You can’t win titles in the NBA without elite talent. Superstars matter. It is the nature of the sport.
However there is more to it than that, nobody ever just rolled the ball out and won a ring. Franchises have to put those stars in a system that benefits them but more importantly benefits the role players around them — true stars will thrive in any style, it is getting a system in place and the right role players for that system that elevates the stars and team to title contention.
Phil Jackson understands that better than anyone.
When Jackson talked basketball at the Tuesday press conference that introduced him as New York Knicks team president, he talked system. New York will always be able to attract stars, what they need is everything else. Jackson talked about balance — three guys going to the offensive glass, two guys back on defense to slow the break — and structure.
“I believe in system basketball,” Jackson said. “(Knicks GM) Steve Mills came out of Princeton. I came out of a system that we ran here in New York in which team basketball was an important aspect of playing. We believe that is what we want to accomplish here.”
They have a lot of work to do.
The Knicks are 27-40 this season and while they have made a little run of late (six straight wins) they remain five games back in the loss column to the Atlanta Hawks with 15 games to play. Even if they pull off the miracle and make the playoffs, it will not disguise the fact this is a bad basketball team right now. One largely locked into a similar roster next season with nine players under contract for $67 million — and that is without Carmelo Anthony, who has said he will opt out as a free agent. If the Knicks resign him that’s 10 players and they will be well into the luxury tax already.
Jackson said he wants to re-sign Anthony, saying that he is the best isolation scorer in the game but that Anthony can reach another level if he buys into the right system.
“Carmelo has had a load to carry this year, a scoring load, and he’s been remarkable in that,” Jackson said. “I think he showed in the last Olympics, coming off the bench and playing a role as a bench player on a magnificent team that won a gold medal, that he can play a role if he has to play a role. I think he’s a basketball player and I think that’s what players want to do — they want to cut, to pass, to be in a different spots on the floor, to attack and to play. And I think Carmelo will be just fine.”
To create that team where Anthony will be fine will require a lot of creativity. What Jackson talked about mostly was getting the right players for his system (which he said would at the least be triangle influenced).
“We’re going to have to go out and work the bushes for players the next year and we’re going to have to work them the coming years as we do go forward and we have draft picks, and we have the chance to build this team,” Jackson said.
The most probable rebuild scenarios come around in 2015 — the Knicks’ bad contracts come off the books (Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, Andrea Bargnani) freeing up money to spend plus they have their draft pick. That’s the year potential free agents include Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo and others. It’s not exactly a tabula rasa for Jackson to work with in 2015, but it’s far closer than this summer when the roster is clogged with contracts that, even if they can be moved, will not bring much value in return.
“Steve and I are going to work on how to manage the roster, and our financials, to have an impact in (2015 class),” Jackson said. “I think we need another contributor, someone that can score who can help Carmelo go along and contribute to this team and the winning experience.”
Jackson suggested most of the rebuilding will be done through free agency, which makes sense as the Knicks have traded away a lot of first round draft picks in the coming years.
How hands on Jackson will be with scouting remains to be seen, but don’t expect to see him in the bleachers of a lot of college games.
“I don’t know, to be honest with you,” Jackson said of his level of scouting involvement. “I think the first thing we have going on right now is the NCAA tournament and we will turn our focus on and watch. But I really want to turn our focus on NBA teams. The advent of the game, a lot of it is, that there are players that are on benches, that are on teams, that will be available, maybe not on high-priced contracts, that can come in and help assist and build a team. So there are a variety of ways in which we can build teams.”
Jackson is not the detail guy here — Mills will be the one dealing with agents, working directly with team scouts, figuring out the details of the salary cap. Jackson is going to be more of the CEO role, setting the tone and picking his people to execute it. On the court that will be a new coach (although Jackson said good things about Mike Woodson at the press conference, still everyone knows he is a dead coach walking) and it will mean new people in the Knicks front office over time.
Jackson suggested whatever system is in place will be triangle influenced, if not outright full triangle. That can certainly work. There is not one magical system that wins (or everyone would run it). Whether it is the Bulls and Lakers in the triangle, the evolving system of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, or the space and pace of Miami, what matters is having elite talent, having a system in place to support that talent, and having the right players in the system around those stars to make it work.
Jackson understands system better than anyone.
Now we’ll see if he can build and execute it from the front office.