Phil Jackson’s first year captaining the Knicks’ ship was far from pleasant. Choppy waters worsened into a perfect storm of inefficiency, injuries and ineptitude.
However, based on what we have seen over the last few weeks, spanning from the draft on June 25th through the first day free agents can officially sign with their new teams on July 9th, has Jackson successfully navigated the Knicks out of harm’s way? Is there now smoother sailing ahead?
Last summer, making his first franchise-defining decision as team president, Jackson decided to offer a $124 million contract to Carmelo Anthony, which included a no-trade clause, a player option for the fifth and final season, and a 15 percent trade-kicker. Even before Anthony underwent season-ending surgery in February, it was a questionable choice, considering no other NBA team could offer ‘Melo more than $96 million.
In addition, just a day before the 2014 Draft last June, Jackson traded away Tyson Chandler (and his expiring contract) and Raymond Felton in exchange for Jose Calderon, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin, Samuel Dalembert and two second-round selections.
Calderon had three years and $22.2 million left on his deal at the time. The trade was made before Jackson knew the Knicks’ 2014-15 campaign would go up in flames. However, Calderon struggled mightily, as injuries and inefficiency greatly limited his effectiveness.
As we know, the Knicks would go on to lose 65 games, completing the single worst season in the franchise’s history.
However, the upshot was the Knicks would be rewarded with a high lottery pick. They would also have upwards of $28 million to spend on free agents this summer.
Phil would have a great opportunity to right the ship after it that had drifted way off course.
The question was: Would Jackson feel pressure to immediately restore respectability to an embarrassed organization?
Phil will be 70 years old by the time next season rolls around. His reputation as an executive was on the line, according to the tabloids in Gotham. Would he be willing to be practice patience and attempt to slowly but surely rebuild the franchise the right way? Or might he be tempted to take short cuts in hopes of instantly putting a presentable (if ultimately unsuccessful) product on the floor.
In other words, after investing in Carmelo Anthony and Jose Calderon last summer, would Jackson be willing to reverse course and build towards the future, as opposed to searching for quick fixes in an attempt to sneak into playoffs as 7th or 8th seed?
At the start of the offseason, the answer was still a mystery. Despite a spate of interviews to print outlets and radio programs, the cryptic Jackson wasn’t tipping his hand.
Jackson and the Knicks caught a bad break in the draft lottery when they dropped to No. 4 overall. Unfortunately for the Knicks, the top tier of talent in this draft was only three deep, according to most analysts. After Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor went off the board in succession, the Knicks were forced to choose from a handful of promising players with a mix of enticing upside and worrisome question marks.
The Knicks ended up selecting largely unknown but highly-touted Latvian prospect Kristaps Porzingis. While the pick is undeniably risky due to the scary downside inherent in taking a skinny, unproven, foreign-born player – the vast upside is also irrefutable. Porzingis possesses an incredibly rare skill set for someone his size. He moves remarkably well and fluidly from baseline-to-baseline. This is noteworthy because lateral quickness is imperative for big men hoping to survive defensively in today’s pick-and-roll heavy NBA. Offensively, he dunks forcefully, yet makes it seems effortless. He needs to improve his low-block ability, but has the foundations of a solid post-up game. Still, the most impressive skill Porzingis brings to the table is his feathery touch from the perimeter. Kristaps has a flawless form that would be impressive from a shooting guard, let alone a guy measuring in at seven feet, three inches. At his size, he’ll be able to effortlessly launch uncontested jumpers from all over the floor. At just 19 years old, he hasn’t yet even scratched the surface of his vast potential.
The selection of Porzingis was also encouraging because it seemed to indicate that Jackson was thinking long-term. He wasn’t dead set on selecting a less risky, more established player (such as Justise Winslow), who was a safer bet and would provide immediate returns, but did not have the same upside as Porzingis. In addition, Phil decided not to trade the pick to move down in the draft while also acquiring a young veteran that would help the Knicks next season. Phil only has four years left on his contract. There’s a very good chance that he won’t even be in New York if and when Porzingis develops into the player Phil and Knicks fans hope he will be.
However, the Knicks draft did not end there. An hour or so after selecting Porzingis, Jackson did a masterful job getting back into the first round by trading the one-dimensional Tim Hardaway Jr. for the No. 19 overall selection, which he used to select point guard Jerian Grant from Notre Dame. Grant is a big (6’4″ with a 6’7.5” wingspan) and athletic (exhibit A) guard that should be able to contribute on both sides of the ball. In addition to being a superb scorer, he is also a gifted passer with impressive court vision. In college, Grant dished out a total of 690 assists during his Notre Dame career, which was more NCAA assists than the first 15 picks in the 2015 draft combined.
Phil’s final move on draft night was acquiring the draft rights of the 35th overall pick, Guillermo Hernangomez, from the Philadelphia 76ers. Hernangomez is a smart, aggressive 6’11” center from Spain (and a teammate of Porzingis). Heading into the 2015 draft, there were rumors that several teams, including the San Antonio Spurs, were considering selecting him towards the end of the first round. The Knicks will likely stash Hernangomez overseas for a season or two, in order for him to gain some seasoning and keep his salary off the books until he is ready to contribute on the NBA level.
Based on the draft, it appeared Phil was content eschew a quick fix, and instead look farther down the road.
Still, free agency would begin the very next week, and would obviously have a major impact on both the Knicks short and long-term future.
Some Knicks fans will complain that Phil wasn’t able to land a big fish such as Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, or LaMarcus Aldridge. But those expectations were unreasonable. Simply playing in a major market is no longer enough to lure the cream of the free agent crop. Fans in both New York and Los Angeles can attest to this fact. In this new, flattened world we live in, players know they don’t need to live in a major metropolitan hub in order to become internationally famous and land incredibly lucrative endorsement deals. Kevin Durant plays for a team in Oklahoma. LeBron James is based out of Ohio. Desirable free agents in today’s NBA (Love, David West, Greg Monroe and Aldridge being the latest examples) often end up choosing their new team in large part based on which team gave them the greatest chance to win big.
Some frustrated Knicks fans were upset because the Knicks didn’t hit a grand slam this summer. However, this Knicks also didn’t strike out. Better yet, they avoided grounding into a double play.
At the start of the process, the worst case scenario for the Knicks during this free agency period was not failing to sign a single big name free agent. No, the worst case scenario would have been overpaying for marginal talent and locking up their cap space for years to come.
The understandable fear from some forward-thinking Knicks fans was that Phil would compound last summer’s mistake by going “all in” and attempting to skips steps in the rebuilding process. A focus on an immediately return to relevancy, while it may have added a few more wins to their 2015-16 record, would have likely (ultimately) ended in disaster.
NBA history lessons have taught us that it’s nearly impossible to cheat the rebuilding process. The least desirable place to be in this league is on the fringe of the playoffs, chasing the 8th seed with an aging “win now” roster.
The Knicks weren’t able to land a true difference-maker this summer, but they were able to add solid rotation pieces, while also maintaining cap space and roster flexibility going forward.
Last month, there were published reports that Arron Afflalo was looking to get between $36 and $38 million over three years. That would have been too much to pay for Afflalo, who was coming off an awful season. However, it appears the Knicks will sign him to a two-year deal for $16 million, with a player option on that second season. (It is important to note that no contracts have been signed and that no deal can become official until the league-wide moratorium is lifted on July 9th). Taken in context of the market, when DeMarre Carroll and Wes Matthews will ink deals for approximately four years and $60 million, the Afflalo contract certainly seems reasonable considering his previously exhibited production and skill set.
In addition, Afflalo may become a valuable trade chip for the Knicks at the 2016 trade deadline, especially if he proves he is healthy and shows he can still produce. Remember, just four months ago (February, 19th 2015), he was traded from the Nuggets to the Blazers in exchange for a future first rounder.
The Knicks big ticket item was Robin Lopez, who will reportedly sign a four-year, $54 million contract later this week. Some fans were disappointed NY didn’t land Greg Monroe, but Lopez might actually be a better fit along the Knicks frontline. $13 million per year is a lot to pay for a player who has averaged 10 points and seven rebounds over the last three seasons, but, again, the market for starting-caliber centers had already been established.
The other positive to take away from the Lopez signing is that it’s an indication Phil Jackson and company will put an emphasis on defense. The Knicks have been near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency basically since the day Jeff Van Gundy skipped town back in December of 2001. Year after year, the NBA’s elite teams and championship contenders are those teams that defend well on a consistent basis. The proof is in the pudding: The last 14 (and 19 of the last 20) NBA champions have all finished in the top-10 in Defensive Efficiency.
The Knicks pursuit of Derrick Williams seems odd because Williams has been a major disappointment since being selected second overall in the 2011 NBA draft. He’s an impressive athlete with great physical tools, but has been relatively ineffective and inefficient on both ends of the floor at the pro level. Jackson and company must have seen something special in him and believe they can rejuvenate his career, considering they offered him $10 million over two seasons.
The Knicks best value signing of the summer will likely end up being Kyle O’Quinn. A native New Yorker (born and raised in Queens), O’Quinn was a second-round pick by the Magic in 2012. Coming out of Norfolk State, he played sporadically over his first three NBA seasons in Orlando, but performed relatively well when given extended minutes. O’Quinn has averaged 13.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per-36 minutes thus far in his NBA career. The Knicks lack depth on the frontline, so he’ll see time backing up both the power forward and center spots. He possesses limited athleticism in his bulky frame, but has a high-intensity motor and brings relentless energy on a nightly basis.
It sounds like O’Quinn will sign a four year deal for a total of $16 million. This is a smart gamble by Phil, as there is potentially a solid payoff, yet very little risk involved. Consider this: In 2016-17 season, when the salary cap will purportedly jump up to $108 million, O’Quinn will account for just 3.7 percent of the Knicks total cap space. If O’Quinn becomes even a decent role player in New York, that contract will return astonishing value.
The offseason isn’t over, as the Knicks still have their $2.8 million room exception to spend, but the lion’s share of the cap space has been invested in the four players detailed above.
At this early stage, it would be a leap to heap praise on Phil for his work this summer. Just as it would be unfair to claim the Knicks offseason was a failure. The fact of the matter is that these were just the first few steps in a long and arduous rebuilding process.
Yet, it seems these baby steps have the Knicks heading in the right direction, which in and of itself, is encouraging.
Completing out baseball analogy from earlier, Phil hit a solid double this summer. He set the table for future acquisitions and improvements. This summer will generate some much needed momentum, which gives the organization an opportunity to build on that going forward.
Phil will also have flexibility, an incredibly valuable commodity. The Knicks will have only 5 players with guaranteed contracts that extend beyond the 2016-17 season (Anthony, Lopez, O’Quinn, Porzingis, and Grant). New York is also suddenly now flush with young, athletic players with varying levels of intriguing potential (Porzingis, Grant, Hernangomez, Cleanthony Early, Derrick Williams, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Langston Galloway, Louis Labeyrie…).
We will only be able to fairly and accurately grade the moves the Knicks made in the summer of 2015 once we see who they sign next July and the following summer. By that time, we should have a much better idea of exactly what kind of players Jerian Grant and Kristaps Porzingis will be. Might future free agents be impressed by the nucleus Jackson has assembled and be convinced the Knicks are on the verge of taking that next step?
Still, based on what we’ve seen from Phil Jackson and New York hierarchy these past few weeks, Knicks fans have reason to be slightly optimistic for the first time in a long time.
For 15 straight seasons, the Knicks organization has gone broke year after year chasing “get rich quick” schemes. Fortunately, it appears as though Phil Jackson is willing to patiently and prudently make sound investments that may allow the Knicks to eventually build a team capable of sustaining success.
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