Let’s start with the recognition of the fact that the hand Phil Jackson was dealt was not ideal.
When Jackson was named President of the New York Knicks, back on March 18, the Knicks were at the tail end of a bitterly disappointing season. The undermanned roster Jackson inherited finished the 2013-14 season with a 37-45 record, missing the playoffs in the watered-down Eastern Conference.
Heading into the summer of 2014, it was understood that, in some respects, Jackson’s hands were tied due to the Knicks being well over the salary cap. Nonetheless, there we still important decisions to be made.
His first order of business was firing Mike Woodson and installing a new head coach. Various media outlets reported that Jackson’s first choice was Steve Kerr. It appeared the two sides were close to a deal in early June, but Jackson lost out when Kerr eventually accepted an offer to coach the Golden State Warriors. Kerr’s Warriors have taken the league by storm. They have the best record in the NBA at 22-3. In the process, Kerr has become the first coach in NBA history to win 21 of his first 23 games as a head coach. After Kerr rejected his advances, Jackson zeroed in on the recently retired Derek Fisher.
In an attempt to re-shape the roster, Jackson made his first major personnel decision via a bold trade with the Dallas Mavericks on the day before the 2014 draft. The Knicks acquired Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and two second-round picks from the Dallas Mavericks for Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton.
The early returns on Jackson’s first major move are not favorable.
Jose Calderon missed the first three weeks of the season due to a nagging calf injury, and has struggled since returning the Knicks lineup. In fact, besides being more efficient offensively, Calderon hasn’t been much an upgrade over the ousted Raymond Felton, who Knicks fans were desperate to discard by the end of last season. Last season with the Knicks, Felton averaged 9.7 ppg, 5.6 apg, & 1.2 steals. This season, Calderon is averaging 8.2 ppg, 4.1 apg, 0.9 steals.
Calderon has proven himself as one of the league’s better spot-up shooters throughout his entire career, and will likely shake out of this slump sooner rather than later. However, the question is whether his production will ever match his considerable salary. Calderon is set to make $7.4 million next season and $7.7 million in 2016-17, when he’ll be 35 years old.
Samuel Dalembert has also been a disappointment. He is averaging fewer than four points per game, shooting a dreadful 43.4 percent from the floor. Dalembert is currently the only starting center in the NBA shooting below 44 percent.
Meanwhile, out in Texas, Chandler is enjoying an impressive (if not unexpected) bounce-back season. Chandler is one of only two players in the NBA currently averaging at least 10 points and 11 rebounds per game while shooting a blistering 68.2% from the floor. In fact, Chandler is on pace to become the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1972-73 to average a double-double while also hitting better than 68% of his FG attempts. And of course, Chandler has been a stalwart for the Mavs on the defensive end as well.
Shane Larkin has been a bit inconsistent, but has played well enough to earn minutes in the rotation despite the Knicks’ crowded backcourt. Surprisingly, however, Jackson and the Knicks decided not to pick up the (relatively affordable) team option on Larkin’s contract, which means he likely won’t return to the team next season.
Cleanthony Early, one of the players Jackson selected in the second round, showed some flashes of promise early but is sidelined for a month due to knee surgery. The other second-round pick, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, signed a D-League contract and won’t be up in the bigs anytime soon.
Even if Jackson believed that chemistry issues or an inability to flourish in ‘the triangle’ meant that Chandler wasn’t a long-term fit in New York, he could have likely received a better return in a trade if he had held onto Chandler and moved him prior to the trade deadline in February. Contending teams are always looking to add a difference-maker down low who can protect the paint. And Chandler is a proven winner. It’s possible Jackson could have obtained a first-round draft pick and/or a younger up-and-coming player on an affordable contract. Instead, the best player Jackson received in the Chandler trade is a struggling PG in his mid-30’s with over $15 million left on his contract.
Of course the most noteworthy move made by Jackson during his short tenure here in New York was the re-signing of Carmelo Anthony.
The return of Anthony was widely embraced in New York, but as has been detailed in depth in this space, it could be argued that the Knicks overpaid for Carmelo – especially by capitulating to his demands for a no-trade clause and a trade kicker. Who were the Knicks bidding against?
However, the recent revelations that the salary cap will increase significantly makes the signing potentially less damaging in terms of preventing the Knicks from adequately fleshing out the roster around Anthony.
All that said, Jackson ultimately won’t be judged off the moves he has made in his first nine months on the job. The story of his legacy as an executive is merely in the opening chapters.
Next summer is when Jackson will have an opportunity to make a major splash. The Knicks have oodles of cap space with Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani, Samuel Dalembert and Jason Smith set to come off the books.
However, the free agent class of 2015 doesn’t look quite as promising as it once did (before LeBron, Bosh, Wade opted out last summer, and Kevin Love got dealt to Cleveland etc.). And will the stars that will be available on the open market (LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol etc) be willing to join a team coming off two terrible seasons in a row? Will winners want to join a team with a “loser mentality,” as Jackson described this Knicks squad earlier this month?
This begs the question: If Jackson can’t get the top-tier talent he covets this summer, might it be wiser for him to be patient, bide his time, and wait for the summer of 2016? Yes, Knicks fans will be horrified by the mere thought of waiting another 12 months before being able to watch entertaining, competitive basketball, but it may the best course of action.
Jackson has previously preached patience. Can he resist the urge to use valuable cap space this summer in order to make incremental, short-term improvements?
The 2016 free agent crop could (depending on various player/team options) include the following: Kevin Durant, Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Chris Paul, Chandler Parsons, Dwight Howard, Mike Conley, Kobe Bryant, Nicolas Batum, Deron Williams, Ryan Anderson, Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert and DeMar DeRozan.
Obviously it would be a gamble to wait another full season (and “waste” a year of Anthony’s prime), but you can’t cheat the rebuilding process. Sometimes you have to take three steps back in order to take one huge step forward.
Would it make sense to squander valuable cap space on guys that might take the Knicks from a 33-win team to a 43-win team next season?
The shrewder course of action may be to cherry-pick quality young role players and only offer huge contracts to truly elite talent worth top-tier money. Will Jackson feel intense pressure to immediately upgrade the talent level of the roster and chase a playoff berth, as opposed to sacrificing short-term upgrade in hopes of landing a true franchise-changing superstar the following summer?
Yes, it would be risky, but limiting the franchise’s ultimate potential by tying up cap money in median, mid-tier talent would also be fraught with risk, as it could hamstring the organization for years to come.
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