51 Questions: Will Knicks win enough to ease pressure on Phil Jackson?

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Will the New York Knicks win enough to take some heat off Phil Jackson?

Phil Jackson brought with him to New York 11 championship rings and moving trucks full of heightened expectations — the former Knick player returned home and was going to lift the Knicks to their first title since American Graffiti was still in theaters. And since Jackson was a player. Add to those hopes the fact New Yorkers are not exactly world renown for their patience and this was the reality:

Jackson was on the clock the moment he took the job in Manhattan.

Part of his challenge has been that managing those expectations — rebuilding the Knicks was always going to be a long-play project, not a quick fix. The last guy to look at New York in a big picture way was Donnie Walsh, and once he got the roster out of Isiah Thomas’ hole owner James Dolan lost patience and the Knicks went back to their short-sighted ways.

Could history repeat itself with Phil Jackson? Or is he going to get the time to fully implement his vision?

Which may come down to this:

Are the Knicks improved enough, and do they show enough promise this season, to ease pressure on Jackson?

There are plenty of fans (and other executives around the league) who don’t trust the Phil Jackson rebuild process. They didn’t see positives in a 17-win season, then they watched him draft a skinny, European project in Kristaps Porzingis. They look at the roster for this season and seriously question if they can make the playoffs, even in a diluted Eastern Conference.

As the losses mount up on the Knicks this season — and they will mount up, this is not a playoff team even if Carmelo Anthony stays healthy — the number of fans that have lost patience with Jackson will grow. Their voices will ring out on sports talk radio and in the Post and Daily News, reminding everyone the Knicks should not tank this season because they don’t own their own draft pick next June.

The only question that matters is if James Dolan is among those voices?

So far, Jackson has been worth his $12 million a year just to keep Dolan at arm’s length from basketball decision making.

There is a plan now in New York. Jackson has worked to change the locker room culture of the Knicks — gone is Amar’e Stoudemire and his wine baths (and massive contract), gone is J.R. Smith with his late nights and contested shots, gone is Andrea Bargnani and whatever it was they saw in him in the first place. In their place are solid, professional, consistent rotation players such as Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo.

Certainly Jackson rolled the dice on Porzingis — a player that his higher risk, higher reward than guys still on the board at No. 4 such as Emmanuel Mudiay and Justise Winslow. The challenge again is patience because it will be a couple of seasons before we find out how good the raw Porzingis really can be. Comparing him to Pau Gasol or Dirk Nowitzki is too high a bar to set for any player, but he’s not going to be Bargnani either. The question will be where he ultimately falls on the scale, and it’s going to take a while to find out.

What Jackson is creating is a solid foundation of players — guys like Jerian Grant, the rookie point guard already playing like a veteran — who could attract big time free agents. I can tell you there are people around Kevin Durant who would love to see him in New York (how much influence those people have remains to be seen, the smart money is on him staying in OKC). The advantage to being the Knicks is they can always get the meeting with elite free agents.

Jackson has a lot of work to do before hey can get serious about the 2016 free agent market. The Knicks as currently constructed will not have enough money to offer a max contract next summer to Durant or anyone else, even with a cap that will jump up to around $90 million (the Knicks will have about $19 million in cap space, according to former Nets executive Bobby Marks on twitter). The Knicks have to hope Afflalo opts out of his $8 million player option for next season, or New York is going to have to make some moves.

Let me be honest: I’m not at all convinced that Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher can revive the triangle in New York and win that way. They may be living in the Jurassic period.

That said, the steps Jackson has taken with this roster — and even the risks like Porzingis — are steps in the right direction and light years ahead of the quick-fix free agent grabs that have left this franchise struggling for more than a decade.

Jackson should be allowed to see his plan out for a while longer, Knicks fans just need to be patient.

Watch Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard drain game-winning 3 to beat Lakers

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court together (and combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds). Russell Westbrook continued to thrive as a sixth man with 24 points.

But the biggest shot of the night belonged to Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard — a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was a well-designed play and when Westbrook chased and doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner it left the screen setter, Myles Turner, wide open for a clean look at a 3 — but he hit the front of the rim. The long rebound caromed out, Tyrese Haliburton grabbed it and tried to create, but then he saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West that will test the surprising Pacers.

For the Lakers… they have some hard decisions to make coming up.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.