Phil Jackson was introduced as the president of the New York Knicks back in March and vowed to once again make the Knicks one of the NBA’s elite franchises. The state of the team was a complete mess when Jackson took over and it seemed like a job only the Hall of Fame coach would be able to take on and fix.
The Knicks have $87,089,605 committed in guaranteed contracts for the 2014-15 season and find themselves paying the luxury tax once again. Not only did the Knicks have no cap space to work with this summer, they were also one of a few teams heading into the draft with no picks in a class that’s considered one of the best in recent years. The team also needed to find a new head coach, as Mike Woodson was fired after finishing last season with a 37-45 record and failing to reach the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference. And perhaps the biggest issue of all was the uncertainty surrounding Carmelo Anthony and whether he would re-sign with New York.
With plenty of tasks on his to-do list, Jackson got to work. He started the search for his new coach, pursuing Steve Kerr but ultimately settling on Derek Fisher when the former was hired by the Golden State Warriors. Once the Oklahoma City Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs, Fisher was announced as the Knicks’ head coach just 10 days after playing in his last game. A couple of weeks later, Jackson then orchestrated a six-player trade that allowed the Knicks to acquire Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and two second-round draft picks from the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton. With those two draft picks, the Knicks selected Cleanthony Early at No. 34 and Thanasis Antetokounmpo at No. 51.
The next item on the agenda for Jackson and his staff was persuading Anthony to stay home and commit to the Knicks long-term. Despite the huge uncertainty around Anthony’s decision, Jackson remained confident that the All-Star forward would stay. When the two met, Jackson pitched the idea of re-signing and developing the Knicks into a perennial contender. After meeting with several teams including the Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, Anthony ultimately chose to stay home and committed to another five years with the Knicks for a little bit less than the max at $124,064,681.
Just three months after the season ended, the Knicks suddenly have a young group of core players in Early, Antetokounmpo, Larkin, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr., as well as veteran leaders in Anthony, Calderon, Dalembert, J.R. Smith and Amar’e Stoudemire among others.
“It’s a great situation,” Larkin said when asked about joining the Knicks. “As a rookie [in Dallas], I just had to sit on the bench, go really hard in practice and learn everything I could. That’s what I did last year and hopefully this year I can implement that into summer league, the preseason and then the regular season, and get regular minutes.”
Early, Larkin and Hardaway all showed what they can bring to the table during the Las Vegas Summer League. In four games, Early averaged 11.5 points on 46 percent shooting from the field and 4.8 rebounds per game. Meanwhile, Larkin averaged 12.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and three steals per game while Hardaway dominated the Summer League by dropping 22.8 points per game. Not only were the three players in sync on the court in Las Vegas, they also spent so much time together off the court that people started calling the them the “Three Amigos,” according to Early.
Summer league also provided Fisher a chance to begin his career as a head coach. When he was introduced as the team’s coach on June 10, he said that he is experienced in basketball and stated that he’ll share that experience as a champion with his players as they try to bring a title to New York.
“It’s nice playing for him and playing for a head coach that played the same position as you in the same offense,” Larkin said on playing for Fisher. “If you watched the game, you saw him call me over a couple of times and give me hints here and there on how I can be successful in this offense. If you can remember in D. Fisher’s career it was about how mentally tough he was, how tough he was on the defensive side and how he always hit the big shots, so if I can have a career like that in the triangle offense then that will be a great thing. There’s nobody else better that I can be learning from than D. Fish.
“He didn’t look phased at all [in his coaching debut]. Down the stretch he was real cool, calm and poised and I feel like he’s going to be a great head coach.”
Given their recent moves and acquisitions, the Knicks will have an opportunity to compete next season in the Eastern Conference. While the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers will likely be the East’s top teams, it does seem that the conference will be wide open and up for grabs. Asked if the recent changes to the East will make the Knicks’ job easier next season, Hardaway responded by saying that nothing is easy and the team is still learning to put it all together.
Part of putting it together will include learning the triangle offense from Jackson and Fisher.
“It’s everything,” Early said on playing in the triangle offense. “It’s our offense, it’s what we got to do, what we have to learn and we’ll take as much time as possible to do that. We have a lot of great players. Everyone is just continuing to take the attitude of they want to be better and with that focus no one is stopping us.
“In your off time, it’s really easy to go check out videos of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant – the Bulls and the Lakers – just running through the offense and seeing the positions. It’s all set up in a way where if you make a pass, you know what you’re doing. I’m trying to learn as much as possible, talking to Phil and Derek and the guys who have ran it before like Shannon [Brown] and those guys.”
Early was the first player that Jackson selected in his new role as an executive, which is something he’s extremely proud of.
“It’s very humbling, but at the same time it’s very inspiring – that’s exactly what it’s doing for me,” Early said of being Jackson’s first draft pick. “It’s keeping me humble and it’s keeping me inspired because he had players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Now, with him drafting me first, you have an expectation to live up to. And it’s not just what anyone else sets for you, it’s what you set for yourself and where you see yourself. If you have high goals, you’re going to work hard and Phil Jackson is the perfect teacher. People call him the Zen Master and a genius, and you get labels like those from having a great resume and being a great person and I think I could do great with those type of people because I’m willing to learn from as many people as possible. When you have a great teacher and someone who’s willing to listen and is as open to learning as I am, only positive can come out from this.”
The Knicks are hoping that Early is right and that only positives lie ahead for the Knicks with Jackson leading the way. It certainly seems that the franchise is heading in the right direction, with plenty of reason for optimism moving forward.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.