; some distance from the locker room and training area, but with a one-way window that looked into the gym. It was from there the new Knicks president began his observation.