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Phil Jackson Leading Knicks in Right Direction

Phil Jackson is leading the New York Knicks in the right direction and he’s accomplished a lot in his first summer as an executive.

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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.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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