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Fixing The New York Knicks

The Knicks have a long offseason ahead of them, but here’s how they can turn the ship around, writes Benny Nadeau.

Benny Nadeau

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The New York Knicks are in trouble.

Following a disappointing 32-50 season in 2015-2016, the Knicks entered free agency with a plan to put talented, capable players around Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. The Knicks then signed Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee, and traded for Derrick Rose. Their new point guard made waves with a single quote:

“I mean, with these teams right now, they’re saying us and Golden State are the super teams.”

Just a few months later, the franchise — headed by president Phil Jackson— may have buyer’s remorse. Today, the Knicks are just 27-41 and falling out of playoff contention with every passing day — so where have they gone wrong?

The Knicks are in the unenviable position of a franchise that desperately needs a complete rebuild, but some major obstacles lie in their way. Until the Knicks can hit the reset button, they may toil away in the NBA’s version of purgatory: not good enough to win, but not bad enough to bottom out.

If the Knicks want to get back to their competitive, hard-nosed days, here are some simple steps to follow this spring and summer.

Embrace The Tank, Draft Smart

First things first: The Knicks, who have more or less given up, must finish the season by losing as many of their remaining games as possible. This means handing over the reins to younger players like Chasson Randle, Justin Holiday and Willy Hernangomez, a notion already helped along by the Knicks waiving Brandon Jennings last month. Currently, the Knicks only hold a 6 percent chance to jump into the top three in June’s draft, but with some well-positioned tanking, they could make up ground quickly.

Even if they still end up around No. 7, there are plenty of talented guards the Knicks can take a look at. With Rose’s contract set to expire in the offseason, the Knicks will surely select NC State’s Dennis Smith Jr., Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox or the French international Frank Ntilikina. Now that Porzingis has landed in the trainer’s room with a thigh contusion, the Knicks have a perfect opportunity to pump the breaks and ease into tanking bliss.

While the Knicks will have to deal with no-trade clauses, bloated contracts and an ill-fitting system over the summer, the one thing they can control is how many games they’ll lose now. The impatient Knicks supporters may be vocal, but few will remember a meaningless April win if that’s the difference between a role player and a franchise cornerstone.

Now, about one of their current cornerstones…

Revisit The Carmelo Anthony Problem

Carmelo Anthony has been the Knicks’ franchise player since they traded a bounty for him in 2011 and, yet, the results have been largely underwhelming. The Knicks last made the playoffs in 2013 and since they added Anthony, they’ve only escaped the first round on one occasion. Now 32-years-old, it may be time to move on from the forward and start from scratch, but there’s just one problem with that — Anthony’s no-trade clause.

When Jackson convinced the 10-time All-Star to re-sign with the Knicks in 2014, he gave Anthony one of basketball’s most powerful tools. Along with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James and the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony possesses one of the league’s three outright no-trade clauses and Jackson clearly found it difficult to navigate at the deadline because of it.

While plenty of reports noted Jackson’s “determined” nature to move Anthony, the forward consistently rebuffed those notions all winter:

The power is in Anthony’s hands and, if they don’t move on from each other this summer, the two sides should find a middle ground at the very least. The Knicks’ losing habits are certainly compounded when mixed with a healthy dose of drama both on and off the court, but it would be silly to purposefully feud with the franchise player when he has no intention of leaving.

If Anthony is truly determined to finish out his contract (and perhaps his career) with the Knicks, Jackson needs to get past the subtweeting and subliminal efforts to drive his star out of the city.

Move On From Derrick Rose

In time, perhaps the Knicks will regret holding out for more assets in the rumored Ricky Rubio-Derrick Rose swap that was reported near the trade deadline. Rose hasn’t been shy about his attempts to garner another max contract this summer as an unrestricted free agent either. Despite the unlikelihood of Rose commanding a deal like that at this point in his career, the Knicks would do well not to get sucked back in.

While Rose has had a better season than most expected, signing the 28-year-old to a massive deal when the roster is already saturated with them would be a misstep. To his credit, Rose has averaged 17.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists over 59 games with the Knicks, but they must not attempt to rebuild and contend at the same time. Although the Knicks may feel obligated to chase Rose after giving up some solid assets for him, it’d be most wise to just cut their losses. If the Knicks end up drafting a stud point guard, there will be little reason to bring back Rose anyways.

Is Jeff Hornacek The Knicks’ Long-Term Solution?

Billed as a coach who could implement and run Jackson’s much-adored triangle offense, Jeff Hornacek was supposed to wrangle the great individual talents of Anthony, Porzingis, Rose, Jennings and Lee into an efficient attack. While this season hasn’t been a catastrophic disaster, if the Knicks blow things up this summer, they’ll need to take a long look at the coach as well.

Yesterday, Hornacek reiterated that the triangle was the Knicks’ offense of choice now and for the future, despite the fact that much of the team hates running it. While it could be simple posturing for his job on Hornacek’s part, Jackson must consider the long-term implications of forcing the team into the triangle.

To ESPN’s Ian Begley, Hornacek chimed in on the offense’s potential draw in free agency:

“There might be players that think [the triangle offense is a deterrent], but there are also probably players out there that say ‘Oh man, I’d like to run something like that,’” Hornacek said. “It’s still an offense where guys, if they’re knowledgeable about the game, should like.”

Of course, there’s something to be said about consistency, and firing their second head coach in as many years would just add to the Knicks’ infamous lore. In the end, their decision here should cater to Porzingis, who reportedly enjoys the triangle, so it may just be a moot point.

Good luck convincing any free agents of that, though.

Joakim Noah’s Mammoth Contract

When the Knicks decided to give Joakim Noah $72 million over four years, the move was almost universally panned. Even if the former defensive stalwart kept it together for an entire season, relying on Noah, who will be 35 years old when the contract expires, to lead the defense is risky at best. Worse, before Noah went down with season-ending knee surgery in February, his albatross contract was nearly unmovable already. To top it all off, the Knicks don’t even have a team option built into the contract down the road.

Within reason, the Knicks should do whatever they can to get Noah off the books, particularly so if Rose is on his way out as well. Combine his contract with a future first-rounder and Kyle O’Quinn, a serviceable, athletic backup, and the Knicks might be to sneak out from under Noah. This is easier said than done, but if the Knicks want to kickstart this rebuild, they must start with some of the roster’s deadweight.

Target Low-Cost, High-Reward Free Agents

If the Noah and Lee contracts have taught the Knicks anything, they’ll stop chasing the easy fix and focus on the future. This, unfortunately for Dolan, means that the Knicks need to stay away from high-profile free agents like George Hill, Kyle Lowry and Jrue Holiday, three point guards that’ll demand top dollar this summer. On the surface, grabbing a player like Hill to set up Anthony and Porzingis sounds good in theory, but the Knicks have been down this road before.

Additionally, the Knicks would be wise not to make the same mistakes their cross-river rivals have made in recent years. The Brooklyn Nets once responded to the Knicks’ acquisition of Anthony by dealing for Deron Williams to make a splash for their big move to New York. Under the unrelenting pressure of owner Mikhail Prokhorov, general manager Billy King pushed his chips to the middle and dealt a treasure trove of assets for the (diminishing) talents of Gerald Wallace, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Today, the Nets are barely keeping their head afloat and must convey the likely No. 1 overall pick to their bitter rivals in Boston.

So, even if things look dismal, the Knicks need to look no further than the Nets to see their future should they get too hasty. Chasing two of the Chicago Bulls’ restricted free agents, Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio, would be a solid strategy for the Knicks come July. Mirotic, who has fallen out of head coach Fred Hoiberg’s rotation, is a burly, court-stretching forward that shot 39 percent from three-point range in 2015-2016, and could offer some nice interplay in a smaller front court with Porzingis. On the other hand, Felicio is an underutilized 24-year-old center that could do well with a change of scenery, averaging a solid 11.3 points and 11.1 rebounds per 36 minutes.

Other intriguing options could include the Miami HEAT’s James Johnson and Willie Reed (player option), the Milwaukee Bucks’ Terrence Jones, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Andre Roberson (restricted) and the Phoenix Suns’ emerging Alan Williams (restricted).

Bonus: Fix The Charles Oakley Situation

For a team that’s been consistently disappointing over the last 20 years, it’s difficult to watch the Knicks hurt their relationship with one of the franchise icons. After ejecting Charles Oakley from the arena in February, owner James Dolan went to war with one of the Knicks’ fan-favorites from the 90s. While this has little to do with the on-court product, the Knicks’ historic brand has taken quite the hit and it’s time to make good.

What free agent would want to sign with a franchise that’ll ultimately turn their backs on them? The Madison Square Garden ban has been lifted for Oakley, but the retired center certainly still feels the relationship’s strain. At this point, it would be best for the Knicks and Dolan to bury the hatchet and start treating a beloved former player with the praise he deserves. Without an overhaul of the situation, the Knicks may just find the free agent well running a little dry this summer.

While most of these issues start and end with the front office, the dominoes will only fall once the Anthony situation is definitively answered again. Should he stay, the Knicks will be stuck with a superstar on a team that desperately needs to clean house outside of their budding Latvian sophomore. If he doesn’t, the Knicks have a handful of potential paths that’ll take them closer to respectability once more — but which road will they choose?

Benny Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA AM: Was Watson Setup To Fail or Just Ill Equipped?

Was Phoenix’s Earl Watson setup to fail or did he just not have the tools and experience to overcome the tenuous job of a rebuild?

Steve Kyler

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Set Up To Fail? Maybe

The Phoenix Suns have parted ways with head coach Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season. Associate head coach Jay Triano is expected to be his replacement as interim head coach.

Some have suggested that Watson was set up to fail, but let’s be honest for a minute. Was Watson really the best option the Suns had after parting ways with Jeff Hornacek during the 2015-16 season? Watson was well liked and that an easy and intoxicating concept, but even as an interim coach Watson won just nine games in 33 tries.

It’s not as if Watson took the team in a totally new direction; the Suns were a bad team when they took the gamble on Watson. Moving the needle wasn’t exactly likely when the massive inexperienced Watson took over the team. Is anyone really surprised he couldn’t make it work?

Sure, the roster and the priorities of the franchise were an uphill climb, but let’s be real for a minute: The Suns couldn’t have expected Watson to have the tools to bring it all together. Rebuilding is hard all by itself, and doing so with a head coach that has never coached isn’t exactly smart. In fact, it rarely works out.

It’s easy to say Watson was set up to fail, but equally easy to say he never had the experience to believe he’d be successful. It was a gamble on the Suns’ part, a gamble that ran its course.

So What Next?

The Suns are not very good, as three straight blow out losses have proven. It’s possible that Triano can make enough changes to at least get the Suns to compete, but the word in NBA circles was the Suns locker room had basically quit after three games, so Triano’s task may be tough for even a coach that been around the block a few times.

Like Watson, Triano is incredibly likable and approachable, but unlike Watson, Triano has experience. Triano has experience not only as a head coach, having coached the Toronto Raptors for three years, but he is the head coach of the Canadian National Team and has been on the Team USA and Portland Trail Blazers staff as an assistant. While Triano’s stint in Toronto looked a lot like Watson’s stint in Phoenix, the big difference is Triano has been around a lot more situations and may be better equipped to put a system and structure in place that could yield improvement, or at least that’s the newest bet the Suns are making.

With Triano at the helm, it’s also likely that the front office will have a better relationship than what’s emerged in Watson’s time in Phoenix. General Manager Ryan McDonough and Watson haven’t exactly been on the same page, and Watson had grown emboldened enough to make it clear in the media somethings were not in his control, often taken subtle shots at decisions made by the front office.

It is rare for inexperience and dysfunction to yield success. The hope is Triano will smooth some of that over.

“I Dont wanna be here.”

As news of Watson’s firing began to leak Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who had a very good relationship with Watson, took to Twitter to announce “I Dont wanna be here.”

Bledsoe has been a constant name in NBA trade circles for the last few years, and with Watson out of the picture, Bledsoe seems to be looking for the door too.

The 27-year-old Bledsoe has two more seasons remaining on his deal, $14.5 million this season and $15 million owed for next season. The Suns have listened to offers on Bledsoe off and on for some time, with many in NBA circles believing this would be the season the Suns would finally trade him.

With Watson, a long-time champion of Bledsoe, out of the picture, there is a belief that Bledsoe’s role is going to decrease, which is likely why Bledsoe took to Twitter.

Pulling off a trade three games into the season seems highly unlikely, especially given that Bledsoe has likely killed his own trade value. There have been several teams over the last two seasons with interest in Bledsoe; the question is, will the Suns close this chapter or try and see if Bledsoe can help them right the ship under Triano and rebuild some trade value when the trade market opens up in December?

$41.11 Million

Of the Phoenix Suns’ $85.448 million in guaranteed contracts, $41.11 million belongs to Bledsoe, injured guard Brandon Knight and center Tyson Chandler. You can toss $10 million more for injured forward Jared Dudley. While Bledsoe and Chandler have played in all three regular-season games, both are not part of the long-term future of the team.

The question becomes, what role will they play under Triano?

The Suns are truly a tale of two teams. There is the old veteran squad that is clogging up the top of the Suns salary cap chart, and there are rookie scale players that are the future, and not coincidentally the players performing at their worst so far this season.

Will the Suns just let the $41.11 million owed at the top just sit, or will the Suns try and fire-sale some of those veterans? The belief is they would like to do the latter.

As much as people may want to say Watson was set up to fail, the evidence in the situation is he was never proven enough to succeed.

The Suns are in a dreadful no-man’s land of bad contracts and underperforming players. Maybe a more proven established coach could have set this situation in a better direction, but the reality is Watson was never experienced enough to handle a rebuild like this because getting the most out of players while losing is a very tough job even for the most experienced of coaches.

Watson, like many before him, will find another job in the NBA. Maybe like Triano who is replacing him, he can take the lessons learned in Phoenix and become a better coach somewhere down the road and get a shot with a team that wouldn’t require as much as the Suns desperately need.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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