NBA Sunday: What’s Next For the Knicks?

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With less than 20 games remaining in their regular season, the New York Knicks find themselves almost seven games out of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.

Fortunately for the franchise, a lottery pick likely awaits.

Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that Phil Jackson will actually utilize it.

At the very least, you’ve gotta credit Phil for doing things his way. Despite appearing a bit stubborn, one common trait of successful basketball executives is confidence, and whether Jackson is criticizing Carmelo Anthony or force-feeding the triangle offense to a group of players that don’t seem too keen on running it, nobody can deny that Jackson is as long in confidence as he is in championship rings.

That’s why he’ll continue to do things his way, and here’s why that may not result in the Zen Master using his 2017 lottery pick: with Derrick Rose, the “attack guard” in the triangle experiment was a flaming failure.

Perhaps unwilling to publicly admit any sort of failure, despite being married to the triangle offense, when the Knicks traded Jerian Grant and Robin Lopez for Derrick Rose, Jackson spoke glowingly of the point guard. He spoke of Rose’s ability to attack opposing defenses as an asset that could be exploited to the benefit of Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. In a league that is dominated by point guards and spread offenses, the thought of Rose running alongside the two had potential.

Then, the season happened.

From the early goings, Rose was critical of Jeff Hornacek, openly questioning the value of the offensive system and whether or not his talents would be fully utilized in the triangle. To this point, Rose has proven to be somewhat durable and has shown some of the explosiveness and cutting ability that helped make him the youngest Most Valuable Player in NBA history. There was only one problem, and most people couldn’t see it coming. Asking Rose to subscribe to the triangle meant asking Rose to put the greater good of the team before his own, and anyone that knew Rose knew that wouldn’t happen.

As an offensive system, the triangle is one that features a diminished role for a point guard. Being built around options that can operate in the pinch post and low post areas of the floor, the gross majority of triangle offense possessions see a point guard pass the ball upon crossing the half court line and, in many instances, not seeing it again.

Entering this season, Rose made it clear that his primary concern was to prove to the world that he could still play. In a world where general managers hand out maximum contracts like they’re Skittles, Rose entered the season wanting to make sure he got his share of the pie. He will likely prove successful, even if he doesn’t end up getting the maximum contract he is reportedly seeking.

What the Rose experiment has reinforced, however, is the idea that asking a player to subjugate his want for flashing lights and riches is a difficult ask. Not every player is capable of being Pau Gasol, Chris Bosh or Draymond Green. And following that line of thought, it’s really not all that difficult imagining Jackson opting to trade down in the 2017 NBA Draft.

To this point, as March Madness tips off, there are two truths about what is expected of the 2017 draft class. First, it’s loaded with talent, and second, it’s loaded with talent at the point guard position. That might not whet Jackson’s appetite.

If the season ended today and the draft order remained intact, the Knicks would have the eighth overall pick. Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith, Malik Monk and Frank Ntilikina are all currently projected as lottery picks, with Fultz and Ball expected to be selected first and second. That’s obviously subject to change, but the point is this—point guard is a position of strength in the draft, and while that might be good for a team in the market for a lead guard, what it will likely mean for the Knicks is that the other position players currently projected as lottery picks—Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen and Jonathan Isaac, to name a few—may not be available when they select somewhere around eighth.

Of the teams that are likely to select ahead of the Knicks, five of them have capable point guards on their roster. The New Orleans Pelicans have Jrue Holiday (though he will be a free agent), the Orlando Magic have Elfrid Payton, the Phoenix Suns have Eric Bledsoe, the Los Angeles Lakers have D’Angelo Russell and the Boston Celtics (who will receive the Brooklyn Nets’ pick) have Isaiah Thomas.

What that likely means for the Knicks is that landing a pick somewhere in the second half of the lottery would likely leave them with a few point guard prospects. Being that this appears to be a position of weakness for the team, this would appear to be a “good problem,” but as always, there’s more than meets the eye.

During the course of the season, the Knicks were noticeably running less triangle offense, but anyone who doubted whether or not Jackson was considering doing away with the system got a resounding answer this past week. Jeff Hornacek previously stated that the Knicks will spend the final quarter of their season gauging which players fit the system, while Jackson spent time over the past week running a triangle offense clinic for the team. Most recently, Porzingis told the media that 90 percent of the recent offensive sets that the Knicks are running are from the triangle.

That doesn’t exactly bode positively for the odds of this offense going anywhere soon. In all likelihood, Jackson isn’t going anywhere soon, either.

Recently, in the aftermath of the Charles Oakley fiasco, James Dolan stated that the Knicks would not be opting out of their agreement with Jackson, and while he passively confirmed that Jackson does also have an opt-out on his current deal, it doesn’t appear that Jackson is planning an escape, even as Jeanie Buss has taken complete control of the Los Angeles Lakers organization and has cleaned house. If there was a time for Jackson to bolt back to the West Coast and reunite with his Buss, his ex-fiancé, it would be now. Instead, it appears that his resolve has strengthened.

Just follow the logic: Jackson is in New York and does not appear to have his sights set on going anywhere anytime soon.

Jackson has pledged allegiance to the triangle, and the triangle diminishes the role of an explosive point guard.

Jackson will likely own a middle lottery pick in a draft that is considered to be rich in point guards—a position he has not traditionally valued and wherein an experiment (Derrick Rose) proved to not be a great fit.

Call it crazy, but Jackson ultimately opting to trade the Knicks’ pick shouldn’t be considered to be outside the realm of possibility. Of all the things he has done wrong, Jackson and his regime, at the very least, have proven that he can find value in places others haven’t. He selected Porzingis with the fourth overall pick when he was an unknown quantity while the wise bet appeared to be selecting Emmanuel Mudiay.

Willy Hernangomez, Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Justin Holiday, Chasson Randle and Ron Baker have all contributed, and in each their own right, have proven that they are NBA players. It’s impossible to argue that Jackson has failed in the realm of finding diamonds in the rough. Also bolstering his credibility are Langton Galloway, Lance Thomas and the emergence of Kyle O’Quinn as a reliable role player. Jackson signed O’Quinn to a four-year, $16 million contract in 2015—a great value.

Like it or not, Jackson is going to get his type of players and he’s going to trust his system, his vision and his process.

And like it or not, that may not include the selection of a top-flight “attack guard,” especially not after Rose and his disdain for the system.

For a team that is reinventing itself and searching for players that can fit into Jackson’s beloved triangle, on some levels, leveraging a top pick in a draft that’s deep in a position that Jackson hasn’t traditionally valued might make some sense—not necessarily to you, but to him.

And based on what we have come to know about Jackson, whether it involves taking a shot at LeBron James or needlessly criticizing Carmelo Anthony, he will continue to do things his way.

To this point, his way has been devoid of an explosive point guard. He went off course with Rose and that appears to have failed spectacularly.

Stubborn as he may be, Jackson is quite bright. And not even he is likely to make the same mistake twice.