Now that Phil Jackson’s prolonged negotiations with the intractable Jim Dolan are completed, his real (and most important task) begins: Reshaping the team’s roster.
It’s a lock that whomever Jackson hires to succeed Mike Woodson will be thoroughly “triangularized.” Steve Kerr? Kurt Rambis? Can a deal be made that would free Brian Shaw from his contract with Denver? Perhaps even an “outsider” like Lionel Hollins or Nate McMillian might be considered. Plus, Lawrence Frank has always been entranced by the triangle.
In any event, which of the Knicks current players would be a good fit for the offense that was the blueprint for every one of Jackson’s 11 championship squads? And which of them would be misfits?
The future of free-agent-to-be Carmelo Anthony is Jackson’s most immediate and critical concern. PJ has often characterized the triangle as an equal opportunity offense. However, when – in any given sequence – all the cuts, passes, picks, and curls have failed to produce an acceptable shot, and the 24-second clock is about to detonate, it becomes absolutely necessary to get the ball in the hands of a player who can create (and make) his own shots. Think of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
Melo certainly has that kind of transcendent ability. But would he be willing to take fewer shots, score less, shoot a higher percentage, pass more, be more active without the ball, and therefore be the focus of a ball club that could sometime in the not so distant future make a serious challenge for an NBA championship?
Would Melo be able to use Jackson’s past criticisms of his reluctance to pass as motivation? Or as something unforgivable?
For Melo, it comes down to this: Is he willing to follow the example of MJ and Kobe in sacrificing his own numbers and his own ego to win a ring?
Anthony’s eventual decision to either stay in New York or play for some other team where he can shoot and never ask questions will say a lot about his character. In other words, is Melo really a team-oriented winner or just another spectacularly talented loser?
Let’s take a look at the rest of the Knicks roster.
It’s noteworthy that, besides having a failsafe scorer, all of Jackson’s championship teams had something else in common: A large-bodied center who was able to establish and maintain position in the low post, i.e., Bill Cartwright, Luc Longley, and Shaquille O'Neal. Indeed, safely delivering the ball to a big man in the shadow of the basket who could either score or pass (or do both) is one important key to successfully initiating the triangle.
Unfortunately Tyson Chandler doesn’t fit this profile. Although his game has begun its inevitable decline, Chandler remains the Knicks’ only viable trading chip. Bet on his being gone sooner rather than later.
JR Smith has the goods to be a game-changing point-maker off the bench. Too bad he’s erratic to the point of instability and is also virtually untradeable. It would be a Herculean task for Jackson (along with the Knicks new coach) to reform Smith’s on-court and off-court game plan, but succeeding in so doing would be a huge plus.
Amare Stoudemire has lost his speed and quickness and has become strictly a jump shooter. His forbidding contract (a player option of $23.4 million for 2014-15) also makes him untradeable. Perhaps some kind of buyout can be arranged. Or else he’d be the fifth big in a four-big rotation.
Kenyon Martin can simply bid farewell.
Raymond Felton is due to earn $4.3 million next season and has a player option for 2015-16. Since he’s the classic 1 ½ - too small for a shooting guard, to slow and shot-conscious for a point guard – to say nothing of his unacceptable performance thus far this season, he might be traded for a bag of socks and jocks, or simply bought out.
Andrea Bargnani might conceivably be useful as an emergency shooter in brief appearances – much as Jud Buechler was employed by Jackson when the Bulls were champs from 1996 to 1998.
Tim Hardaway is a keeper – a youngster who has the potential to be a featured scorer.
Iman Shumpert has sufficient athleticism and defensive tenacity to be given a chance to grow in the new regime. Plus his $2.7 million contract is sufficiently minimal to warrant a roster spot.
Pablo Prigioni is generally underrated at both ends of the floor. At 6-foot-3, however, he lacks the size and length that Jackson prefers in his guards. Still, since his contract is guaranteed through 2015-16, and since he’s smart enough to make any necessary adjustments, Prigioni could fit nicely into being the backup to whoever winds up being the backup point guard.
Big men usually need more time to develop than the more vertically-challenged players, and lately Cole Aldrich has exhibited signs that his game is on the verge of making a quantum jump. Although he’s still a work in progress, Aldrich is a keeper.
Earl Clark is an erratic scorer who will score more if he plays more. Jeremy Tyler is an athletic, mobile youngster who, like Clark, deserves a chance to impress Jackson in next season’s training camp.
Shannon Brown is an energy player who made periodic if significant contributions to the Lakers championship teams in 2009 and 2010. Both his skill set and his familiarity with the triangle would make him a valuable member of next year’s team.
Besides Anthony, the upcoming free agent market offers several players who would radically improve the Knicks.
Start with three players Jackson knows well – Pau Gasol, Jordan Farmar, and Steve Blake. Gasol’s game thrives in the triangle. In fact, he only plays well when performing for a team that is both intelligent and unselfish.
Kirk Hinrich is tough enough and a perfect backup point. He’s long been one of PJ’s favorites.
Gordon Haywood, Luol Deng, Greg Monroe, Thabo Sefolosha and Andrei Kirilenko would also be worthwhile additions.
Sure, such a dramatic influx of free agents would cost the Knicks a bundle in straight salary and tax penalties. But, hey, Guitar Jimmy’s family has deep pockets and since he’s writing humongous checks to Jackson, spending another mini-fortune to enhance the team’s future is a must.
Whatever changes are made, one thing is certain. Within two years, the Knicks will be serious championship contenders.
Phil Jackson will succeed as an executive because of his passion, his expertise and, ultimately, because he’s a winner.