Phil Jackson to Knicks could work. It probably won’t, but it could.

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Ultimately Thomas Wolfe will be proven right, you can’t go home again. Not even Phil Jackson. It’s easy to sit back and list the reasons Jackson’s return to the team that drafted him, taking over basketball operations of the New York Knicks, will not work:

James Dolan; Jackson has never had any front office experience before; Jackson will surround himself with his people and they may not be best for the job; James Dolan; the lack of Knicks draft picks to provide needed affordable quality players; the bad contracts on the roster that even Jackson can’t move for anything of real quality; and James Dolan.

With the $12 million a year Jackson is getting (or even a little less) the Knicks might have been able to poach a proven front office guy like R.C. Buford or Sam Presti, something ESPN’s Marc Stein noted. Instead they rolled the dice on Jackson.

Despite all that Jackson to New York could work.

Could.

Here’s what has to go right for Jackson to turn around the New York Knicks.

• Keep Knicks’ owner James Dolan out of basketball decisions. I have no doubt that during contract negotiations this was discussed — Jackson wanted full and final say, Dolan said something along the lines of “of course you can have it, that’s why I’m going to pay you $12 million a year.” Nobody thinks it will last. History tells us this partnership will eventually end poorly (what Dolan professional relationship ended well?), the only question is when. This may be Phil’s biggest challenge since trying to hold together the Shaq vs. Kobe locker room. If Phil can use his Jedi mind trick — the one that got so many players to buy into their role and think it was their idea — to keep Dolan happy and agreeing with his decisions then Jackson will have the chance to build a foundation that can work in New York.

• Figure out what you’re going to do with Carmelo Anthony. This also came up in negotiations — if Dolan says you have to offer him max or near max money, that keeping Anthony remains the priority then Jackson will have to try and make it happen. This is where Jackson’s skills are needed — can he get Anthony to stay and take less money (as Anthony has hinted he might)? Can he get Anthony to believe in the plan? Keeping Anthony is not a bad thing, his skill set offensively makes him a potentially fantastic fit in the triangle (if you follow Jackson, if you read his books, you know they will run the triangle or at least some of it in a “triangle light” kind of system, he believes deeply in what the triangle does). Honestly, the best path to rebuilding this roster would be to let Anthony leave as a free agent, try to trade the big contracts and just be terrible next season — the Knicks have their 2015 first round pick and that summer they will have a lot of cap space to chase free agents. Tear it all the way down then rebuild, don’t keep taking half measures and doing it on the fly. But if Dolan wants Anthony that badly Jackson has to get him, the question becomes at what cost?

• Get whatever you can for the terrible contracts on the books. Let’s be honest: in today’s NBA and with the current CBA the Knicks are not going to get real value back in trading the contracts of Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani or Tyson Chandler. If they can move them at all. The days of expiring contracts having great value as trade chips are gone. Still, Jackson has to try to move them and get rebuilding pieces if he can — Chandler in particular still has some trade value left. His defense has slipped this past season but he is still the kind of quality rim protector a lot of other teams could use. That said, if you ride all these contracts out for one more year and let them walk it’s not the worst thing. Still you try to get something — and don’t turn down deals because you think you should get great young talent or first round picks for them. Did you watch the Lakers try to move Pau Gasol at the 2014 deadline? Those offers are just not out there. Take what you can get. A version of that applies to young players like Iman Shumpert as well, if you can get real value in moving him, you move him.

• Build a culture, a structure in New York that can sustain success. Dolan has built a secretive, distrustful corporate culture that clashes with Jackson’s stated philosophies. Jackson has to change some of that culture to succeed. One key part of this is “let the basketball people make the basketball decisions.” All of this kind of ties back to the first bullet point above. Right now, with Dolan jumping in, the Knicks tend to make moves for the short term not thinking or caring about the long term (see the ‘Melo trade, when they could have gotten him as a free agent that summer). That’s why they don’t have a first round pick to trade until 2018 (you can’t trade first round picks in consecutive years by NBA rule). They let outside entities have too much influence — they go get Andrea Bargnani under some pressure from CAA, the agency that represents ‘Melo, when there were far better moves to make last summer. That kind of thinking has to end. For example CAA players can’t get treated differently. If you have to be bad for a year to rebuild, that’s okay. Just don’t panic and let the basketball people make the calls. By the way Dolan, if Jackson wants to talk to the media, that’s not the end of world. He’s done it before, he’s good at it and doesn’t reveal state secrets. Plus it improves your credibility with fans. Just a thought.

• Recruit. The Knicks have the built in advantage of being in New York — players want to be there. They like the energy and diversions of the city, they love the marketing opportunities and endorsements that come their way in this market. The challenge is in 2015 and 2016, as New York starts going hard at the free agent market (2015 potentially has Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol, Tony Parker and many others; 2016 starts with Kevin Durant and has other big names), is the Knicks will be up against the Lakers, Mavericks and other potential good teams and destinations (including Chicago depending on their moves, for example). With the new CBA and today’s breed of GMs, you’re going to see more teams with cap space every summer, teams with good cores looking to add one player, as Houston did last summer. Jackson is going to have to win the recruiting battles, he is going to have to get top players to come to the Knicks. He’s going to have to convince some second tier players to come and take a little less money to do so. He is going to have to win free agency. How much his aura really helps in this task remains to be seen.

Bottom line is he has to upgrade the roster significantly and put together a real team and not just the random collection of players that is the current roster, one which resembles an ingredient basket from “Chopped.” They need players that just fit together.  Some of Jackson’s detractors like to say, “He’s only won as a coach with the best talent.” Well, of course. Show me a coach who won titles without elite talent. Red Auerbach pretty much had a roster of Hall of Famers when he was winning, doesn’t mean he couldn’t coach or didn’t know how to assemble a team. Jackson’s gift was getting that talent to play together in his system, to sacrifice a little and play their roles. Can he really do that with free agents as the team president?

Ultimately, the model in New Your is what Pat Riley has done in Miami — he built a culture in that front office based around his basketball values, he got people he trusted to execute it, he recruited players successfully and got them to make financial sacrifices to be there and win, and he got ownership to be on board but not in the way.

Phil Jackson could do all that in New York. Could.

I firmly believe that the Jackson/Dolan partnership is going to end poorly and in a very public mess splattered all over the back pages of New York tabloids. Followed a couple of years later by a Jackson book.

But the real questions are when does that breakup happen and how much success do they have in the interim? If Jackson can keep Dolan at arm’s length while providing a focused direction, a plan, then there can be success — real success — before it all goes bad. If Jackson can last for four, five years and if he can recruit, if he can get a system in place, the Knicks can be a threat. If it all blows up in 18 months Dolan will move on to his next savior. Who will fail spectacularly as well because lessons were not learned.

Jackson to New York is a big gamble by the Knicks and by Jackson. Both sides have real skin in the game. Despite that it likely doesn’t work out, with some of the reasons listed at the top of this post proving prophetic.

But it could work. Could. There is reason for hope in New York now.

Magic Johnson: Lakers might save cap space for 2019

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LeBron James seems to be tempering expectations of him signing with the Lakers.

Lakers president Magic Johnson – who has hyped signing two max free agents this summer – is doing the same.

Johnson on Spectrum SportsNet , as transcribed by Harrison Faigen of Lakers Nation.

“I feel really good about it. Now, we have cap space for probably two max guys, but that’s not to say we’ll use both of them. We want to if we can, but we have a Plan A and we have Plan B. Say we only get one of those guys, then we’ll make a decision on not to use the cap space. We can do that and save it for the class that’s coming the next year. We’re not going to give money away just because we have the cap space. I’m not about that. If the guy can’t really take our team to another level, and we see what Kyrie Irving has done for the Boston Celtics. Put him with that young talent the Celtics have, and they’ve taken off. We feel the same thing can happen for the Lakers. If we get the right free agent, that guy can take our young talent to a whole ‘nother level.”

I don’t think this will be deemed tampering, though the league’s arbitrary enforcement leaves it questionable. But I’m surprised Johnson – who already played a role in the Lakers getting a $500,000 tampering fine – discussed Irving while suggesting the Lakers leave money available for 2019, when Irving will likely become a free agent. That’s just asking for trouble.

To the substance of Johnson’s comments, no, the Lakers won’t have double max cap space next summer. Not without other moves that will reduce their positive assets.

And rolling over cap space isn’t so simple. If the Lakers sign one max free agent, his 2019-20 salary will cut into 2019 cap space. Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Luol Deng and Kyle Kuzma are collectively due a raise of $5,895,550 from 2018-19 to 2019-20. Re-signing Julius Randle, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and/or Brook Lopez to multi-year deals would eat into 2019 cap space. It might not be possible to keep those players without multi-year guarantees, and losing them would hurt the team as it tries to impress free agents through quality play.

The Lakers shouldn’t spend just to spend this summer. But delaying would come with complications, too.

Joel Embiid takes blame for Sam Hinkie leaving 76ers

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In his letter resigning from the 76ers, Sam Hinkie wrote:

You can be wrong for the right reasons. This may well prove to be Joel Embiid.

Embiid never played for Philadelphia while Hinkie ran the team, sitting out his first two pro seasons due to injury. Then, Hinkie got ousted and Embiid got healthy. Now, Embiid – arguably the NBA’s best center – is leading the resurgent 76ers, and Hinkie is left to subtweet the franchise.

Embiid, in a Q&A with David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Me: Sam Hinkie drafted you. Do you keep in touch with him, call, text?

JE: Yeah, we text sometimes. We talk to each other sometimes. I mean, that’s the guy that drafted me, and he made sure he put everything in place so I could get healthy. And I got healthy and I got back on the court. And I feel like he basically kind of lost his job because of me, because I missed two years. So I feel like I owe him a lot. Yeah, we talk. We talk sometimes.

Hinkie’s patience in a long-term plan allowed Embiid to wait as long as necessary to play. (It also might have enabled Embiid to not take his rehab seriously enough.)

So, I get where Embiid is coming from.

But Hinkie knew what he was getting into when he drafted Embiid, who fell to the No. 3 pick in part due to injury concerns. The 76ers signed off on Hinkie’s Process then lost their appetite for the plan amid all the losing. It’s not Embiid’s fault Hinkie couldn’t persuade people to follow his direction. It’s not Embiid’s fault ownership got skittish.

Report: LeBron James won’t take discount from max salary

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In 2014, LeBron James made clear he’d accept no less than a max salary.

Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

James’ position on maximum contracts hasn’t changed, sources said.

Are we sure LeBron will even opt out next summer? If he opts in, he’ll earn $35,607,968 next season. If he opts out, his max starting salary projects to be $35,350,000.

Those numbers are obviously close, but LeBron will be working with imperfect information. He must decide on his player option by June 29. The salary cap, from which max salaries are derived, won’t be released until July 1.

But I doubt LeBron is fretting a few hundred thousand dollars. I don’t think he’s worried directly about the monetary difference between a max and near-max contract at all. He’s set financially, regardless.

I think this is about power. LeBron can demand a team give him as much money as allowed, and whichever one he picks will. That’s appealing from an ego standpoint, which is why I expect LeBron to opt out (or at least wield his player option to get where he wants, but more on that later).

Demanding a max salary also fits LeBron as player-union vice president. It sets a precedent teams must spend to acquire talent. That’s healthy for players as a collective.

It’s easy to say LeBron can afford to take a small discount to help his team win a championship, because that’s the paradigm. Instead, he’s challenging teams to think smartly and creatively to find a way to max him out and still build a strong supporting cast.

That doesn’t preclude LeBron from eventually relenting and taking a discount if it’s advantageous. After all, LeBron once said he’d take a discount to play with Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul. But he’s setting a far harder line than before.

LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh took discounts to join Miami in 2010. Heat owner Micky Arison delighted in the championships and recognition those stars provided – then cut corners on the rest of the roster to save money. LeBron noticed then left. He’s clearly not accepting that anymore.

So, every team is on notice – which is why it’s overly simplistic to say every team wants to sign LeBron. Of course, every team wants to sign LeBron. But not every team is willing to take the steps necessary to seriously pursue LeBron.

In 2014, the Cavaliers made a salary-dump trade before securing a commitment from LeBron. That paid off, but they could have just been frittering away assets if he signed elsewhere. Worse, if they didn’t make the trade, LeBron might not have returned.

The 76ers won’t necessarily have max cap space next summer, but they’re reportedly expected to chase LeBron. That suggests they’ll make proactive moves if necessary to have a chance. The Lakers should have max cap space, regardless.

And what about the Rockets? They’re another team linked to LeBron, but they’ll be hard-pressed to clear max space for him. They already have nearly $76 million committed to just five players (James Harden, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Nene) plus three starters (Paul, Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza) headed into free agency.

But they could trade for LeBron if he opts in on condition of a deal, a la Paul last summer. How about Anderson and either Gordon or a signed-and-traded Ariza plus picks to the Cavs if they’re convinced LeBron would leave in free agency otherwise? Houston would have to send a load of picks, but it’s at least feasible.

That way, LeBron might earn more next season and re-sign for a larger max contract in 2019 – a projected $219 million over five years. That’s more than he projects to get if he re-signs with Cleveland long-term this summer ($205 million over five years).

However, that’s based on salary-cap projections that could change. And the Rockets might balk at spending so much. Of course, LeBron could also always execute the opt-in/re-sign-in-2019 plan with the Cavaliers. A trade to Houston won’t change how much money he can command from his team.

But it’s the type of no-settling thinking that might appeal to him.

Kevin Durant coming up ‘big’ for Warriors

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DETROIT – Soft. Scared. Cupcake.

Kevin Durant can’t help but hear his detractors.

“They’re trying psychoanalyze me when they don’t know me,” Durant said. “So, it’s like you have more information about the game of basketball than you do me as a person. So, ‘you’re soft,’ ‘cupcake,’ all that stuff comes from trying figure me out as a person, not worrying about my basketball skills. But if you watch me on the basketball court, then you come up with your own observation.”

That on-court observation no longer jibes with the unflattering perception of his mindset.

Durant’s height has long been a fascination. He’s listed at 6-foot-9, but he’s almost certainly taller. Durant once said he’s 7-foot when he talks to women. “He’s 7 feet,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says plainly.

Durant just didn’t play like it.

He entered the NBA as a finesse player. He couldn’t bench press 185 pounds a single time his pre-draft combine, and he spent his rookie year in Seattle playing shooting guard – as far from the paint as a player so tall could get.

Never mind that Durant improved greatly with the Thunder as a defender and rebounder, skills that require physicality. And never mind that he was a superstar on the perimeter, giving little reason to alter his style.

When he left Oklahoma City – where he settled in at small forward – for Golden State, Durant’s on- and off-court reputations merged to form a single image. Afraid of contact, afraid of competition.

Durant is making it much harder for his critics to paint him that way. He’s playing more like a traditional big than ever.

His 2.1 blocks per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward since Andrei Kirilenko and Josh Smith more than a decade ago (minimum: two games). His 5.3 post touches per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward in the NBA.com database (which dates back to 2013-14).

“Getting in the mix with the bigs a little bit, I think that’s one role that I always wanted to play and always appreciated about my teammates in the past – from Kendrick Perkins to Thabo Sefolosha to Draymond to David West to Serge Ibaka,” Durant said. “I appreciated those guys for doing the dirty work and allowing me to be the player that I am on the offensive end.”

The Warriors are spoiled to have Durant assume this responsibility.

Many of his post touches come on split cuts, an action Kerr popularized in Golden State. A player – often Andrew Bogut when Kerr first implemented the play – posts up while a teammate screens for another teammate on the perimeter. Most teams would kill to have a shooter like Durant set or receive the screen. But the Warriors have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to do that. So, Durant serves as the post man, surveying the screen carnage and occasionally just taking matters into his own hands. This video from Eric Apricot of Golden State of Mind excellently shows a few variations:

Defensively, Durant has become more comfortable defending power forwards and centers. Sometimes, he blocks their shots:

Other times, guarding a big just positions Durant to protect the basket:

“He’s just being active,” Kerr said. “When he’s active on the weak side of the play, he’s a devastating defender.”

Durant still just bottles up an opponent in a traditional wing matchup for him and blocks a jumper. He also blocks shots in transition.

But he leads non-centers, non-power forwards with 4.8 shots defended at the rim per game (minimum: two games). His block numbers aren’t telling a misleading story. Durant is doing work in the paint.

It helps that the league has shifted toward small-ball. When the slender Durant matches up against fours and fives, his opponents aren’t as big as they would have been a few years ago.

The Warriors played Durant at center to great effect in last year’s Finals, and it’d be a shock if they didn’t turn to him there again in high-leverage situations.

Make no mistake, though: Durant remains a generational perimeter player. He’s a dead-eye shooter with tight handles and jaw-dropping fluidity. Whatever time Durant spends moonlighting as an interior player, he can always switch into the style that made him a future Hall of Famer in the first place.

His ability to play both ways just makes him even more dangerous.

Still, Durant has made his name as a small forward. He says he has always played the role coaches gave him, but it’s tough to look past the fears of Kevin Garnett, another skilled tall player who worried when he was younger he’d get pigeonholed inside if he were listed as a 7-footer. As we talked, Durant picked up on my line of questioning and interjected.

“You trying to turn me into a four guy?” Durant said.

“Maybe even a five,” I said.

“Maybe,” Durant. “I don’t know. Maybe. That’s the way the league is going.”