Thursday, April 14, 2016

What's Wrong with the Knicks?

The New York Knicks played their final game of the season Tuesday, losing in Indianapolis, 102 to 90.  Nobody was expecting a win, and most fans seemed to be looking forward to the end of another losing year.  The team's  2016 record, 32 wins and 50 losses, looks good only when compared to its 2015 record, 17 and 65, its worst ever.

Knicks fans, 2015
I wrote in February about the team's newest member, Kristaps Porzingis, who was drafted for the power forward/center position.  In his first string of games, the team turned in fine performances in Houston, Miami and Orlando.   For a brief period, New York had a winning record.

Then the Knicks reverted to form.  After nine losses in a 10-game stretch, the coach was fired and replaced by Kurt Rambis, who seems to be the NBA's designated interim coach.

Since 2001, the Knicks have had four winning seasons and 12 stinkers.  The team has had 10 different coaches, including some pretty good ones.  The team has been described repeatedly as "rebuilding."


In 2014, as part of the latest rebuilding effort, team owner James Dolan, a difficult man even on his best days, brought in Phil Jackson as the Knicks president.  (Jackson coached the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to 11 NBA championships.)  His role seems to be to find coaches and players and, more generally, to pull the team out of the basement and get it going on an upward trend.

These things take time.   This summer, Jackson will oversee recruiting and draft choices and settle on the new coach, possibly signing Rambis to a longer contract.

There are other personnel matters:  Should Carmelo Anthony, the hard-working, anointed savior who joined the Knicks in 2011 stay, or should he go?  Should the Knicks bring back Jeremy Lin, the star guard of the 2012 season who is now with the Hornets?  How long will it take 20-year-old, first-year player Porzingis to hit full stride?  (A comparable hire, German-born Dirk Nowitzki, joined the Dallas Mavericks at the same age and grew into the role over several years.)

In fact, Jackson has been making noises about settling these matters and then leaving New York for Los Angeles and his fiancee of 15 years.  Many others have had the same impulse after spending a couple years with James Dolan and the Knicks.

What Jackson seems determined to leave behind as his legacy is his beloved style of play -- the triangle offense.

Triangle Offense

The triangle offense was devised in the 1940s by Sam Berry, a legendary college coach.  Later it was employed by Red Holzman, who coached the Knicks to their only two NBA championships in the early 1970s when Jackson was a member of the team.

I'm not going to go into a lot of inside basketball here, but the triangle is characterized by fast-moving action, with players passing the ball frequently and switching positions often to capitalize on opportunities created when the other team's defense is momentarily distracted.  It requires selfless commitment to true team play, which can be difficult to cultivate when players are traded often or when there is friction among top players with tender egos and huge salaries.

Other strategies might focus instead on getting the ball in the hands of a team's best shooters or having the point guard distribute the ball based on his read of the defense at any given moment.

Jackson, described as something of a zen master in his coaching years, regarded the triangle as the nirvana of  basketball strategy.  He has modestly credited his coaching success in Chicago to convincing Michael Jordan to participate more selflessly in a triangle strategy.

Not everyone shares Jackson's view.

One who does not is Charles Barkley, the former star of the 76ers and now a straight-shooting sports television commenter.  Here is what he said in early 2015 on CBS:

"The Knicks just don't have good players (except for Carmelo Anthony) . . . . And I think Phil Jackson made a mistake trying to make those guys run the triangle.  You have to work with the personnel you got.  Because those guys, No. 1, they're not going to learn the triangle because they're all going to be gone next year.  They're really just auditioning for their new teams.  The Knicks are probably going to have eight to nine new players next year, so to think that those guys are going to buy into the triangle for six months, that was ridiculous.  They know they're not going to be there.  So you can blame Phil for that."

Barkley amplified on this a little later, when he said, "They haven't drafted any good young players the last 10 years, and that's why they stink. They try to raid everybody else's free agents, and when they don't get free agents, they stink."  (These comments came before the Porzingis draft choice, which Jackson opposed initially.)

Another triangle opponent is former Pacers great Reggie Miller, who last month described the Knicks under Jackson as "a glass half empty."

"What does Phil want to do?” Miller questioned. “What does Dolan want to do going forward with this?  How do we want to play?
     "Are we going to continue with this triangle crap, or are we going to play a traditional free-flowing style like the Warriors play?
     "I love the triangle if I have Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Scottie Pippen.  I'd play the triangle all day. But if I've got Carmelo and Porzingis, no, I do not like the triangle.  Without Kobe and Shaq and Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, the triangle is just a circle."

(To be fair, the Knicks may not want advice from Miller.  There was deep enmity between the Knicks and Pacers during his playing years, and Miller and Spike Lee, possibly the Knicks' most ardent fan, had a running, public feud.)

Knicks Future

For all the team's problems, the Knicks franchise is valued at $3 billion, the highest in the NBA, largely because of its long-term television contract.  The team's games at Madison Square Garden always sell out -- ticket prices average $200 or more -- although many seats were empty as the season drew to its dismal close.

Dolan, the Knicks owner, seems ready to lavish money in the interest of better results, but he has made some serious missteps.  (Isiah Thomas, anyone?)  Bringing in Jackson probably didn't hurt exactly, but if Jackson leaves behind a team-style offense for a team that traditionally has been composed of notorious prima donnas, that effort may be unavailing as well.

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