The Knicks are not a very good NBA franchise.
From James Dolan’s complete lack of the basic ability to run a pro-basketball organization, to Isiah Thomas leading a terrible Knicks team while simultaneously sexually harassing women in the front office (oh, and then being hired to run the Knicks WNBA affiliate, the Liberty, just last year!), this is a franchise that for the greater part of the last decade, has been in shambles.
With all that being said, there has been a steady change in culture around the Knicks since Dolan announced Phil Jackson would be taking over as Team President. And boy, did he inherit one hell of a squad!
Just two years removed from the 50-win team that won New York its’ first playoff series in a decade, Jackson took over a team with no earthly idea what it was doing. Mike Woodson came out of the tunnel wearing a suit at the very least three sizes too large for him and would occasionally yell things at ultimate-head case J.R. Smith, who would then dish the ball to The Guy Who Named His Daughter Iman, Iman Shumpert, who then pushed it inside to Andrea Bargnani, who either got injured or got his shot blocked.
Now, none of the men mentioned above are a part of the Knicks. Woodson was promptly fired, JR and Shump traded for nothing to the Cavs, and Bargnani had his contract expire this past offseason. In fact, of that 2013-2014 squad, only one player remains — Carmelo Anthony.
Of course, this complete culture change had it’s rough patches, and there were various points last year where pundits and fans (including me) wondered if Jackson was capable of putting together a winning team. This was a man who at the age of 70, had shown no intentions of changing his triangle-offense philosophy, openly mocked 3-point shooting teams, and had never even been a Team President before.
In his first full year in that position, Jackson’s Knicks were, simply put, trash. They won just 17 games, lost Carmelo Anthony to injury at the All-Star break, and became a league-wide joke. After trading away key pieces J.R. and Shump for next-to-nothing, many wondered if the Zen Master had a plan to return New York to it’s status as The Mecca, while others claimed he simply had no idea what he was doing and that the game had passed an 11-time Champion by.
This offseason, the conversation around both Phil and the Knicks changed.
Yes, they failed to sign any of the major free agents available, most notably DeAndre Jordan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Greg Monroe. Yes, the lottery failed to go the team;s way as they slid to the no. 4 pick in the draft. But Phil Jackson got to work and finally found his Zen as President of the Knicks.
In free agency, while he failed to acquire any big names, Jackson did manage to ink a variety of talented young players, as well as a couple of veterans to help in the rebuild process. Already, at least a couple of those signees are projected to start for the team, most notably the veteran duo of Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez as well as potential breakout star Kyle O’Quinn.
None of those three men are a particularly sexy signing, nor are the additions of Kevin Seraphin and Derrick Williams. But all of them play a role in Jackson’s greater plan — make the Knicks a contender.
Afflalo may be 30 years old, but he can still move down the court and with a masterful mid-range shot, projects to be a force in the team’s triangle offense, while Lopez is a legitimate rim defender that has continued to improve his offensive game since entering the league. O’Quinn didn’t do much for the Orlando Magic since entering the league in 2012, but has gained a reputation as a fighter under the rim and has looked absolutely magnificent in camp and preseason. Seraphin has long been an excellent defensive role player for the Wizards, and now in New York, could see plenty of early minutes come his way. Williams has yet to find his footing in the league since being drafted 2nd overall in 2011, but his athleticism and ability to stretch the floor have already been apparent in preseason (also, very interesting hair).
No, the Knicks free agency hunt may not have been the sexiest of all time, but it has wielded results that seem to point in a positive direction.
Even more notable though, was how Jackson attacked the draft. For a man who has long hated the college game, the Zen Master seemed to score big time. Perhaps because he didn’t look to the college game at all for the 4th pick, instead shocking many in taking the mysterious 7-foot Latvian power forward Kristaps Porzingis.
At the time of the draft, there wasn’t much known about Porzingis other than that he was foreign, big, skinny, and could shoot the lights out.
Knicks fans hated him on first sight.
This was a fanbase that had just gotten out of their marriage with fellow foreigner Andrea Bargnani, the man many blamed for collapsing the chemistry of the 50-win team after the Knicks gave away fan-favorites Steve Novak and Landry Fields, as well as two first-round picks for the Italian stretch four. It doesn’t help that Bargnani was often injured in his two-year tenure in New York and despite putting up solid numbers while healthy, never even came close to endearing himself in the Knicks history books.
Luckily for Porzingis, he quickly displayed the basic fact that he was not Bargnani. He was both taller and faster than the ladder, while possessing an absurdly wet jumper that, even now, gives me little butterflies because it’s so pretty. He’s already shown the ability to work, gaining 15 pounds to add to his young, slender frame before camp even began. In the span of just a few months, the man known as KP has gone from presumed draft bust to a signal of hope for a franchise that hasn’t had one. Jackson, who had at first been ridiculed by fans and media (and whatever Stephen A Smith is) for the pick, has since been given credit for sticking to his gut and taking the risk of Porzingis.
KP wasn’t the only big score of the night for Jackson, though. Later in the first round, the Knicks moved up to take Notre Dame point guard Jerian Grant. Again, many Knicks fans weren’t familiar with Grant outside of the fact that he was a pick and roll savant being drafted by a team that didn’t run the pick and roll.
Much like KP though, Grant has shown brilliance throughout camp and preseason. He’s the best athlete the Knicks backcourt has seen in years and his ability to create offense off of rebounds has shown it’s usefulness. While it may take some time, it’s become relatively clear that the scrappy Grant will eventually be the Knicks starting point guard.
It’s a long season and it has yet to even begin, but is it finally time we give Phil Jackson some credit and admit he’s doing a good job as Team President? No, he may still not be the franchise-savior he was trumpeted to be when he was signed two years ago, but he just may be changing the conversation around the Knicks.
Gone are the days of complete chaos in the team’s front office. Gone are the possibly-insane (looking at you, Shump) trouble makers.
Yes, James Dolan is still the team’s ultimate owner and of course is prone to stepping on the work Jackson has created, but for now, he’s staying out of the way and destroying his other franchise, the Liberty, instead.
But for now, the Knicks seem to be in stable hands, something that hasn’t been so apparent since Jackson joined the team. We’ll find out for sure next week though, when the Knicks face the Bucks to kick off the season in Milwaukee!
Sean Linhares is a Sports Communications student at West Virginia University. He is originally from Pine Bush, New York, but don’t Google that because there’s some crazy stuff going on in that town. In his spare time, Sean likes to eat Chick-Fil-A, 5 Guys, and McDonalds, not in that order (but also not all at once).
Follow Sean on Twitter @LINhares_Sean