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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 Daily: Can the Milwaukee Bucks be Real Contenders?

Do the Bucks now have the talent and coaching to legitimately contend for this year’s championship?

Shane Rhodes

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The Milwaukee Bucks weren’t very good in 2017.

While they had one of the best players in the world, Giannis Antetokounmpo, on the court at almost all times, they struggled to win games under then Head Coach Jason Kidd. While things improved with the transition to Joel Prunty, Milwaukee and its underperforming roster ultimately fell to the Boston Celtics, sans their two best players, in the first round of the postseason.

But with Mike Budenholzer, one-time Coach of the Year award winner and former head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, in the fold along with some new personnel, are the Bucks good enough to challenge the top teams in the NBA?

If their 2018 debut is anything to go by, the NBA needs to be on alert.

On the road against the Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee looked completely dominant at times with the Greek Freak leading the charge in a 113-112 win. Antetokounmpo was his usual dominant self and finished the game with 25 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists.

The most important take away from their season debut, however, has nothing to do with Antetokounmpo. It’s the fact that he got a sizeable amount of help from his supporting cast.

The Bucks often looked like a one-man show last season, with Antetokounmpo doing his thing while the rest of the team failed to pull their collective weight. They often looked slow and were worse than average, defensively; Milwaukee was just 20th in pace-of-play and 18th in defensive rating last season. And, amidst the NBA’s three-point revolution, the Bucks ranked just 25th in three-point attempts and 22nd in three-point percentage.

In a nutshell, the Bucks system wasn’t an ideal workspace for its star player. Antetokounmpo, who isn’t a great long-range shooter himself, needs all the spacing he can get in order to be the best version of himself. And that is why the 2018 version of the Bucks could be so dangerous.

Going back to the 2013-14 regular season, Budenholzer’s first as the Hawks head coach, here is how Atlanta ranked compared to the rest of the league in three-point attempts: 2nd, 7th, 7th, 16th, 7th. Budenholzer has instilled that same three-point happy offensive system in Milwaukee. Not only have they played faster, but they are shooting more; the Bucks attempted 34 shots from beyond the arc, 10 more than they averaged per game last season.

More importantly, the Bucks have the players to take advantage of that system and clear the interior as much as possible for the multipositional and uber-athletic Antetokounmpo.

Khris Middleton, the often underrated two-way wing, is a career 39.2 percent three-point shooter. Eric Bledsoe, who struggled at times last season, has been solid from behind the arc for his career as well. Free agent additions Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, two big men who have steered into the three-point evolution of the NBA, have both shot 34 percent or better from three-point range over the last two seasons. Even rookie Donte DiVincenzo, who went two-for-four from three-point range against Charlotte, was a long distance specialist at Villanova and shot 37.8 percent from three during his three years with the school. The roster is loaded with more shooters than ever and they are being put in a position to shoot the long-ball, thanks to the gravity that Antetokounmpo has on the floor and Budenholzer’s system.

Now, as with almost everything, there could be some complications.

While shooting more shots per game could equate to more makes and, therefore, more points, it could, by the same logic, yield more missed shots as well. The Bucks aren’t a strong defensive team, nor have they been for the last four seasons or so, and those extra possessions for the opposition could kill the Bucks in the final stretch of games. Likewise, playing quickly can lead to more turnovers, creating further opportunities for opponents and hurting Milwaukee even further.

But, for now, the benefits seem to outeight the risks, and Antetokounmpo can cover up a lot of mistakes with the talent he possesses.

One game may seem like a small sample size to go on, but, if the Bucks can limit their offensive mishaps and defensive blunders, they have the chance to be a legitimate threat to win the Eastern Conference crown and, perhaps, the NBA title.

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NBA Daily: Kings Starters Show Promise Despite Loss

The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Spencer Davies

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The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Yes, a 25-9 lead was squandered and the game was lost to the Utah Jazz. Marvin Bagley III confusingly played fewer minutes than 14 of his fellow rookies in his NBA debut. They also forced more miscues than they committed, yet were still outscored 24-13 in points off of turnovers.

All of that makes it seem like Wednesday was the start to a long, frustrating season for the Kings, but don’t be so quick to judge. There was a ton of good to come out of the team’s season opener at the Golden 1 Center.

First off, what a night for Willie Cauley-Stein it was. He had the unenviable task of going head-to-head with Rudy Gobert, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to begin the fourth season of his career. We know that the 25-year-old isn’t necessarily a go-to scoring option, however, you wouldn’t have figured that to be the case if you watched the game.

Finishing with the third-most attempts for Sacramento, Cauley-Stein wasted no time and went right at Gobert when he touched the ball. Not once did he hesitate to put it on the floor, showing an improved, tighter handle on drives to the basket. Likely coming from film study, the 7-foot, 240-pound center excelled at using his body to get his shots up and over the “Stifle Tower” with great timing.

Cauley-Stein was determined to attack the paint all game long and showed no fear. He scored 19 of his 23 points with Gobert on the floor, including a thunderous alley-oop slam over the Frenchman following a screen-and-roll. To put the significance of this in perspective, his eight field goal makes are more than he’s had in each of the previous three seasons with Utah’s big man on the floor.

The Kings’ starters, in general, were especially solid, as all five players scored in double figures and had their squad’s best plus-minus ratings.

De’Aaron Fox swiped three steals, showed his playmaking skills and shared the love with his teammates, recording seven assists in addition to his 21 points. A candidate for a breakout year, Buddy Hield looked like the most comfortable player on the floor despite some lazy passes early, knocking down his signature off the dribble, mid-range fadeaways with ease.

Nemanja Bjelica used the threat of his outside shot to make his way to the basket for better looks and poured in 18 points. Starting at the wing, Yogi Ferrell held his own defensively against Donovan Mitchell and added a couple of threes to the mix as well.

Sacramento gave a double-digit led game away, but the players never gave in. During the fourth quarter, they got stops but just couldn’t seem to take advantage on the other side. It was the recurring theme of the night. The chances were there in transition. Now, they’ve got to work on completing those sequences and turning them into points.

Kings head coach Dave Joerger played essentially a nine-man rotation and got little out of his bench players. Justin Jackson struggled at the four spot and carved out 30 minutes of playing time in spite of it. Other than that, though, everybody in the second unit was on the floor for less than 17 minutes. It’s likely because of how well the starters performed, but they’ll need more out of those guys eventually.

There’s already a topic of discussion on the front of development vs. wins in Sacramento. Joerger’s addressed the matter with Bagley after the game and said it’s going to be hard to allocate minutes for a roster heavy with big men.

The counter-argument to that is simple—he’s the second overall pick of the draft. You have to find time for him, period. There should be no excuse not to regardless of who’s on the team. Don’t forget about Bagley being so talented that he re-classified to play with an age group above his own and still dominated as the ACC Player of the Year at Duke. He was a true freshman!

Aside from that whole debate, the Kings did not roll over and quit when they blew a 16-point lead and trailed by 14 soon after. In a game of runs, their young group hung in there and battled until the clock hit zero. Keep in mind this is a ballclub short of last year’s starting shooting guard still, too.

There may not be a whole lot of winning to come by in Sacramento—what with competing in the Pacific Division and Western Conference—but the season could be easier on the eyes if this is the type of effort they’re going to give on a nightly basis. Of course, we’ve got to be careful here since it’s only one game.

Even so, consider this writer in on “Kings SZN.”

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NBA Daily: Offseason Acquisitions Making An Early Impact

Basketball Insiders takes a look at five players on new teams who had a big impact in their respective season openers.

Drew Maresca

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Starting a new job is hard: new co-workers, new processes, new expectations, etc. Most of us have done it, and we can attest that it’s challenging on both a personal and professional level. It’s no different in the NBA. Sure, there is greater familiarity amongst players than for, say, a software engineer jumping from Facebook to Google, but the stakes are also higher. Most people are cut some slack initially due to a lack of familiarity, but not in the NBA. Players are expected to hit the ground running, and are judged harshly for getting off to slow starts. 

Even still, some players are simply so skilled that their impact is immediately obvious. With that being said, let’s analyze the top five debuts of players who changed teams this past offseason. 

  1. Kawhi Leonard — His post-game comments may have been understated Wednesday night, but his on-court performance was not. Leonard received an incredible amount of support from the Raptors crowd, and he did not disappoint. He posted 24 points and 12 rebounds and was +13 for the game. His offensive arsenal was on full display; he demonstrated his athleticism on dunks, his shooting prowess and range and his willingness to do some dirty work on the glass. No surprises here, but it is encouraging that he came back from the quad injury and looked mostly unchanged. Bonus points to Kyle Lowry for going the extra mile to get Leonard the ball (e.g., passing on an easy transition layup to feed Leonard). 
  1. DeMar DeRozan — While Kawhi did his normal thing, DeRozan may have had his foot on the gas a bit more — or maybe his performance was more a result of greater necessity. Either way, DeRozan delivered. He scored 28 points on 7 for 11 shooting, with four rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes. Similar to Leonard, no one should be surprised by DeRozan’s debut, especially given how upset he was initially with the trade. It’s even less surprising when you consider that he transitioned to playing for Coach Gregg Popovich, whose system is tried and true. If he keeps this up and all goes well for San Antonio, it could re-ignite questions about the Leonard-Popovich-Spurs snafu that resulted in the trade in the first place. 
  1. New New Orleans Pelicans (Julius Rande and Elfrid Payton – tie) — While Anthony Davis continues to be the main story line for the Pelicans, both free agents signings made their mark in the team’s season opener. Payton did so by posting a triple double in his first outing, demonstrating the versatility and promise that led the Pelicans to sign him in the first place; he notched 10 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in route to an impressive +23. Randle’s performance was probably a bit flashier, but maybe less impactful on the whole. Nevertheless, Randle proved his worth in his first game with the team, finishing with an impressive 25 points on an efficient 9 for 15. He also chipped in eight rebounds and showed his versatility, leading fast breaks and dishing three assists. Concerns over the Pelicans may have been a bit overblown — but that might have more to do with Davis’ impact than the supporting cast. Time will tell.
  1. Brook Lopez — How did the perception of a former top-tier center slip so far so quickly? Just 17 months ago, Lopez was wrapping up another typical Brook Lopez-esque season: 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game. Sure, the league has passed by centers who can’t extend the defense and switch onto guards in the pick and roll, but Lopez introduced an effective three-point shot in 2016-17, shooting .34.6 percent from deep. And yet, one year on the Lakers bench was all it took for the league to begin to overlook and/or underrate Lopez. That was a mistake. Lopez seems to be the same player he’s always been. He’s no longer a go-to option, so his scoring will likely be down from his 17.8 points per game career average; but he will contribute on offense and block some shots on defense. In his first game with the Bucks — with whom he signed for the bargain salary of $3.4 million — he scored 14 points and grabbed three rebounds in 21 minutes of action. Lopez should continue to aid the already talented Bucks. Can he push them deeper into the playoff? If he does, he would likely secure himself one more pay day.
  2. Dennis Shroder — Shroder’s performance may have been inflated by the absence of Russell Westbrook. Correction — Shroder’s performance was definitely inflated by the absence of Westbook. But he demonstrated his value all the same. Oddly, the Hawks decided they wanted to part ways with the 25 year old point guard. Their loss. He notched 21 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists in 34 minutes of action. And it will get easier for him considering the Thunder opened against Steph Curry and the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Shroder gives the Thunder a third playmaker — exactly what they were lacking in last year’s playoffs against the Jazz, and exactly what they hoped Melo could be.

One thing all the guys on this list have in common (beyond being above average players) is their willingness to take on a challenge. Nothing in sports — or life — is guaranteed. But we will have a clearer picture if their respective changes of scenery were made for better or worse. If they were done successfully, they can shift the balance of power in the league, and rework the competitive balance to a pretty crazy extent.

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