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Trouble from the Top Down in New York

The Knicks are a troubled franchise, which stems from the top of the organization, writes Tommy Beer.

Tommy Beer

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After over six months of silence, Phil Jackson finally spoke with the media last week. During his nearly hour-long press conference, Jackson addressed a broad range of issues. Many of them have been covered in depth, including his startling assessment of Carmelo Anthony and Melo’s future in New York, as well as his admission that he plans to take a more hands-on approach in practices next season.

However, one topic that hasn’t been discussed much was Jackson alluding to, on numerous occasions, how the system he is running with the Knicks is similar to that of the San Antonio Spurs and the NFL’s New England Patriots.

When asked about the Triangle, Phil’s meandering answer eventually led to him discussing current dynastic franchises and the men responsible for running them. Jackson explained that he believes it’s crucial to have a trusted template when you “build a system of anything.”

Jackson elaborated on this point.

“It’s no wonder the Spurs can have some success continuing their action,” Jackson said. “Or the Patriots can have success, because they can put people in places. We could do that with the Bulls and the Lakers. … You can have something that’s concrete.”

“Whether it’s teams that I have coached or Belichick, there is an identifiable way in which they play. When you develop that system so that people are all on board with that system, then you have something that’s concrete. A format.”

It all made sense, especially coming from one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. However, Phil is no longer a coach, which is part of the reason why his comments missed the mark. Also, the premise of his argument was off-base as well.

One of the keys to success for the Patriots under Bill Belichick has been Belichick’s willingness to adapt his game plan, on both sides of the ball, to his personnel. Belichick has never been chained to one particular approach, dating all the way back to his days as defensive coordinator with the Giants under Bill Parcells, when Belichick was able to slow down the Buffalo Bills’ seemingly unstoppable K-Gun offense in Super Bowl XXV.

Obviously, Belichick had to employ a different strategy to defeat the Rams (“Greatest Show on Turf”) in 2001 than he did to beat the Seahawks in 2014. The Pats have switched from a base 3-4 to a 4-3 defense and back on numerous occasions during the Belichick era.

Time and time again, Bill Belichick has adapted his schemes to match his personnel on offense and defense.

Obviously, Tom Brady has been indispensable for Belichick and the Pats in much the same way Tim Duncan was for Gregg Popovich and the Spurs during Duncan’s illustrious career.

However, even when a knee injury sidelined Brady for the entire 2008 campaign, Matt Cassel was named the starting quarterback and the Pats still managed to win 11 games that season. Of course, Belichick had to run a far different offense with Cassel under center than when Brady was taking snaps.

On a similar note, Tim Duncan was a shell of himself by his final NBA season in 2015-16. Duncan averaged just 8.6 points, but the Spurs still went on to win a franchise-record 67 games in the regular season. And, after Duncan retired last summer, the Spurs came back and once again cracked the 60-win plateau in 2016-17. Pop could no longer dump the ball down low to an all-time great in Duncan. Popovich was forced to modify his attack and did so quite successfully.

The juxtaposition of the Knicks and the Spurs is an easier ‘apples-to-apples’ comparison for obvious reasons. And comparing these two franchises allows us to make a dramatic contrast, which predates Phil Jackson, and shows why Knicks fans shouldn’t be overly surprised that the Zen Master experiment has been a disaster.

*****

The Knicks and Spurs squared off in the 1999 NBA Finals. That series ended on June 25th, 1999, with the Spurs capturing the crown by winning Game 5 at Madison Square Garden. Since that day, the two franchises have gone in completely divergent directions.

Starting with each team’s next game, which was opening night of the 1999-2000 season, the Spurs have compiled a regular-season record of 1,040-420. Yes, that’s 620 games over .500, which equates to a .712 winning percentage.

The Knicks, on the other hand, are 208 games under .500 at 626-834.

The Spurs have won 136 playoff games (and counting) and four NBA championships over that same time frame.

The Knicks, on the other hand, have won only of three postseason series and a total of 18 playoff games since the turn of the century.

The Spurs have won at least 50 games several times and qualified for the playoffs every single season since 1999.

The Knicks have won over 50 games just once.

*****

Pinning the Knicks struggles solely on Phil Jackson would be a mistake. There is a systemic dysfunction plaguing the Knicks that can be traced back to the change in ownership. Since Jim Dolan seized control of the team, the Knickerbockers have been a laughingstock, generating far more attention from missteps on and off the court than any success they have had between the lines.

With Gregg Popovich and General Manager R.C. Buford running the ship in San Antonio for owner Peter Holt, the focus of the franchise has been winning ball games. No more, no less. No sideshows. No circus attractions. You know what didn’t happen in San Antonio this season? Buford didn’t use Twitter to insult his team’s top scorer. Holt didn’t feud with a beloved former player and have said player arrested and escorted out of his home arena in handcuffs, only to then to make accusations of alcoholism. When’s the last time Holt interfered with trade negotiations and overruled Pop and Buford? Dolan has, which resulted in the Knicks giving away the farm for Carmelo Anthony and a first-round pick for Andrea Bargnani.

The Knicks have been awful for the last three seasons, but they have also been brutally bad and mostly unwatchable for the 15 prior seasons as well. There is one common denominator spanning those 18 years of futility.

Success, or failure, starts at the top.

Each season, ESPN puts out a management ranking, which rates executives of each franchise from top to bottom (team presidents, vice presidents and general managers). In 2017, once again, Popovich and Buford finished first. The Knicks (Jackson and Steve Mills) finished 29th. In the overall rankings, which includes ownership, management and coaching, the Spurs ranked first, and the Knicks were dead last.

*****

While Dolan’s culpability is undeniable, that doesn’t mean we should let Phil off the hook.

Dolan, recognizing past mistakes, announced publicly that he would be completely “hands off” when he hired Jackson.

“I am by no means an expert in basketball. I’m a fan, but my expertise lies in managing companies and businesses,” said Dolan on the day he introduced Jackson. “So I think I’m a little out of my element when it comes to the team. I found myself in a position where I needed to be more a part of the decision-making for a while. It wasn’t necessarily something that I wanted to do, but as chairman of the company, I felt obligated to do.”

Dolan has stuck to his word. However, since taking control of the decision-making in the organization, Phil has let his ego get in the way of the team’s advancement, which brings us back to Friday’s press conference.

Phil alienated current players and fans alike with his inflammatory comments, in addition to referencing the Patriots and Spurs.

It would be one thing if Phil were on the frontlines as the head coach installing this system with a group of talented players that were willing to buy into it. Instead, he’s attempting to pull strings from his office or 15 rows behind the bench. For three straight seasons, the team’s best players have rebelled, and now two coaches have been coerced to go against their preferred strategies to implement something they’re not entirely comfortable with.

What if, back in Chicago in the 1990’s, Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause had informed Phil that he had to ditch The Triangle and run more pick-and-rolls if he wanted to keep his job? How would Jackson have responded? How would Jordan and Pippen have felt, unsure if it was their coach or GM that was deciding how they would run their offense? Obviously, this is an untenable situation.

Jackson does share something in common with Bill Belichick and Gregg Popovich nowadays. All three are antagonistic towards the media. The difference is Pop and Belichick have recently earned rings and racked up plenty of wins on the sidelines this decade.

Phil comes across as dismissive despite the fact that his team has lost 166 games over the last three seasons.

In addition, Belichick and Popovich have thrived in recent years because they have been so willing to embrace change and tweak their approach based on personnel, as opposed to forcing the personnel they have to fit into a rigid system.

Popovich promotes a culture of culpability but is not married to a particular brand of basketball. Earlier this month in this space, we discussed the problems inherent in attempting to win in today’s NBA by relying solely on Triangle principles. Well, one of the rare teams that are successful in the modern day NBA without being overly reliant on the three-point shot is the San Antonio Spurs. They do lead the NBA in three-point percentage, but they don’t mind getting LaMarcus Aldridge or Kawhi Leonard open looks in the mid-range area. Still, the Spurs have proven they can win with their current roster composition and offensive approach. That’s primarily because they have always been a defense-first organization. That’s what they remain committed to, through thick and thin. Furthermore, it is important to note that when the Spurs won their most recent title back in 2014, Pop’s team averaged 23.6 3-point attempts per game during the Finals, which set a record for the most long-range attempts by any champion in NBA history.

The last time the Knicks finished near the top of the league in three-point attempts was 2012-13, which just happens to be the year they won 54 games and advanced to the second-round of the postseason. The last time the Knicks were committed to defense and made that the focal point of their franchise was back when Patrick Ewing roamed the paint. Those Knicks teams advanced to the playoffs every single season from 1987 through 2000.

The Knicks’ recent past is littered with losses, and the organization is in trouble moving forward as well. That trouble starts at the top. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to envision either Jim Dolan or Phil Jackson doing what is necessary to remedy the situation and lead the franchise back to respectability.

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: Jaren Jackson Jr. Adapting As He Goes

Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has put on a show this summer. Spencer Davies dives into what’s been behind the success and how it bodes well for the future.

Spencer Davies

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Meeting Jaren Jackson Jr. for the first time, you won’t find an ounce of doubt in him.

Instead, you’ll be introduced to a high-spirited man oozing with charisma and an obvious love for the game of basketball, which likely factored into why the Memphis Grizzlies were so keen on taking him with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Then there’s the big reason—quite literally—that came into play. Standing at 6-foot-11 with over a 7-foot-5 wingspan and hands that are the size of most people’s heads, Jackson Jr. is the term “matchup problem” personified.

We’re seeing the evidence in front of our very eyes already. In eight summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, the versatile Jackson Jr. is averaging 12.9 points and seven rebounds. He is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and has knocked down half of his attempts (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.

It didn’t take long for the JJJ bandwagon to get established. In his first taste of NBA action against the Atlanta Hawks in Salt Lake City, he scored 29 points and cashed in on eight triples to kick off July. He hasn’t tried more than four perimeter shots since then, but he’s been plenty busy doing other things just as important on the floor.

“I think I’m surprised by how well I’ve been doing,” a smiling, candid Jackson Jr. said. “You’re surprised at yourself sometimes, especially like the first game.”

You can look at these aforementioned offensive stats and take them with a grain of salt since the level of competition is a step below what the real professional ranks bring to the table. However, seeing the anticipation, reaction time, and natural awareness on the defensive end makes the lengthy forward a true gem of a prospect.

In all but one game thus far, Jackson Jr. has recorded multiple rejections every time he’s stepped foot on the court, including two occasions where he swatted four shots. It’s added up to an average of 3.3 blocks per contest to this point.

So since the outside potential, the athleticism and the rim protection are all there, what else is there to hone in on?

“I think just my aggressiveness,” Jackson Jr. said. “Making sure I play tougher, go harder longer. And my shooting…kind of—make sure I get my form right and all that stuff.”

Adjusting to a new pace at the next level can take some time. It depends on how fast of a learner a player is and how quickly that person can apply that knowledge in a game setting. Jackson Jr. thinks he’s started to pick it up as he’s gone along.

“It’s getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot more spacing so it’s pretty cool. But they’re definitely stronger and faster players, so you have to adapt to that.”

Thanks to contributions from Jackson Jr.—in addition to Jevon Carter and Kobi Simmons—the Grizzlies have had loads of success in Sin City. They are one of the final four teams standing as summer league play wraps up in a day.

Whether the result goes in the favor of Memphis or not, the last couple of weeks in Las Vegas have impacted Jackson Jr. in a positive manner in more ways than one as a student of the game—and he’ll be better off because of it.

“It’s been cool,” Jackson Jr. said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. It seems like more of an event when you’re here as far as watching it on TV over the years. You get like a new historic player sitting on the sideline every day talking to people. You meet people in your hotel. Bunch of stuff like that. It’s been a good experience just having everybody here before we all leave and go to our own cities.

“I kinda went into it [with a] clear head. I didn’t really didn’t want to put too much into it ‘cause I’m learning everything new. Everything is new. Being a rookie, everything’s gonna be a new thing.”

As the youngest player in his draft class at 18 years old, Jackson Jr. has a ways to go to familiarize himself with the NBA.

But by the looks of things, the NBA had better prepare to familiarize itself with him as well.

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NBA Daily: Antonio Blakeney Hoping For A Big 2nd Year

After an impressive rookie stint, Antonio Blakeney gives us a tale of hope and potential.

David Yapkowitz

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The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding project. This summer, they held on to one of their key young players in Zach LaVine and drafted two guys in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson whom they’re hoping can be part of that rebuild.

But there might be one player on the roster already who could play a big role in the team’s future. A year ago, Antonio Blakeney used a big summer league performance in Las Vegas to earn a two-way contract with the Bulls.

This time around, with his NBA future a little more secure, he’s working on becoming more familiar with the team.

“Just learning and getting better,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders his goals are. “Obviously being able to play through my mistakes, go out here and learn and get familiar with the coaching staff. Keep building our relationship with the coaches and stuff.”

Blakeney went undrafted last summer after declaring for the draft following two years at LSU. He lit up Las Vegas to the tune of 16.8 points in four games before the Bulls signed him. Under the two-way contract, he split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G-League affiliate.

His summer success carried over to the G-League where he exploded on the scene averaging 32 points per game and being named the G-League Rookie of the Year. Being shuffled back and forth between leagues was a bit of an adjustment for Blakeney, but it was an experience he ended up learning a lot from.

“It was an up and down roller coaster from the NBA to the G-League and stuff like that. Starting in summer league, going to the big team, going to camp, preseason games and going to the G-League. It was an up and down experience,” Blakeney said.

“Overall, it was great. I think I learned a lot in the G-League. A lot of rookies play in the G-League now. Going down there it’s kind of tough. For some guys, the travel is different. It’s just staying motivated and working hard.”

It’s no secret that Blakeney can put up points in a hurry, as he was the Tigers third-leading scorer his freshman year behind Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby with 12.6 points per game. His sophomore year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 17.2 points.

He knows though that he’ll have to be able to do other things if he wants to stick in the NBA. While he’s been lighting up the stat sheet scoring wise this summer in Vegas, he’s been working on other aspects of his game. He’s been charged by the Bulls summer league coaching staff with initiating the offense.

“Obviously I got to be a combo. I got to be able to move over to the one and make plays and stuff like that. So just working on making that simple play,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m a natural scorer so I’m not really a pass-first guy, but I’m more when the simple play presents itself, to make it.”

While his future may be more secure, the majority of the guys in summer league don’t have that luxury. The two-way contract Blakeney signed last summer was for two years and based on his play this summer, it would be shocking to see the Bulls let him go.

For his summer teammates who don’t have that security, he understands what they’re going through. Having been in that situation a year ago, he’s got plenty of advice for them.

“Just go work hard, learn from the veteran guys, but compete,” Blakeney said. “Go at the guys that’s supposed to be the best. If you think you’re that good, go at guys. Just compete, that’s the main thing I did, I just competed.”

And although nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA, especially regular rotation minutes, Blakeney is confident that he can be a regular contributor. The league is filled with guys who come off the bench and provide instant offense. He knows if, given the opportunity, he can do that too.

“I think next season my goal is to try to crack the rotation and just be a guy who brings energy off the bench,” Blakeney said. “I can get buckets fast, get it going, bring energy and get buckets off the bench, just do my thing. That’s something that in my young career I’m trying to get in to.”

He’s certainly off to a good start.

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Mitchell Robinson May Prove Competence of Scott Perry

Scott Perry is still fairly new on the job, but it’s impossible to argue with the early returns.

Moke Hamilton

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With some eye-popping performances, the neophyte simultaneously caught the attention of the New York Knicks and the observing eyes in Las Vegas.

Sure, merely a few weeks ago, he was largely considered an unknown quantity, but after an impressive stint at the Vegas Summer League, we all know his name.

It’s Mitchell Robinson.

Like his fellow rookie Kevin Knox, in short order, Robinson has caused quite a bit of a stir.

For Scotty Perry, though, he’s more than just another promising prospect; he’s the latest entry on the list of things that the newly hired general manager has gotten right. 

As players like Brook Lopez and Isaiah Thomas accept contracts worth barely enough to buy LeBron James lunch, the predictions of a “nuclear winter” for NBA free agents seem to have mostly come to fruition.

For the past two summers, general managers and team executives have spent their money as if it were on fire, and as a result, we’ve seen many of the league’s teams watch their flexibility go up in smoke.

Since hiring Perry, the Knicks have done the opposite.

Time and time again, the message tossed around internally at Penn Plaza has mirrored what we’ve been told publicly—the Knicks believe they will have a serious shot at signing a marquee free agent in 2019 and have put their emphasis on shedding salary to the best of their abilities.

It took all of one summer league game for us to learn that the club had signed Robinson to a team-friendly four-year contract. According to the New York Post, the deal is only guaranteed for three years and $4.8 million. If Robinson comes anywhere near the productivity he showed in those few performances, though, the value and return on investment will be remarkably high.

If you’re keeping count, let the record fairly reflect that among Perry’s major moves for the Knicks have been trading Carmelo Anthony, hiring David Fizdale, drafting Kevin Knox and Robinson, and strategically managing his cap situation so that he could offer Robinson a contract that was so advantageous to the Knicks that some believe Robinson fired his agent as a result.

With the Knicks, Robinson will have to earn playing time and beat out Enes Kanter and Luke Kornet for minutes, but Kanter isn’t considered to be a core member for the club’s future and Kornet hasn’t exactly appeared to be the next coming of Dwight Howard, so for the rebuilding Knicks, the task doesn’t appear that difficult.

What this all means in the end is that Knox and Robinson will combine to earn just $5.4 million next season. Yet together, they’ll carry the hopes of a billion dollar franchise on their backs.

Still, you don’t need to be able to count to a billion to understand that the ROI on Robinson could be exceptional. And it’s those crafty acquisitions that could help the Knicks maintain the space they’ll need to bring a superstar to Gotham City.

Of course, time will tell, but on the continuum of unknown quantity to certain conclusion, the best you can hope for is a positive sign. Robinson, like Knox, has given us over a dozen.

Truth be told, Perry has, too. And when you realize that the selection that the club used to grab Robinson was a critical piece of the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City—a trade executed by Perry—that statement becomes all the more credible.

* * * * * *

It’s been quite some time since the Knicks had two rookies who opened eyes the way Knox and Robinson have. What’s been most pleasing about the two, however, have been the ways in which they complement one another on the basketball court.

In Vegas, Knox has impressed mostly with what he’s done on the ball, while Robinson has for what he’s accomplished off of it. The instincts and timing that Robinson has in conjunction with his athleticism are quite reminiscent of Marcus Camby.

In hindsight, we can fairly proclaim an in-prime Camby to have been ahead of his time. Camby was the prototype to which players like Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan aspired.

As a big man, Camby was one of the few players in the NBA who could capably guard all five positions on the basketball court and wasn’t at the mercy of an opposing point guard when switched out on a pick-and-roll. Nobody closed space from the weakside better than Camby, and few centers in the league were able to run out and contest jumpers like him. His nimbleness and second jump ability were remarkable for a man his size, and it didn’t take long for him to find his niche playing alongside more offensively talented players such as Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell and Larry Johnson.

We don’t know if Robinson himself will succeed in the NBA, but we do know that his archetype is the kind that does. So much of what gets young players drafted and paid in the NBA is about physics. If a guy can do one or two things better than other players his size, the job of his coaches and front office is to find ways to maximize those advantages and fit them within a team concept to exploit inferior players at his position.

It truly isn’t rocket science. When you think back even over the course of recent history, ask yourself how long it took for the world to recognize and extol the virtues of the likes of LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis and even Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons. While each representing an extreme case, the truly impactful players are able to utilize their gifts to dominate and can usually do so from day one. Certainly, they can’t do it everyday, but the potential is there and it’s evident from jump.

The most you’re gonna get from summer league is a young stud showing you that he has some exploitable advantage over his competitors. For Knox, it’s his combination of ranginess and a better than advertised nose for the ball. For Robinson, it’s the incredible agility that an extended absence from the game doesn’t seem to have blunted.

The concept of exploitable advantage is where the Golden State Warriors have run circles around the rest of the league. And although an extreme example, they are the specimen of what a team full of those types look like.

So no, while you can’t conclude that Robinson is going to end up being anything near the player that Marcus Camby was, what you can conclude is that he has the physical gifts to be effective. Whether he ends up fulfilling that potential will ultimately boil down to what Robinson has inside of him and what David Fizdale is able to do to bring it out.

Rest assured, though, to this point, Scott Perry has certainly done his job. That much is a fact.

* * * * * *

Of all words in the English language, “irony” and its adjective (“ironic”) are among those that are most often misused—irony is often confused with coincidence.

In its simplest term, irony is meant to describe a situation where there’s an occurrence that’s the opposite of what should have been expected.

In other words, back in 2015, just a few weeks after Carmelo Anthony dropped a career-high 62 points on the Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden, a reporter asked him whether it was “ironic” that the Hornets also yielded 61 points to his buddy LeBron James in Miami.

That wasn’t ironic. That was just Charlotte.

On the other hand, irony was more along the lines of the Denver Nuggets seemingly becoming a better and more cohesive team after Anthony’s talents had been traded to New York. He was the team’s best player and has since proven to be a surefire Hall of Famer, yet they improved without him.

One could argue it to be ironic that Kyrie Irving welcomed a trade to the Boston Celtics after spending years battling them, or that fans of the Los Angeles Lakers have actually begun calling LeBron James the King of LA while Kobe Bryant still flies in a helicopter over Orange County.

Most appropriately, though, for a fan of the New York Knicks, irony is knowing that, despite Kristaps Porzingis being on the shelf and the Knicks not signing or trading for any big named player, there’s probably more reason to be optimistic about the club’s future than there has been in recent memory.

Yea. That’s ironic. The Knicks have always been looking for their savior—before Carmelo Anthony, it was Stephon Marbury. Infinite fanfare and declarations of grandeur. All for naught. In it all, who would have thought that the franchise’s savior could end up being Scott Perry?

Like Knox and Robinson, it’s still a bit early to certainly declare that Perry is who will lead the Knicks from the abyss.

But just like Knox and Robinson, to this point, it’d be quite difficult to argue with the early returns.

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