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.