Phil Jackson, Red Holzman and Tex Winter

At the end of Sunday’s talk with Phil Jackson at the New Yorker Festival there was an opportunity for some Q&A. During that time I asked Jackson whether there is anything of Red Holzman’s that he’s passed along to Derek Fisher. As mentioned by Frank Isola of the Daily News here and by Mike Breen during tonight’s telecast, Jackson explained that he had taken Fisher to visit with Tex Winter, architect of the Triangle offense, at his home in Manhattan, Kansas, shortly after Fisher had agreed to take the Knicks job and that they spent time discussing the offense at length. Interestingly enough that visit was covered in the Manhattan, Kansas area at the time but didn’t seem to make it to the “other” Manhattan then.

Jackson didn’t respond to my question about Holzman, his first professional coach and mentor, with an answer about Winter because he misheard me. He went on to explain that Holzman didn’t diagram plays and wasn’t an offensive minded coach and that if they were in the huddle and needed a basket he’d turn to the players and ask what they wanted to run and who they wanted to run it for. Jackson said that he considers himself to be a bridge between Winter’s offense and Holzman’s defense and Derek Fisher.

So what kind of defense did Red Holzman stress?

In a wonderful obituary of Holzman, Ira Berkow wrote of exactly what Jackson described:

Holzman’s hard work revolved around the fundamentals of the game. ”I stressed defense — pressure defense,” he once said….In huddles he would sometimes let his players devise plays to create baskets. As for defense, however, he was the sole voice.

That talk of pressure defense made me think of a passage from Roland Lazenby’s “Michael Jordan: The Life”:

Defense dominated Phil Jackson’s first training camp as coach of the Bulls. He had been a baseline-to-baseline player for the Knicks, and he wanted the same for his Bulls. “See the ball,” Red Holzman used to tell his New York teams in terms of pressure defense. Jackson certainly wanted them to have vision, but it was first and foremost a matter of conditioning. To play defense for Jackson, you had to be able to reach those higher gears and stay there.

"When Phil came in, our first training camp was as difficult a camp as I’d ever had," Paxson recalled. "It was defensive-oriented. Everything we did was, start from the defensive end and work to the offensive end. Phil basically made us into a pressure-type team. Defensively, he knew that was how we would win."

"We were gonna play full-court pressure defense," Jackson said. "We were gonna throw our hearts into it."

What did Derek Fisher do in his first practice as a Knick? Focus entirely on defense. What kind of shape is Carmelo Anthony in? The best of his career. Who’s unexpectedly getting a lot of run in the preseason? Dogged Quincy Acy. Jackson wasn’t just talking when he said he wanted to connect Holzman to Fisher. He’s done it.

Trying to Answer Twenty Questions About the Knicks

A couple of weeks ago I posed twenty questions, the answers to which will likely determine whether the 2014-15 Knicks achieve success (make the playoffs) or struggle (miss the playoffs). Some are factual and have become more clear with the start of the preseason while others can only be answered over time. I’ve never been too concerned with being right around here so I’ll try and answer them without the benefit of, you know, actually knowing all that much.

1. What position will the finally slim Carmelo Anthony play? Does his dramatic weight loss suggest the Knicks plan on using him at small forward? 

The Knicks plan on using Carmelo Anthony at small forward. They’ve started him at the three in both their preseason games.

2. How good can Melo be in the Triangle? Will he buy into the team’s new gameplan? Will he move the ball like he’s going to be asked to? 

The results in this area are promising so far. In two preseason games Melo’s been able to get all his usual jumpers and one-on-one midrange work while showing a willingness to move the ball and getting it in promising situations. The stats don’t tell much of a story but passes like these do. Every indication we have so far is that Melo’s willing to do whatever it takes to win this season and that the Triangle is the perfect offense for him to do it in.

3. What is the Triangle offense? How structured is it?

The Triangle offense was originally known as the Triple Post and it is helpful to think of posting up as the framework for the offense, which focuses on spacing and ball movement and not isolation or pick and roll play and uses posting up in the high and low post to create that spacing. A lot of savvy people have written about it extensively. But it’s not as structured as most people think. When working properly it’s supposed to flow and is not wildly different from a lot of the offense the Spurs run. It’s about spacing and movement but it isn’t an offense that’s full of set plays to get shots for specific players or where Coach Fish is going to call, say, Diamond, and that means it’s that dumb downscreen the Knicks ran for Melo to start every game last season. There will still be plenty of side out of bounds plays and all of that. If Phil Jackson doesn’t have set plays how do you think it ended up that Toni Kukoc took that shot to to end Game Three of the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals? You think Phil Jackson just said “Tony, Triangle” and then Scottie Pippen went and sat on the bench?

On top of all that, at his appearance at this week’s New Yorker Festival, Phil Jackson pointed out that the first and easiest option is to get a basket is in transition before the defense gets set and mentioned Jose Calderon as a player who can be counted on to push the pace.

4. What is it like to have a point guard who can shoot it like Jose Calderon? How does he keep his shadow that five o’clock?

I almost always have a five o’clock shadow myself and I can tell you that the way to keep it that way is by being a great person. Calderon has already shown that he can shoot the hell out of it this preseason. But he’s also shown a willingness to move the ball upcourt using the pass and to probe in transition before pulling it back out. His shooting and pace are going to give the Knicks not one but two dimensions they didn’t have last season when starting point person Ray Felton shot 31% from three (compared to Calderon’s 45%) and the Knicks scored a league-low 9.0 fast break points per game. 

5. Will anyone in the rotation other than Iman Shumpert be able to pressure the ball on defense?

This is a tough question to answer but lightning quick second year man Shane Larkin seems to be the favorite to be the Knicks’ backup PG to start the year and he ought to be able to harass opposing PGs. Quincy Acy, a tweener forward without much to offer in terms of offensive skills, also seems to be capable of playing aggressively on defense while scaring the hell out of his opponents. 

6. How much did Mike Woodson’s coaching (or lack thereof) have to do with the stagnation of Shumpert’s development? Can he take his game to another level? Will trade rumors dog him again this season?

I can’t actually answer this question. I wouldn’t be surprised if Shump is the team’s starting shooting guard when the playoffs start but I also wouldn’t be surprised if they trade him at the deadline. They floated him last year, after all. They also declined to offer him a contract extension during the offseason, which wasn’t surprising since they want to maximize their financial flexibility and can make him a restricted free agent by making qualifying offer later. One way or another at the end of this season there won’t be any more room for excuses or explanations; after four years and three coaches Shump will be a fully formed Shump and will need to be evaluated as such.

7. Does the new regime view JR Smith as a player who should come off the bench like Mike Woodson did? If not, will he start at small forward?

8. How much of “Bad JR” will we see? Will The Triangle get him the spot-up jumpers that he’s so adept at making (as opposed to the off the dribble ones that he’s better off passing up)?

These questions are intertwined. Coach Fish hasn’t said anything much about who’s going to start other than Melo while Jackson mentioned at his New Yorker talk that Dalembert and Calderon are likely to do the same. That leaves shooting guard and one of the forward spots open. There’s a chance that JR ends up starting but I think it’s more likely that Shump starts and Smith provides off the bench, as he did with mixed results the last two seasons (a fantastic 2012-13 that won him Sixth Man of the Year, a rough start to 2013-14 that obscured a solid stretch run).

If Smith plays the best version of his game - which involves plenty of spot-up jumpers and drives to the rim and few extended dribbling sojourns - he’s a deadly player who will probably finish games at shooting guard.

9. Can Tim Hardaway remember that there are things to do with a basketball other than shoot? Can he show some semblance of an understanding of team defense?

Hardaway came back from the summer with quite a bit of muscle added to his frame so I assume he’s planning on using it for something. 

10. What does Amar’e Stoudemire have left? Can his mid-range jump shot make him useful enough in the new offense to offset his defense?

I’m not sure what Amar’e has left but they’ve been careful with him already, keeping him to just fifteen minutes in each of their two games so far. His mid-range jumper is definitely an asset and in limited minutes he should be somewhat useful. He seems to be in the running to start at power forward. Which brings us to…

11. Will Andrea Bargnani play at all?

This looks like a definite yes. He started the first preseason game before sitting out of the second with a sore hamstring. He looked a lot like Andrea Bargnani when he was playing. He may start. I don’t know what to say about that other than that none of us are at practice and maybe the organization sees something we don’t. Also, gross.

12. Will the Knicks let Stoudemire and Bargnani’s contracts expire when the season ends and turn them into cap space? Or will they do something dumb?

I think these contracts are simply going to go poof at the end of the league year. Expiring contracts just aren’t worth much anymore. There’ve been rumors floating around that the Sixers could use Amar’e to hit the salary floor before the trade deadline in an effort to save a few bucks (just trust me, it’s complicated), maybe in exchange for a second round pick or two (they have four in the upcoming draft) but other than that I don’t see them getting traded for the contract of a certain overpaid Laker whose contract matches up with the combined value of Bargnanamire’s perfectly (kidding).

13. Can Samuel Dalembert, who has been on five teams in the last five seasons, provide the Knicks with rim protection? Will he piss Derek Fisher off the same way he has Eddie Jordan, Paul Westphal, Kevin McHale, Scott Skiles and Rick Carlisle?

He’s got the skill set the Knicks need and he’s looked solid in the preseason. We’ll see. 

14. Who is Jason Smith? How many times will he be compared to Wennington/Perdue/Longley? Does that question count as one time? Three times?

Not a lot to report here. He missed the first preseason game due to the birth of his first child and didn’t play in the second. And yes, that counts as three times. He’s said to have a solid jump shot and a tendency to get injured.

15. Were the flashes Cole Aldrich showed at the end of last season indicative of anything or is he still Cole Aldrich? 

Unless I missed some tweets, Cole Aldrich is still Cole Aldrich. I do not believe that he’s a viable basketball player beyond playing the Jason Collins “give six” role.

16. Was Cleanthony Early the steal of the draft?

Early looked like a man in college and looks like a kid in the NBA, which is funny because that’s how going from school to the workplace is for everyone except LeBron and Greg Oden. He had a solid second preseason game. My guess is he’ll show some flashes but most of his development will be away from game action this season. Based on what I know about his game I think that his success as an NBA player will depend on whether he can shoot the three at a somewhat above average level.

17. How much will we all love Quincy Acy and his amazing beard?

I already love it. And Fisher seems to like Acy alright too, giving him the start in Bargnani’s absence on Saturday night. He doesn’t have a bit of offensive game but he’s a garbageman in the truest sense. He’s that guy, he moves weird, he’s a little out of control and a little reckless, a little scary. He’s the kind of player the Knicks have been missing for a long time (save a few healthy stretches for Kenyon Martin).

18. How hands on will Phil Jackson be? How present will he be (both literally and metaphysically)?

Seems to me he will be literally hands off and metaphysically hands on. He discussed philosophy at length at the New Yorker talk, mentioned that the Knicks will be doing “mindfulness training” and said that he will be available for players to talk to whenever they like. So his aura will be present if not his actual self.

19. How much of an adjustment period will there be for Derek Fisher? What do the fans expect? How much pressure will there be on him?

Fisher seems prepared, smart and ready. But there will be growing pains. That said, you know how everyone always says “everyone always says you can’t rebuild in New York but you really can, New York fans are smart”? Time to prove it, neighbors.

20. Can the Knicks make the playoffs?

Yes. Assuming health, the Knicks are definitely not as good as Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, Miami or Atlanta. They are probably not as good as Toronto. They are as good, better or worse than Brooklyn and Charlotte. That’s eight teams. That means that with a few breaks they could find themselves in the middle of the pack but that a few unlucky moments and an injury or two and they could find themselves in the lottery. Also, congratulations, you just enjoyed my Eastern Conference preview.

Whew. I’m excited, you should be excited, it’s going to be an exciting season no matter what happens.

The Knicks will continue to not really answer any of these questions when they take on Toronto tonight at 7:30. Have fun.

Preseason Celtics 106 - Preseason Knicks 86

The Knicks kicked off the 2014-15 preseason tonight and the results were something like…inconclusive. The starters (Dalembert, Bargnani, Melo, JR and Calderon) played about six and a half minutes to begin the game and ran a few sets out of the triangle before they were substituted hockey style. The second unit included Larkin and not Prigioni, which was probably the most interesting development of the night. I thought it was a certainty that Prigioni would be the team’s backup PG but it looks like he and Larkin will be competing for that spot. The second unit also consisted of along Stoudemire, Quincy Acy (bearded free agent acquisition), Hardaway and Cleanthony Early (second round draft pick incapable of growing facial hair.) Here’s the box score if you’re interested in that kind of thing. Some other general observations:

  • Bargnani showed his usual flashes of offense interspersed with awkward, looping drives that ended badly (he had 8 points on 3-7 shooting.)
  • The Knicks’ D was terrible and lacked intensity. Any kind of quick passing or backdoor cuts led to easy baskets for the Celtics. Seemed odd.
  • Playing without any NBA-quality scorers the Knicks’ offense really fell apart in the second half, where they were 52-34. Hardaway did his usual thing (18 points, 10-11 from the line, 2-3 from three) but other than that the likes of Early, Acy and Shane Larkin just couldn’t piece together a functional offense.
  • Travis Wear, a rookie power forward (kinda) from UCLA who will be with the Knicks’ D-League team, looked…OK. He made a few nice plays on his way to 6 points but got pushed around by Jared Sullinger. Still, he’s pretty big and my wife seemed to like him so I think it’s a good idea to send him to Westchester.
  • I hope to never see Quincy Acy guard Joel Anthony in a regular season game. Neither guy’s strength is really implicated by that matchup.
  • No Knick starter played more than 21 minutes (Melo led the team).
  • Shumpert was held out with a sore hamstring.
  • New backup center Jason Smith missed the game due to personal reasons which I heard may be due to his wife going into labor. Nice timing guys.
  • Stoudemire started the second half and word on the street is he and Bargnani are battling for the starting power forward spot. If only there was another option like starting Carmelo Anthony there.
  • The Knicks turned the ball over 28 times!

Not a lot to take away from this one. The Knicks showed some flashes of the triangle but I wasn’t able to make out anything too coherent. It’s going to take me some time to learn how to watch it so I might have missed some things. Or maybe you should get off my back. The Knicks played 7 players who weren’t on the team last season and are running a challenging new system. It’s going to take some time for them to resemble something close to an NBA-ready offense. 

The Knicks take on the Celtics at Mohegan Sun (!) Saturday at 7:30. Should be…mildly interesting.

Michael Jordan: The Life, The Knicks & Carmelo Anthony

I’m working my way through Roland Lazenby’s “Michael Jordan: The Life” which is an excellent book that came out this year. It’s full of insight into Michael Jordan’s life off the court and on and even though I’ve read quite a few MJ books (The Jordan Rules, Playing For Keeps, When Nothing Else Matters, etc) I’m still getting a lot out of it. Even better, I’ve learned a lot about Phil Jackson and the triangle. Two passages in particular made me think of the Knicks and Carmelo Anthony.

The first one, on Jordan in 1997-98:

His team was now in its seventh year using Tex Winter’s triangle offense. That brought order to the floor, but it was Jordan’s role in the offense that often sparked it to life. He could take a single step and move an entire defense. There was no one who knew Winter’s offense better than he did, perhaps not even Winter himself. Jordan always had a special kinesthetic sense, an ability to read the floor. The offensive system refined that sense by bringing order to the context. Jordan saw its limitations and figured out how to behave in them until he saw a better option.

Jordan didn’t need the offense and often chose to go off on his own, but there were thousands of possessions where he used it to perfection. He worked constantly in the post, and the triangle made it difficult for teams to double team him. So many times all he had to do was turn toward the baseline, away from the double-team, to find an open shot. He could get his shot any time he wanted simply by dribbling to places that no one else seemed to be able to go - or even think to go. But the offense, when he used it, produced shots for him in bunches. And he was simply a splendid shot maker.

When I read that I think about Carmelo Anthony posting up at that 45-degree angle spot and just annihilating people, bending the defense toward him when he turns toward the middle or getting an open shot when he spins toward the baseline. I understand that this will be Melo’s first season in the triangle and not his seventh and that he might choose to go off on his own more than Jordan did. But I also know that like Jordan he’s a splendid shot maker with a fantastic post game and that the triangle offense is going to give him the opportunity to max out both those attributes.

The second passage that made me think of the Knicks came as Lazenby wrote about the Jordan-Pippen-Jackson Bulls breaking up at the end of that season: 

"It wasn’t just Michael," Kerr said. "It was the experience. We all knew that we were living through this era that was special and we were so lucky to be a part of it…And we knew how special it was. And that was Phil’s genius was that he…that’s how he bonded our team. He made us communicate and he brought us together in so many different ways. And, it wasn’t going to happen without Phil, because Michael wasn’t going to make it happen for himself, because he was above the rest of us and he wasn’t a guy like Scottie who, who was human enough to have those emotions and frailties that you could relate to. So, we couldn’t relate to Michael, but Phil brought us together with the different things that he did."

Phil Jackson won’t be coaching the Knicks. But he will be present and he will have a chance to influence the culture and Derek Fisher, the actual coach, played for Phil Jackson for nine seasons. If Phil Jackson excelled at one thing as a coach it was finding a way to unite a team and build an insular culture despite the presence of an outsize superstar (or two) that would have fractured teams with lesser leadership. And he did it while coaching teams that achieved unbelievable levels of popularity (the Jordan Bulls’ global fame was unprecedented at the time; I’d put the Kobe-Shaq Lakers right behind the LeBron-Wade Heat in terms of popularity). Between them, Fisher and Jackson have experience with three of the biggest stars in modern sports history. Jordan, Shaq and Kobe weren’t just superstars either, they were capable of being prickly, egotistical and aloof. And that’s before we start talking about players like Dennis Rodman, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum. After holding together a locker room with both Kobe and Shaq, what’s Carmelo Anthony and JR Smith? 

I don’t know about everyone else but I can’t wait for the season to start. The Knicks might not be contenders but they have a fantastic player who will be operating in an offensive system that’s perfectly tailored to his game. The Knicks are led by empowered people who understand what kind of culture needs to be in place for a team to win. Give it time to grow and maybe one day I’ll recommend a book about Carmelo Anthony.

Twenty Questions For The 2014-15 Knicks

That sound you hear isn’t New York City collectively yawning as the Yankees and Derek Jeter limp to the end of their season. It isn’t the Mets claiming they’ll add the bat they need and next year will be different. It isn’t Geno Smith hanging his head after a poor decision. It isn’t Eli Manning figuring out Ben McAdoo’s offense. No, it’s the Knicks’ carbon footprint ripping a hole in the atmosphere as they descend on the greater New York metropolitan area. That’s right: Knicks training camp starts next week.

It’s been a longer offseason than we’re used to having lately as the Knicks didn’t finish off the 2013-14 season with a disappointing week or two in the playoffs. With the long layoff in mind, let’s start shaking out the cobwebs with twenty questions that this year’s iteration of the Knicks will answer for better or for worse.

  1. What position will the finally slim Carmelo Anthony play? Does his dramatic weight loss suggest the Knicks plan on using him at small forward? 
  2. How good can Melo be in The Triangle? Will he buy into the team’s new gameplan? Will he move the ball like he’s going to be asked to? 
  3. What is The Triangle offense? How structured is it? 
  4. What is it like to have a point guard who can shoot it like Jose Calderon? How does he keep his shadow that five o’clock?
  5. Will anyone in the rotation other than Iman Shumpert be able to pressure the ball on defense?
  6. How much did Mike Woodson’s coaching (or lack thereof) have to do with the stagnation of Shumpert’s development? Can he take his game to another level? Will trade rumors dog him again this season?
  7. Does the new regime view JR Smith as a player who should come off the bench like Mike Woodson did? If not, will he start at small forward?
  8. How much of “Bad JR” will we see? Will The Triangle get him the spot-up jumpers that he’s so adept at making (as opposed to the off the dribble ones that he’s better off passing up)?
  9. Can Tim Hardaway remember that there are things to do with a basketball other than shoot? Can he show some semblance of an understanding of team defense?
  10. What does Amar’e Stoudemire have left? Can his mid-range jump shot make him useful in the new offense to offset his defense?
  11. Will Andrea Bargnani play at all?
  12. Will the Knicks let Stoudemire and Bargnani’s contracts expire when the season ends and turn them into cap space? Or will they do something dumb?
  13. Can Samuel Dalembert, who has been on five teams in the last five seasons, provide the Knicks with rim protection? Will he piss Derek Fisher off the same way he has Eddie Jordan, Paul Westphal, Kevin McHale, Scott Skiles and Rick Carlisle?
  14. Who is Jason Smith? How many times will he be compared to Wennington/Perdue/Longley? Does that question count as one time? Three times?
  15. Were the flashes Cole Aldrich showed at the end of last season indicative of anything or is he still Cole Aldrich? 
  16. Was Cleanthony Early the steal of the draft?
  17. How much will we all love Quincy Acy and his amazing beard?
  18. How hands on will Phil Jackson be? How present will he be (both literally and metaphysically)?
  19. How much of an adjustment period will there be for Derek Fisher? What do the fans expect? How much pressure will there be on him?
  20. Can the Knicks make the playoffs?

By mid-April we’ll know the answers to pretty much all these questions. For now though, it’s all just guesswork. I’ll make my guesses next week. Good or bad, it’s sure to be an interesting season. Can’t wait.

What’s Next? Not Much Else

Now that the Knicks have Carmelo Anthony back in the fold for what’s reportedly a five-year, $124 million deal, the next logical step is for them to start making moves around the margins of their roster. Don’t expect the usual out-of-nowhere Knicks signing of a foreign veteran, D-League lifer or American exile balling in China, however, because they appear to be finished building their roster (or close to it.)

There’s not a whole lot for them to do because they have a roster that’s more or less full and are now officially without anything other than the minimum salary to sign free agents. Yesterday, Phil Jackson talked about how the Knicks needed to add size and today they spent their $3.3 million cap exception on Jason Smith, a center who averaged 9.7 points and 5.8 rebounds in 31 games for the Pelicans last season. Smith’s a legit seven-footer with decent range who has struggled with injuries throughout his career. Smith’s deal follows last week’s signing of lanky, lumbering center Cole Aldrich to a guaranteed contract, likely for the minimum. 

Aldrich is more of a rangy rim protector than Smith but they do share a certain similarity (and not just that most people don’t know who the hell they are.) I’m not going to make a Luc Longley/Bill Wennington/Will Perdue joke but after signing two middling white centers in a single week it does feel like Phil Jackson is trolling us a bit. But there’s more to it than that.

Jackson’s teams have always had traditional size (and then some). The big white guys of the Bulls (and Bison Dele) and the Shaq/Medvedenko (I don’t know, Shaq was big enough for two guys) and Bynum/Gasol Lakers showed how much easier the game can be when the opposition has to deal with real big men in the middle (and not power forwards dressed up as centers.) Looks like Phil’s trying to recreate that on the cheap for next season. It’s counter to what a lot of the league has done in recent years, but that can have its advantages. It’ll be interesting to watch next season. 

The Smith and Aldrich signings, which took place as more glamorous (but not great) role players like Kris Humphries signed elsewhere, pretty much tap the Knicks out for next season. Humphries is exactly the kind of power forward the Knicks have been trying to use as a backup center for the last few seasons; the days of trying to guard Joakim Noah with a one-legged Kenyon Martin appear to be over (I know the Knicks had Tyson Chandler on the team last season but between injuries, declining ability and lack of effort, he wasn’t much of a presence.)

NBA teams can carry fifteen players on their roster during the season, with twelve or thirteen dressing. After signing Smith and Aldrich the Knicks are right up against that limit. So let’s take an early look at our 2014-15 Knickerbockers:

Bigs

Aldrich, Bargnani, Dalembert, Stoudemire, Smith and Jeremy Tyler

  • All these guys are going to be on the Knicks next season. Tyler’s still young and has a great deal of potential (his jumper and passing from the high post have looked quite nice in the summer league and he made some plays last season.) Aldrich and Smith just signed guaranteed contracts. Bargnani and Stoudemire, well, you know. Jackson said yesterday he sees Bargnani and Stoudemire as centers. That’s six big men right there, with Stoudemire, Bargnani and Tyler capable of playing either the four or the five (some more embarassingly than others.)

Threes/Fours

Carmelo Anthony, Cleanthony Early

  • The Knicks have one Carmelo Anthony. He’s mowed down everyone in his path at power forward the last few years and he’ll probably continue to do so this season. He’s kind of a wing, kind of a post player. He’s going to be fantastic in the triangle next season.
  • Early very well may prove to be the steal of the draft, a first round talent taken in the second round. He reminds me a little bit of Melo - he’s got some inside out game and can bully wings and out-quick bigs. He also did this earlier in the week.

Wings

Tim Hardaway, Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Wayne Ellington

  • This is where things get crowded. The word is Antetokounmpo, a rabid defender and big bro to the biggest smoothie lover in the league, is going to get stashed over in Greece this season, which leaves the Knicks with five wing players, four if you assume Ellington, brought over as filler in the Chandler/Felton diaspora isn’t going to make the team (which he probably won’t.) The most interesting question going into camp for the Knicks is which of these guys is going to start. Shump seems like a lock to start at shooting guard but there hasn’t been any word on whether the new administration considers JR a sixth man or whether they’re willing to let him be the team’s starting small forward. If it isn’t Smith it could be Hardaway, who very well might have been the worst defender on the Knicks last season. I’m very much looking forward to a Knick roster that starts Jose Calderon, Tim Hardaway and Carmelo Anthony with Shump trying to hold the league’s best perimeter players at bay and the ghost of Samuel Dalembert attempting to protect the rim behind them. 

Point Guards

Jose Calderon, Pablo Prigioni, Shane Larkin

  • You don’t need to be Daryl Morey to figure out that Raymond Felton was just awful last season. Calderon, a fantastic three-point shooter, ballhandler and offense-runner, is everything Felton is not (other than defensively, where he’s pretty similar although since he isn’t fat he isn’t quite so easy to screen.) The transition from Felton to Calderon is a huge upgrade for the Knicks. Prigioni’s still Prigioni (a capable backup/backcourt mate for fifteen minutes a game). And Larkin, a first round pick two years ago who almost literally got off on the wrong foot in Dallas last season (he broke his ankle before the summer league) may grow into a useful player over the course of the season. Larkin played in the pick-and-roll in college and had a lot of success with it but he’ll have some adjusting to do in the triangle. His shooting and ballhandling ability should give him a chance to do so. 

That’s fourteen players who seem sure to make the roster, plus Antetokounmpo and Ellington and the rest of the guys on the summer league roster that haven’t come up yet (Shannon Brown, who has a long history with Fisher and Jackson, is one player that might find his way to the last seat on the bench.) 

Unless Big Chief Triangle has some kind of two-for-one swap planned, these are likely to be your 2014-2015 New York Knicks. Here we go.

Another Summer Spent Scavenging: A Look At Free Agent Point Guard Options For The Knicks

If the Knicks re-sign Carmelo Anthony, you can expect them to do their usual cap-necessitated dumpster diving and stone unturning to find the players they need to round out their roster. If they don’t, you can expect that they’ll sign whoever’s around and tank (OK don’t expect that but it’s what they should do). 

Assuming Melo stays, they’ll have the mini-midlevel exception to sign a free agent to a deal worth about three million a year. They can also, as usual, fill out their roster with players who sign for the veteran’s minimum.

Even without the trauma of a Carmelo departure, the Knicks are a team in flux as they transition to the triangle offense under coach Derek Fisher and godcoach Phil Jackson. Lucky for them, Melo’s perfect to play the Kobe/late-model MJ role in the offense and their biggest weakness - a point guard capable of running a coherent offense - isn’t quite essential to the Tex Winter system, which puts an emphasis on allowing anyone to initiate the offense. Almost none of Jackson’s point guards with the Bulls and Lakers were traditional point guards. Rather, with guys like Paxson (shooting), Kerr (shooting, being able to take an MJ punch), Harper (defense), Fisher (shooting, being friends with Kobe), Farmar (shooting, surprising people by being Jewish) and Smush Parker (OK, just kidding), Jackson’s teams have typically employed point guards who excelled in some area other than quarterbacking the offense. Thinking back to Jackson’s Bulls and Lakers, it isn’t hard to envision the Knicks playing stretches with all three of Hardaway, JR and Shumpert on the court and no traditional point guard at all.

(For an excellent explanation of some of what goes on in the triangle, check this out).

The Knicks have point guards Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni under contract for next season and are likely to bring back the unproven Toure Murry. 

I think that because Prigioni is a strong three point shooter and Felton doesn’t do anything particularly well, the Knicks are likely to play Prigioni as the backup and Felton as the third, “emergency” PG, both behind whoever they sign with their mini-midlevel. Because the triangle doesn’t require a traditional point guard and the Knicks have capable ballhandlers in JR, Melo and, perhaps, Lamar Odom, the fifteen minutes a game Prigioni is capable of giving them off the bench should be sufficient to ensure that Raymond Felton doesn’t see much of the court this season.

So what’s out there for the Knicks? Here’s a look at some point guard options that might be attainable for either the mini mid-level or the minimum.

Shaun Livingston (previous deal: one year for the minimum) - Slim Shaun had a very good 2013-14 season, outplaying his contract and surprising everyone by kinda taking the starting job from Deron Williams over in Brooklyn. His 6-6 size makes him a versatile defender and he’s a solid playmaker with a good handle. On the other hand, he shot just six three pointers last season and made all of one, a shocking statistic considering the league’s current obsession with the triple. Livingston is a little reminiscent of late-model Ron Harper, who wasn’t a great three point shooter himself (he shot 16-84 for 19% from three in the 1997-98 season). Still, the number of attempts Harper found himself taking that year speaks to the importance of the three in the triangle. Livingston might not be the best fit and, because the Nets can offer him the same salary as the Knicks, may be out of their price range anyway. 

Ramon Sessions (previous deal: two years, $5 million per year) - it’s summer, so the Knicks must be rumored to be interested in Ramon Sessions again. Part of the reason they get linked with Sessions so often is because he’s always cheap, the Knicks are always capped out and Session moves around the league like a hermit crab. Sessions - who somehow managed to play 83 games while suiting up for the Bobcats (RIP) and Bucks last season - is adequate. He’s adequate at everything and great at nothing (he averaged about twelve points and four assists last season, in line with his career averages). He’s had one season where he shot over 40% from three but outside of that he’s been a below average shooter (31% last year). Because the Knicks should be looking for a player who can handle the ball well enough and has some plus level attribute, Sessions isn’t the guy. And so, for the first time since starting this blog, I am advocating against signing or trading for Ramon Sessions although he wouldn’t be the worst idea for the minimum, especially because unlike the two guys above and below him on this list, he’s proven himself capable of playing starters minutes for an entire season.

Patty Mills (previous deal: two years, approximately $1.1 million per year) - when you read that the Knicks are interested in Patty Mills less than 48 hours after his team wins the championship, you’ve got to be wary that they’re setting themselves up to pay a premium for a role player on a championship team. Still, the Aussie is a 40%-plus shooter from three for his career, can handle and pass the ball, is an energetic defender and a passionate teammate. On the other hand, he’s never played more than nineteen minutes a game and he’s just six feet tall. Despite the downside, because they have Prigioni to play some minutes and a system that isn’t overly reliant on its point guard, Mills makes a lot of sense if he’s willing to take what the Knicks can offer.

Kirk Hinrich, Jordan Farmar, Steve Blake, Luke Ridnour - here we have the guys the Knicks will have to look at if they can’t find anyone to take their exception money. All four can shoot it from three and Hinrich and Blake are solid defenders. Because of that they make the most sense as two way players capable of playing “point guard” while really just defending, shooting threes and finishing games on the bench while the Knicks play without a traditional PG. Farmar and Ridnour would just serve to add some depth if they strike out everyplace else. Neither of them are starting point guards.

And then there’s the draft, although the Knicks have no picks and even if they are able to acquire one - and they certainly plan to since they’ve worked out 29 players according to Posting & Toasting’s pre-draft workout tracker - they are unlikely to get a player capable of giving them starter’s minutes at the point this season.

If the Knicks are dead-set on using their exception on a point guard, Mills would be a nice piece for the Knicks to add and Livingston wouldn’t be a bad fit. Hinrich and Blake would be decent additions for the minimum.

The Knicks are lucky they won’t be asking too much of their point guards next season.

Kerr on the Knicks

I’m intrigued by the prospect of Steve Kerr becoming the next coach of the Knicks and the Knicks seem to be as well as it’s rumored that they are hoping to get him to agree to take the job as soon as the first round of the playoffs is over (perhaps in an attempt to keep him from having the opportunity to consider other jobs that, you know, may be better, as the great Zach Lowe pointed out yesterday on Grantland).

I think Kerr’s going to take the job and, because of that, I’m already curious about what he thinks of the team and how it’s performed over the past few seasons (not to mention where he stands on Carmelo Anthony and what he thinks about the City of New York). Kerr isn’t saying much about the Knicks now, of course. But I figured he’s discussed them during his regular appearances on Bill Simmons’ podcast over the last few years and I was right. What he’s said isn’t particularly controversial or exciting but it’s as close to an opinion on the Knicks as you’re going to get from Kerr at the moment.

Kerr’s been appearing on the BS Report for years but I stopped in November 2012 because well, I have a job and you (hopefully) have a job (if not, assuming you want one, I’m sure you’ll find one soon) and really, four-plus hours of old Bill Simmons podcasts is a lot for anyone to handle. Oh, and they stopped working properly in my browser when I went farther back. Someone should tell the ol’ Sports Guy about that. 

Here we go:

November 19, 2013

  • Discussing teams struggling to start the season (the Knicks were 3-6 at the time and had lost Tyson Chandler to a broken leg that would keep him out six-plus weeks; the Knicks wouldn’t really ever recover): “I’m kind of willing to give the Knicks a pass because unless they have Tyson Chandler they can’t guard anybody and it’s hard, you can’t evaluate the Knicks without Chandler. When he’s there, they’re actually pretty good. And they had JR Smith suspended the first five games which threw off their whole rotation. I think we should give the Knicks a little bit of a pass but yeah, they’re a mess right now, they can’t figure out who they are and what they want to do”
  • In response to Simmons describing Jabari Parker as a cross between Carmelo Anthony and Rudy Gay and calling Parker “Carmelo Anthony if Carmelo Anthony was fun to play with”: “yeah, I think that’s a great call” (it didn’t seem like Kerr was concurring that Anthony’s no fun to play with, only that Parker’s game is similar to Melo’s, but maybe he was)

April 5, 2013

  • Discussing a ten-game Knicks winning streak and in response to Simmons’ statement that “Carmelo is really rounding into form”: “He’s got ninety points in the last two games (Melo had just hung 50 on a Heat team that was resting LBJ and Wade and 40 on the Hawks as part of a stretch where he scored 30+ seven straight games). That’s ridiculous.” Simmons: “And in a series, he could be the best guy in a series, which is the reason you trade for him in the first place” Kerr: “Right. Well when they were great early in the year he was at the four, they had the floor spaced and they were shooting the lights out from three and they took a dip when they had the injuries on the front line and they have so many old guys who went down. Kidd wore down. And when I watched them like a month ago when they were really in a funk the ball just stopped all the time and I watched some of the game last night and it seemed like the ball was moving again, they’ve got good spacing, good three point shooting. Defensively I just don’t know, I thought Rasheed was actually kind of a key to that team early in the season, he’s so good even at whatever age he is now so I think they are going to miss him but they’re an intriguing team and they’ve got a shot to absolutely make a run in the East. I don’t think they can beat Miami but I think they could get to the Conference Finals…I think [the Knicks] could give Miami a hard time but not beat them” 

January 15, 2013

  • Discussing who he likes in the East other than the Heat: and in response to Simmons calling the Knicks “the rabbit” and “having a gimmick” (they were 24-13 at the time, those were the fucking days): “I like the Knicks, I like Indiana…[the Knicks] are a team that’s dependent on the three as you talked about, but what they really start with, what their offense begins with, is Felton’s penetration, it’s the court spread, it’s the Phoenix offense from five, six years ago with Nash running it and instead of Amar’e Stoudemire rolling to the rim you’ve got Tyson Chandler and you’ve got shooters all over the place. If you don’t have the penetration then nothing, you don’t get the chain reaction of all the defensive rotations that come with guarding that penetration. And so Felton’s missed eight or nine games in a row, they’ve lost like five or six of them, they’re not right right now. And not that I’m saying Ray Felton is the savior by any means (I swear he chuckles here) but I do think that he’s sort of the key to what begins their offensive sequence in the halfcourt. I think when he gets back we’ll have a better picture of where they really are.”
  • Simmons says “I do think that was a big moment for Carmelo, that six for 26 game and that thing with KG (that’s the infamous honey nut cheerios incident), you know he was having this unassailable MVP campaign of a season…he was playing great, he was competing hard on both ends…I think everybody agreed that he was having a career year in a lot of different ways and then the old Carmelo kind of showed up in that game.” Kerr’s response: “It’s such a long season and that’s the thing that I’ve learned over the years is that it’s always dangerous to make any kind of proclamations in January…the key is you have to be healthy down the stretch and for the Knicks, will they have Rasheed and Camby healthy, who knows, but those guys are important and Kurt Thomas, certain matchups, they’re going to need a guy like Thomas. But if they’re healthy, I like the way they play and I love Tyson Chandler, I think he’s fantastic and I think he keeps them at that elite level.”

November 13, 2012

  • On whether he bought that Phil Jackson wanted to coach the Lakers prior to Mike D’Antoni getting the job: “oh yeah, I think he did. He didn’t want to coach the Sacramento Kings or the Detroit Pistons but when this became available, I think there’s no doubt he wanted to coach the Lakers.”
  • Simmons: “Because I had always heard, and I even said this, that he was really intrigued by the Knicks last summer but Dolan just shut that down because Dolan doesn’t want, he’s one of those guys that doesn’t want someone who’s going to get more of the attention than he is.” Kerr: “[laughs] right…I think the thing with Phil is that he’s retired a couple of times and come back twice…and as much as Phil likes to talk about the other things that he’s interested in in life, and he is, he’s got a lot of interests…but when it comes down to it the guy is a basketball junkie…he loves the NBA and I think it’s never going to leave his system entirely…I think he wanted to do it”
  • On the Bulls’ defense when he was playing for Jackson: “What he loved was having a big defensive center, we never had a dominant offensive center but we always had big guys, you think about Bill Cartwright or Luc Longley, we always had guys who could anchor the lane.”
  • On how fast the Lakers could have learned the triangle if Jackson had taken the job and the triangle generally: “very quickly….you can tweak the triangle and run pick-and-roll very easily out of the triangle if that’s what you choose”
  • Discussing how Mike D’Antoni will handle coaching the Lakers: “the other helpful thing for Mike is that he’s just been in the pressure cooker in New York for the last three-and-a-half years and it can’t be any worse than that in terms of the daily scrutiny.”

So there you have it. Steve Kerr: lover of Tyson Chandler, fan of ball movement, unclear on Carmelo Anthony, close with Phil Jackson, thinks the triangle can be easily learned and knows New York is an incredibly difficult place to play. 

What shines through when you listen to Kerr speak, whether it’s on the BS Report or on TNT or anywhere else is that he’s smart and level-headed and has spent a lot of time around great basketball players, great basketball teams and great basketball coaches. He might not have any coaching experience but he’s won five rings, played for the two best coaches of the modern era, ran the Suns for three years and has been watching from the sideline as a broadcaster for the last four-plus. All that, plus he’s got a close relationship with the Knicks’ president, setting up the kind of simpatico relationship between the coach and front office decisionmaker that the best organizations have. 

I hope he’s the next head coach of the Knicks.