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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: Poeltl Looking Forward To New Beginning With Spurs

Spencer Davies looks at the under-the-radar portion of the DeMar DeRozan-Kawhi Leonard trade and how Jakob Poeltl is already embracing the change.

Spencer Davies

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One month ago, a superstar-swapping trade between the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs was agreed upon.

The deal—which once again sparked a national debate about player loyalty—sent a reportedly disgruntled Kawhi Leonard to The North in exchange for Masai Ujiri’s franchise cornerstone, DeMar DeRozan.

Longtime Spur and veteran sharpshooter Danny Green was also moved to Toronto, while San Antonio acquired a protected future first-round draft pick and 22-year-old big man Jakob Poeltl.

Remember, Poeltl was an integral piece of a talented Raptor bench that produced a better net rating than their starters, as well as nearly all five-man groups in the league.

While the majority of pundits have gone back and forth about who won the trade, few have mentioned the ninth overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft. Being involved in the transaction admittedly caught Poeltl “a little bit off guard.”

But entering his third year as a pro, the seven-foot Austrian is embracing the change and a brand new start with one of the most well-respected organizations in sports.

“That’s one of the things I’m most excited about, just the fact that this program has such a big history in developing players,” Poeltl told reporters in his first media appearance since the move. “I’m really excited for the process. Gonna be a lot of work, but I’m looking forward to it.”

From what he has heard from players who have been a part of the Spurs in the past and those who are currently there, it’s an unselfish group of people. They consider it a family environment.

“Everybody is just in it together,” Poeltl said. “From the very top to the very last guy on the bench or in the gym. It’s really like a great atmosphere, at least from what I’ve heard. So I’m looking forward to actually experiencing it myself.”

As soon as Poeltl got to San Antonio, he gazed at the championship banners hanging inside of the gym and quickly realized the expectations he’ll have to fulfill this season are a little higher than where he came from.

“It’s crazy, it’s different,” Poeltl said. “Obviously in Toronto, we didn’t have banners like that. Like we’re on a good way there, but this program here has some tradition to it. Over the last 20 years been a great basketball team. Obviously, you can tell by the championships and all the accomplishments.

“It’s a little bit of pressure, too. Like we’re trying to live up to that. There’s obviously a very high standard here, so we’ve gotta come in and put the work in and really show what we’ve got on the court as a team.”

Poeltl hasn’t wasted any time in immersing himself into the culture. In fact, he’s been working out at their practice facility since he arrived and feels like there’s a “natural chemistry” already with his new teammates.

In the weight room, Poeltl came across the forever face of the Spurs and future Hall-of-Fame forward, Tim Duncan. The conversation between them was short, sweet and casual. Basketball wasn’t brought up, as that will likely be saved for another time when the season approaches.

Duncan still sticks around and helps in practices from time-to-time, but he won’t be there every day. Somebody else who will be, however, is Pau Gasol, a fellow international center that Poeltl looks forward to learning from.

Though those two will be able to give veteran advice and priceless pointers, Poeltl’s most crucial teachings will come from the Spurs lead general—Gregg Popovich. Like with Duncan, on-court discussions were not the focus of their first interaction.

“We went to dinner,” Poeltl said. “We didn’t really talk too much basketball. It was more just like trying to get to know each other, like a first impression. I think there’s more than enough time for us to talk basketball and really learn what the Spurs are all about on the basketball court.

“But it was a really good conversation. Like I really enjoyed it. He’s a very down-to-earth type guy for if you think about what he’s accomplished in his career. He’s really cool.”

Once training camp comes and the dialogue does take a turn towards the hardwood, Poeltl will be all ears. As it stands now, Poeltl’s niche is the hustle guy. He picks up the scraps, corrals offensive rebounds and dives after loose balls, but don’t pigeonhole “role player” to his name. He plans on doing more in San Antonio.

“I take a lot of pride in that,” Poeltl said. “I think I do a lot of the little things out there—set good screens, be in the right places, making good reads off of my teammates and making plays for my teammates at the same time. Obviously like for me, that’s my role right now and I’m really enjoying that.

“I’m working on my game every single day in practice and I’m trying to develop more offensively and defensively so I can take on more responsibilities in the future.”

Moving on from the team that drafted you to another can be difficult. Luckily, Poeltl isn’t coming alone.

“Obviously it helps to have a familiar face like a guy that I’ve played with over the last three years,” Poeltl said of DeRozan. “Like I know how he plays basketball, he knows me. I think we play well together.”

In the two years they have played together, Poeltl has noticed DeRozan fine-tune his game. Although he is first and foremost a pure scorer, his all-around offense is getting better.

DeRozan’s reads on the opposition are crisper, as are the adjustments he makes due to that. He understands when to take games over and has involved his teammates more and more with each season.

It’s no surprise that the four-time All-Star guard is coming to the Spurs with a statement to make. All he’s done since being drafted is improve and devote himself to his second home in Toronto. He hasn’t uttered one favorable comment towards the front office he feels betrayed him.

Witnessing the kind of player DeRozan is when he’s pushed, Poeltl expects we’ll see a whole other side of him unleashed this year.

“It’s a little bit scary, to be honest,” Poeltl said. “Because I know what he can do when he has a chip on his shoulder, when he gets that extra motivation. I think he’s gonna be ready.”

Poeltl doesn’t have quite that big of a score to settle with the Raptors.

He’s just ready to give his all to an organization in a blue-collar town that matches the kind of work ethic he’s had since he started playing the game.

“That’s kinda how I’ve been for my whole basketball career,” Poeltl said. “Just get the work done.”

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NBA Daily: Can an Anthony-D’Antoni Marriage Work for Houston?

Shane Rhodes lays out how the Carmelo Anthony-Mike D’Antoni pairing could work this time around in Houston.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official: Carmelo Anthony has joined the Houston Rockets after putting pen to paper on a contract. In doing so, Anthony will join a gifted offensive team helmed by former Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni.

Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.

Back in 2011, when Anthony joined the New York Knicks via a blockbuster trade with the Denver Nuggets, a younger D’Antoni was in the midst of his third year with New York. While he didn’t exactly have a sterling record with the Knicks prior to the acquisition (89-129 before), things improved little upon Anthony’s arrival in the Big Apple (31-38 after). The two butted heads constantly and, after just a year (and an ultimatum forced on the Knicks by Anthony), D’Antoni was out the door; he resigned from his position and pursued work elsewhere.

Now, together once again, questions remain about how their relationship and, ultimately, their offensive styles will mesh in Houston. D’Antoni has already come out and said things will be different this time around, but nothing is so certain in the NBA; what is stopping things from going south as they did for the Knicks, who, despite a bevy of talent, just couldn’t make things work?

It’s important to understand where things went wrong in New York in order to look at where they could go wrong in Houston.

From the jump, the two weren’t exactly the best fit. Anthony wanted to play the way he had his entire career — heavy isolation, high usage basketball — while D’Antoni’s offense was spread out, predicated on ball movement, and closer to what we see in the modern offense.

Those two styles aren’t exactly conducive to the success of one another.

The Knicks finished the season 42-40, going just 13-14 in Anthony’s 27 games with the team. The two continued to be at odds with one another into the next season until, after leading the Knicks to an underwhelming 18-24 start, D’Antoni resigned. While things improved under Mike Woodson in 2012 — Anthony posted the highest usage rate of his career while the Knicks won 52 games — they quickly devolved into disaster and the Knicks, once again, found themselves in a hole that they are still trying to climb out of.

Now, on to Houston. This isn’t the same D’Antoni; he has changed and so has his offense. While ball movement still plays an integral role, D’Antoni has put much more of an emphasis on isolation plays in order to better fit the profile of his current roster.

The Rockets posted historic offensive numbers with James Harden and Chris Paul running the show, but did so unlike D’Antoni teams of the past. Gone are the days of the seven-seconds-or-less offense; the Rockets played at a pace (97.4 possessions per 48 minutes) that was middle of the pack, while their assist total came in at just 26th in the league, third worst among teams that made the postseason last year. Despite that, Houston managed to post the highest offensive rating (114.7) in the league.

While those stylistic changes should aid Anthony as he looks to rebound next season, they alone don’t make this the perfect fit for the Rockets. Anthony will never see the touches that he was once accustomed to in New York or Denver. He isn’t the same player he was five years ago, either; as his athleticism has declined, so too has Anthony’s ability to get past his defenders, leading to tougher, lower percentage shots that could sink the Rockets come the postseason.

The only thing that really holds Anthony back now is his own stubborn ignorance of those facts. He refused to adjust last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder because he still has “so much left in the tank.” Anthony posted some of the worst numbers of his career last season and, while Billy Donovan isn’t the offensive wizard that D’Antoni is, things should only get worse as Harden (36.1 percent usage rate) and Paul (24.5) dominate the ball if Anthony remains unwilling to change.

So, while his words may hold true, Anthony is no longer in a position where he needs to put the team on his back in order for it to be successful. Houston already has a well-established hierarchy, and Anthony is merely a column meant to buttress what is already in place. If he can’t come to accept that, the chance Houston is taking on him could backfire tremendously.

Still, Houston needs someone to eat the minutes vacated by the departure of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency. While he may not be able to match their defensive exploits, Anthony is still more than capable of filling their shoes, or even providing an upgrade, offensively. That potential upgrade alone could make the move a worthwhile one for the Rockets, who came just minutes from dethroning the Golden State Warriors despite the loss of Chris Paul in the Western Conference Finals.

For things to truly work out, however, Anthony must be willing to accept a change in his role, a diminished one in an offense that isn’t hurting for star power or shot takers, but one that desperately needs role players. If Anthony can adapt, he could be exactly what they need to challenge the Warriors. If not, Anthony’s arrival could blow up in D’Antoni’s face just as it did with the Knicks.

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NBA Daily: The NCAA’s Recent Policy Changes are Problematic

The NCAA made unilateral changes to its rules that may look good on paper but more likely make a difficult situation even more complicated.

James Blancarte

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Going into 1995 NBA Draft, the NBA still allowed high school players to enter straight into the NBA but few had actually done so over the years. That year, Kevin Garnett, an extremely talented high school prospect, went straight into the draft from high school and went on to have a Hall of Fame career. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, like Garnett, also went straight to the NBA from high school and each have also had Hall of Fame careers. Many other similarly situated players such as Rashard Lewis, Jermaine O’Neal and Tracy McGrady succeeded on the same path. Yet concerns remained that although there were individual success stories, perhaps it would be best overall to have kids mature a bit more before entering the NBA. Eventually, through collective bargaining, new rules were put in place that prohibited high school players from entering the league.

As time has gone on there has been some frustration with the fact that perhaps these young men, legally adults at 18 years of age, have been unfairly prevented from earning at least one year of significant income as an NBA rookie. There is also frustration, mentioned below, at how the NCAA and college programs have policed themselves (or failed to do so) over the years. There is rampant abuse and under the table dealing that has largely benefitted the people around these young athletes and the schools, while often times harming the players or not benefitting them in any tangible way. The FBI has been conducting an investigation into these practices, which has shed new light and more focus onto the situation. Accordingly, now there is widespread discussion and speculation that the NBA again intends to reverse course and allow players to bypass the collegiate game.

With accusations of impropriety, constant attacks against the amateur model and an ongoing federal investigation, the NCAA took drastic action last Wednesday to counter the negativity around the college game — at least in appearance.

First the good part; players will be allowed to enter the draft and should they be not be chosen, the player may return to school under certain circumstances. Back at his collegiate program, a player can return to a place where he can continue to mature as a basketball player and as a college student. This is a nice option for many players and should have been available years ago.

For NBA teams, they now face the prospect of a first wave of high school seniors going straight to the NBA in addition to the other collegiate and international prospects. If it turns out that these high school prospects are collectively more prepared than expected and demonstrate they can contribute at a high level shortly after entering the league, there could be a sizable shift in how teams value first-round draft picks. Teams are already extremely hesitant to trade first-round picks, which means there would be some additional stagnation in the trade market. There are many complexities to this prospective new system that could have consequences that aren’t even foreseeable at this juncture.

Additionally, while this may be an appealing option for some players who are on the fence about going pro, it may not have as much widespread appeal. Some prospects may not realistically expect to be drafted. Once skipped over, a player is likely to seek compensation in the G-League or by playing international basketball. That’s the rub overall, the college game is sticking to the amateur model and the insistence that players not be compensated beyond the education they receive. Even worse, a player may have declared for the draft knowing that he might be leaving behind academic or conduct violations behind. Should that player attempt to go back, he would have to deal with any situation that joining the professional ranks would have avoided. The point here is that while this new rule may look good for the NCAA from a PR perspective, the truth is it may have little benefit to the college players overall.

Now the thornier part. As reported, the NCAA will allow “elite” high school prospects to obtain an agent. Previously this would have been a violation of NCAA rules that prevent amateur students from doing so. Should a player instead decide to go to college, he would have to break off his relationship with the agent. This adds more complications and issues to a system that is already plagued with questionable rules and policies.

In addition, it appears that USA Basketball was not initially thrilled to be put in a position to determine which players are considered “elite,” which could cause some more logistical issues. Also, there has been speculation about whether prospects participating in the USA Basketball system would be the only players selected or, at least, preferred over international prospects. Matt Norlander of CBS Sports spoke to NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt who explained this wasn’t the case.

“It is not going to be just the prospects who are Junior National Team players for USA Basketball. It’s going to be more than that. How that’s going to be determined, and how large a pool, is to be determined. That could be years away,” Gavitt stated.

There is much more to dive into on this issue unfortunately. The NCAA has seemingly taken a strategy to fixing issues that are symptoms of a bigger problem – that is the NCAA’s insistence on treating its players as students who should not be compensated rather than actual athletes. There are no easy solutions to this situation and adding more layers of complexity with unilateral changes such are likely to make matters worse.

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