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

32 Comments

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.

LeBron James flips elimination-game game on its head

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
1 Comment

His Cavaliers down 3-2 to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, how does LeBron James assess his situation?

"I don’t enjoy being in the position where it’s you lose and go home," LeBron said before Game 6 tonight in Cleveland.

He might not enjoy this position, but he’s pretty good in it.

Since he first reached the playoffs in 2006, other teams have won 26% of their elimination games. LeBron’s teams have won 57% of theirs.

Of course, LeBron hasn’t gone 12-9 in elimination games just because he’s lucky. He has willed his team off the mat numerous times.

LeBron has scored 40 points and/or had a triple-double in six straight elimination games, winning five of them. His line in his last elimination game before that streak? Just 32 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists.

A full history of LeBron’s elimination games:

image

Rockets played with fire with Chris Paul, got burned

AP Photo/David J. Phillip
2 Comments

Chris Paul played 79 minutes in three days.

Prior to Games 4 and 5 of these Western Conference finals, he hadn’t done that in more than two years. He hadn’t done it without both games going to overtime in more than three years.

The Rockets leaned heavily on the 33-year-old Paul, and they’ll pay the price.

Paul will miss Game 6 against the Warriors tomorrow. Given how quickly Houston ruled out Paul with a strained hamstring, he seems unlikely to play in a potential Game 7 Monday.

Injuries are somewhat – but not completely – random. Players are more susceptible when worn down. After missing the close of the 2016 postseason, Paul missed 45 games the last two regular seasons. He has accumulated a lot of mileage in his 13-year career.

Yet, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni drastically shortened his rotation, anyway. Not only did Paul play big minutes in this series, he shouldered a huge load. He took the reins of the offense at times, allowing James Harden to conserve energy for defense, while maintaining his own strong-two way play. That’s never easy, especially in these high-intensity games.

This was the risk.

We can feel bad for Paul and his predicament. We can also acknowledge Houston got this far by gambling on Paul’s health.

That’s not to say it was a bad bet. This is what you save him for, the biggest playoff series of his career and maybe one of the last before he exits his prime. The Rockets would have been far worse off to this point resting Paul extensively and protecting him. Even with such a heavy workload, an injury was never fait accompli. And Houston got plenty from Paul before he went down. He was instrumental to wins in Game 4 and Game 5 that gave the Rockets a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals.

Now, they just must hope that’s enough of a head-start into a world of playing without Paul.

Chris Paul out for Rockets-Warriors Game 6

6 Comments

The Rockets bought themselves margin for error by earning home-court advantage and taking a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals.

They’ll need it.

Chris Paul will miss Game 6 against the Warriors tomorrow with a strained hamstring.

Rockets release:

The Houston Rockets announced today that guard Chris Paul will miss Saturday’s game at Golden State with a right hamstring strain that occurred during the fourth quarter of last night’s game against the Warriors. He will be re-evaluated after the team returns to Houston.

Golden State was already heavily favored at home. This will tilt the odds even further in its favor.

But the Rockets aren’t completely incapable without Paul. They went 15-9 without him this season. James Harden and Eric Gordon can assume extra playmaking duty.

Still, this is a massive loss. When Harden is overburdened offensively, his defense suffers. Gordon is already playing a lot of minutes, so greater responsibility will come in role, not playing time. To fill Paul’s minutes, Mike D’Antoni will have to expand a rotation he had masterfully tightened. Gerald Green could play more. Luc Mbah a Moute could return to the rotation.

A Game 7 looks increasingly likely. Will Paul return for that? The 2018 NBA title might hinge on that question.

Given how quickly the Rockets announced Paul would miss Game 6, there isn’t much reason for optimism about Paul’s availability three days from now, either.

Report: Chris Paul’s hamstring injury ‘not good’

10 Comments

The question looming over the Western Conference finals: How is Chris Paul?

The Rockets revealed little last night about Paul’s hamstring injury. Time to see how his body responded would provide clarity.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

That stinks. It’s also a fairly expected development. Paul appeared to be in rough shape before leaving the court.

The Rockets have bought themselves margin for error, but a sidelined or even hobbled Paul would sap a lot of it.

If Paul can’t play in Game 6 tomorrow, expect Eric Gordon and James Harden to receive a larger offensive roles (though not necessarily more minutes). Gerald Green could play more, and maybe Luc Mbah a Moute gets back into the rotation.