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Phil Jackson and the Knicks Part Ways

Tommy Beer analyzes Phil Jackson’s departure as President of the New York Knicks.

Tommy Beer

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Three years ago, Phil Jackson was hired to run the Knicks and heralded as a savior.

For owner James Dolan, bringing in Jackson was largely an act of self-preservation. After years of dysfunction, losing and an utter lack of hope, many Knicks fans were nearing a breaking point. Some were organizing protests aimed at forcing Dolan to sell the team. Fans were storming the gates, and the mere presence of Phil Jackson de-escalated the situation and soothed the maddened masses.

It was a worthwhile gamble by Dolan. However, the relationship between Jackson, the team and the city got off to a rocky start and never truly stabilized. By the end, the organization was once again enveloped by the all-too-familiar combination of chaos and confusion. Jackson had alienated his two most important players, Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. Knicks fans were once again in full-fledged panic mode. An untenable situation had reached the point of no return. On Wednesday afternoon, the team announced that Jackson and the Knicks had “mutually agreed to part company.”

Expect Jackson to get pounded by pundits and New York City tabloids over the next few days. He made some trades that ended up backfiring and a very costly mistake in free agency. The Knicks finished with an 80-166 record during his three years at the helm, and that bottom line will be attached to him when we look back at his time in New York.

However, before we judge his tenure as an abject failure, it’s important to look at the big picture. The reality is that Jackson, unlike many of his previous predecessors in New York, did not leave the cupboard bare. For starters, Phil deserves credit for refusing to unnecessarily part with picks. The Knicks currently own all of their future first round selections. This is big news, and a rarity in New York. Last week, the Knicks made a pick in both the first and second rounds of the same draft for the first time since 2005!

As far as future cap space is concerned, the team is in fine shape. Yes, the Joakim Noah contract is an absolute albatross, but that’s the only bad contract on the books. Other than Noah (and Melo’s player option), there are only three other players on the roster with guaranteed contracts that extend beyond next season. Courtney Lee is locked in at approximately $12 million annually through 2020, which is below market value. Lance Thomas has two guaranteed years and $13.7 million left on his deal, which is palatable. Lastly, Willy Hernangomez, who made the All-Rookie team during his debut campaign in NYC, is locked into an incredible contract. Amazingly, Willy will make just $1.4 million next season, $1.5 million in 2018-19 and $1.7 million in 2019-20. That qualifies as one of the NBA’s best values.

If the Knicks can somehow find a way to move Melo, or if Anthony opts out next summer, New York would be looking at well north of $30 million in cap space to lavish on free agents in July of 2018.

Furthermore, Phil made his most important decision as president of the Knicks on June 25th, 2015, selecting Kristaps Porzingis fourth overall in the 2015 draft. The Knicks desperately needed to hit a home run, and Phil slugged a grand slam. In that same draft, New York also snagged Hernangomez in the second round, via a trade with Philadelphia. Hernangomez wouldn’t debut until the 2016-17 season, but the early returns on him have been positive. We’ll see how the selection of this year’s first-round pick, Frank Ntilikina, looks a few years down the road.

However, Phil’s work on the margins of the roster was unsuccessful. And although he finally committed to a rebuild, he arrived at that logical conclusion a year too late, after he had already handed Noah $72 million.

Worse yet, Jackson allowed his ego, arrogance and unyielding commitment to the Triangle Offense to sabotage any hope of prosperity. Phil experienced his greatest success at a time when star players could be bullied, and analytics could be ignored. He was either unable or unwilling to adapt to the changing landscape of today’s NBA. Players around the league came to view New York as a toxic environment that should be avoided at all costs. Phil’s public handling of the Carmelo Anthony situation was deplorable, and his escalating and unnecessary feud with Porzingis was an unforgivable sin in the eyes of many Knicks fans.

Thus, the decision to part ways may have come in the “knick” of time. New York’s future is tied directly to that of Porzingis. He is the foundation upon which this revamped organization will be built. The odds of Porzingis eventually signing a long-term extension in New York is far greater today than it was yesterday, and that alone should have made Dolan’s decision an easy one. As an added bonus, we’ll get to see what kind of player KP can develop into playing within the constructs of a modern offense that can focus on accentuating his unique skillset.

Now that the team has stripped away the recent sound and fury stirred up by Jackson, the organization can focus on the building blocks of the future. They have three promising young players, all their future first-round picks and cap space flexibility going forward.

Still, the Knicks obviously have a long way to go before they are even respectable, let alone competitive. The next, crucial step in the process is hiring a competent executive to oversee the rebuild. During his reign in New York, Dolan has hired numerous GM’s and presidents, from famous former players to anonymous number-crunchers. Eventually, they all left in disappointing fashion. The common denominators in New York since the turn of the century has been dysfunction and defeats. As a result, pessimism amongst New Yorkers is expected, and understandable.

Encouragingly, Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical is reporting that Dolan is targeting Toronto’s Masai Ujiri to replace Jackson. This would be an enormous coup for the Knicks. If they can land Ujiri and allow him to run the show, it’s nearly impossible to overstate how important that would be for the long-term health of the franchise. The Knicks have not handed a respected, qualified executive the reigns and left him in charge of all day-to-day operations since the 1990’s, which coincides with the last time the team was successful. If Ujiri can’t be pried away from Toronto, former Cavs GM David Griffin would be an attractive candidate as well.

Due to the circus they’ve become, the Knicks are not an easy sell. However, Dolan may be able to make a compelling case. To begin with, Dolan can take credit for not meddling in basketball decisions during Jackson’s tenure, just as Dolan had promised when he hired Phil. Dolan had developed a reputation for nudging his way into trade negotiations in the past, but stayed true to his word and gave Phil and his staff complete autonomy.

Secondly, Dolan should emphasize the fact that expectations in New York City will never be lower. For instance, Raptors fans ended the season disappointed that their team ONLY made it to the second round of the playoffs. Knicks fans would build of statue of Masai Ujiri outside of the Garden if he built a Knicks team that won 107 games and three playoff series over a two-year span. (The Knicks have won a total of one playoff series since 2000 and have won more than 50 games in a season just once over that same timespan.) In addition, Ujiri must recognize that the path to title contention over the next few years is blocked by the Warriors and Cavs. There would be no pressure to compete with super teams while smartly and methodically rebuilding in New York.

The last aspect of Dolan’s sales pitch would center around salary. Jackson was the league’s highest-paid executive, at $12 million per season. It’s safe to assume Dolan would be willing to offer Ujiri riches unavailable anywhere else. Despite the constant losing, the Knicks have continued to be an absolute money machine for the Dolan family. Forbes recently ranked the Knicks the seventh-most valuable sports franchise in the world, just behind Manchester United and the New England Patriots. Forbes valued the Knicks at a cool $3 billion.

So, yes, the Knicks have their work cut out for them, but Phil is now in the rear-view mirror and there is reason to believe that future may be a bit brighter than the past.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA Sunday: Raptors Aren’t Extinct Just Yet

The Celtics should be a concern to the Cavaliers, but the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Moke Hamilton

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The Toronto Raptors aren’t extinct—not yet, anyway.

With the whirlwind of movement that dominates the headlines this past NBA offseason and the growth of several young players, we’ve spent far more time discussing the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks than the team from up North.

We’ve asked ourselves whether LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers can win the Eastern Conference for a fourth consecutive year and whether or not the Washington Wizards are finally ready to give some credible resistance. Some of us have even gone as far as to predict that, in the ultimate irony, Kyrie Irving will lead the Celtics to the conference crown this season.

And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the storylines from out West.

All the while, quietly and meticulously, Dwane Casey and his Raptors have stalked, and you peer at the standings and realize that they enter play on November 19 at 10-5, tied with the Pistons for the second-best record in the conference.

What has made the Raptors thriving especially improbable is the fact that they’ve done it despite missing a few key contributors for a game or two. To this point, they have ranked respectably both in points allowed per game (102.6) and points allowed per 100 possessions (107.8). Those metrics rank them eighth and 11th, respectively.

So, where exactly do the Raptors fit in the grand scheme of things?

It seems like a question we’ve been asking for a few years now.

* * * * * *

Having qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years, Dwane Casey’s team has won three playoff series over the course of that duration, but haven’t exactly found timely and efficient play from their two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

Now, as the Eastern Conference begins to feature younger players with appreciable upside—Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown to name a few—it’s totally fair to wonder where the Raptors fit in. It’s also fair, believe it or not, to wonder whether they’ll be able to provide as much resistance to the Cavaliers as the Celtics.

In effect, the Raptors have become a modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Hawks prior to the 2005-06 season, Johnson led the revival of the franchise. They would end up qualifying for the playoffs five consecutive years, but never advanced past the second round. A similar story can be told of Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.

The point is, however, that over the years, the Raptors have developed an identity and are a team whose hallmarks have come to be toughness and ball-sharing—two characteristics that most coaches would love to embody their team. While we’ve been paying close attention to the things that are brand new and exciting, the Raptors are the same old crew that they have been. And for a team like that, the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks will continue to be the gold standard.

The Mavericks notably rebuilt and tore down several incarnations of their team around Dirk Nowitzki until the team was finally able to surround Nowitzki with the right complement of players to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.

Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it, the Cavaliers are vulnerable.

Entering play on November 19, LeBron James leads the league in both total minutes played (617) and minutes played per game (38.6). Of the players who will comprise James’ supporting rotation in the playoffs, the majority of them are players whose impact will be mostly felt on one side of the floor: offense. To this point, the Cavs have 10 different players averaging 20 minutes played per game—an incredibly high number. More than anything else, that’s a result of Tyron Lue playing with his rotations to figure out which units work best, while also taking into account that the team has been playing without both Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose for long stretches.

Still, of those rotation players—James, Rose, Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green—the simple truth is that it is only James who has performed like a true two-way player.

It’s a troubling trend upon which the Raptors—and other teams in the conference—could capitalize.

The best two words to describe the Cavaliers to this point in the season are “old” and “slow,” and that’s simply a fact. The club still ranks dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions and 28th in the league in points allowed per game.

In short, the Cavaliers, at least to this point, have certainly appeared to be vulnerable. It is those same Cavaliers that have ended the Raptors season each of the past two years.

You know what they say about third times—they’re often the charm.

* * * * * *

There’s obviously a long way to go, and any chance that Toronto would have to get past the Cavs rests in the ability of Lowry and DeRozan to find some consistency in the playoffs. Still, as the complementary pieces around them have slowly improved, we have spent the early goings of the season fawning over the brand news teams and storylines in the conference and have paid no attention to the old guard.

And depending on how the brackets play out, any Cavaliers foray in the conference finals might have to go through the familiar road of Toronto.

If that happens to be the case—if the Cavs do have to square off against their familiar foe—they’re ripe for the picking.

Just as they have been over the past few years, the Duane Casey’s team will be there waiting for their opportunity.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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