State of the Knicks: In Phil We Still Trust

It’s OK to fall back in love with the New York Knicks again. Won’t take my word for it? Then listen to Jeff Van Gundy.  When asked about Kristaps Porzingis, the ex-Knicks head coach said, “I love everything about how he’s handled his situation, love his game, love his mental makeup…. I’m hopeful that he has a career of great health because he has given the New York Knicks fan reason to fall back in love with their team. If they had fallen out of love since over the last decade or so, you can fall back in love now because this guy, along with Carmelo Anthony, gives you a chance to be competitive every night.” It’s amazing how much nailing a draft pick can change the fortunes of a team as well as the public perception. Early readers of New York Sports Guys know that we were big believers in Kristaps after watching hours of tape and reading about his high character. You can imagine how proud we were to see the Knicks not worry about public opinion and ultimately make the right decision on Draft Night. But after seeing Michael Rapaport’s xenophobic attempt to be funny and the ESPN media tour given to a kid who cried during the Draft, it admittedly still feels a little weird to see Knicks fans embrace Porzingis as they have. Kristaps now seems to have a new nickname every day and his #6 Knicks jersey is the fourth highest selling jersey in the NBA only behind those of Stephen Curry, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant.

It was no surprise the fans at Barclays Center would boo Porzingis even though the 20 year old Latvian center tried to separate himself from past European players before the Draft. He told Yahoo Sports, “There are guys who have had incredible NBA careers – like Dirk [Nowitzki] and the Gasols [Pau and Marc] – and there are guys who haven’t. They’ll say, this guy is a bust. He’ll be Tskitishvili, this Georgian guy. Bargnani, Darko … That’s why I am talking, because I want the fear to go away with me. I want people to get to know me. I don’t want to be the mystery man from Europe. Some fans – they don’t want a European on their team. People have opinions, but maybe they’ve never seen me play. There’s nothing I can say, only I can go out and prove myself.” It’s somewhat understandable that fans would have an uninformed opinion about a player they’ve never seen play or have read about. But the criticism with the Knicks selection of Porzingis also extended to so-called experts. While Knicks fans awaited the pick on ESPN, both Jalen Rose and Jay Williams both proclaimed Justise Winslow as the no-brainer pick instead of watching Bargnani shoot threes (reference to Porzingis?) The other draft analyst on the ESPN set, Jay Bilas, astutely said, “I don’t think GMs should pick on how not to get booed.” NBA Draft expert and First Take host Stephen A. Smith also decided to call into Sports Center on his day off to add fuel to the fire. Smith, in his own words, believed fans were “hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray, run amuck, and flat out deceived by Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks.” The hate didn’t end there. Chris Sheridan of Sheridan Hoops was so outraged by the selection of Porzingis that he predicted the Knicks would have the worst record in the NBA for each of the next two seasons.

Thankfully, the Knicks organization headed by Phil Jackson and GM Steve Mills took a different approach to the draft. By picking Porzingis, Phil did what was best for the long term future of the New York Knicks. “When someone says to me [that] this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I have to be alert,” Jackson said of what Knicks basketball adviser Clarence Gaines Jr. told him and how Porzingis eventually became a Knick. “And [I have to] consider that after he’s been in this business for as long as he has, I think he has as good of an eye as he has on talent.” It would’ve been very easy for Jackson to appease fans and perhaps better for his job security if he chose a “more ready” prospect like Winslow, Kaminsky, or Cauley-Stein. Instead, Phil trusted his advisers and his own basketball knowledge to guide him in making the best pick for the Knicks. Seven months later, Porzingis has shown to be a high impact rookie playing in the toughest media market in the world. With many in New York anticipating the proverbial “rookie wall”, Kristaps has been in Rookie of the Year discussion along with Karl-Anthony Towns for the majority of the season. Porzingis and Towns are two of only eleven rookies in NBA history to average 18 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks per 36 minutes joining Hall of Famers like Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal.

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Jackson has also shown his pickups in free agency this past summer to be fairly effective. Fans who hoped Arron Afflalo and Derrick Williams would opt out after one season are now asking if they will opt in to stay for another season under affordable contracts. While Robin Lopez certainly got paid handsomely by the Knicks, he has provided solid rim protection and improving offense in the triangle. Small gestures like giving slightly more than the veteran’s minimum go unnoticed but showed the appreciation the organization had for players like Lance Thomas and Lou Amundson. Thomas has proven to be a versatile player for the Knicks and their only consistently good wing defender. With his improved shooting, Thomas has become a valuable “3 and D” player you often see on teams like the Spurs and Warriors. While many were skeptical of the team’s haul in free agency with ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight projecting the Knicks to win 27 games, I was bit more optimistic believing 40 wins was possible if all went right this season for Phil’s crew. The common theme surrounding the Knicks new acquisitions was that they all seemed like genuinely “good clubhouse” guys. In a time where team chemistry can’t be quantifiable via analytics, this concept is very important in regards to synergistic system offenses like the triangle. Without trust in each teammate, the Knicks execution of the triangle offense would be severely lacking. On paper, the Knicks aren’t supposed to exceed 27 wins due to calculations of individual statistics by ESPN. However, due to the better ball movement and continuity of the triangle offense, the Knicks already have 22 wins and are two games out of a playoff spot in the improved Eastern Conference.

If healthy, I expect the Knicks to continue to hover around the .500 mark and compete for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. While the team certainly has made strides on both sides of the ball, a lack of a consistent secondary scorer behind Carmelo Anthony has hurt. Both Arron Afflalo and Kristaps Porzingis have taken turns being the next highest scorer after Melo but there hasn’t been a true second option. According to Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal, Afflalo has “shot 53.2% from 3-point range (better than the NBA’s percentage leader, J.J. Redick) in victories, and 19.4% (worse than Kobe Bryant, the NBA’s worst 3-point shooter this year) in losses. The Knicks have gone 14-4 when Afflalo finishes better than 30% from long range, and 3-14 when he finishes below 30%.” Besides Afflalo’s performance being a reliable indicator of Knicks victories, the play of Derrick Williams and Lance Thomas have been key in bringing energy from the second unit. But there may be no better example of the Knicks strong clubhouse than Kyle O’Quinn and Kevin Seraphin. Both big men were signed to play major minutes this season but neither have complained about a lack of playing time.

While the emergence of Kristaps Porzingis has certainly been the head story of the Knicks season so far, I would also argue the development of 31 year old Carmelo Anthony has also been special. Even though Melo hasn’t been the prolific scorer he usually is, the veteran forward has seemingly bought into Jackson’s system. “There comes [a] time when you got to do something different to figure the game out, not be narrow-minded coming into the game,” Anthony said. “I just try to make a concerted effort at doing that and expanding that part of my game.” The stats certainly back up Anthony’s expanded game. Melo, surprisingly, has been the Knicks leader in assists, averaging a career-high 4.1 assists per game. Entering Friday’s game against the Clippers, Anthony averaged 6.8 assists and 7.0 rebounds per game in his last four contests. He also provided a refreshingly honest answer when asked about his new-found trust in his teammates, “I probably wouldn’t have been at ease because I was the guy that always had to go out there and score 30, score 40 points to even have a chance to win the basketball game. Now, with the makeup of this team, I don’t really have to do that.” Make no mistake, the Knicks will ultimately be Kristaps Porzingis’ team to lead but Anthony is still the franchise’s best player. And when your best player buys in, it is exponentially easier for the rest of the team to follow his lead.

This is only the fifth time in the last 16 years, the Knicks have been .500 or better on January 21st. Phil Jackson has started to change the culture at MSG and the virtues of selflessness and teamwork he learned from Red Holzman’s Knicks in the early 1970’s is slowly starting to show. So what’s next for the Knicks? Gone are the days of questioning the basketball knowledge of a 13 time NBA champion. Gone are the days of trading Melo to the Chicago Bulls. Now, the question is when the team will seriously contend for a championship. The continued development of rookie Kristaps Porzingis is essential for the Knicks future title aspirations. I don’t have any doubt Porzingis will continue to grow and become the focal point of the offense sooner rather than later granted good health of course. Since the Knicks do not possess their draft pick this year, it’s even more important to try and sneak into the playoffs to avoid giving up a high lottery pick. With an All-Star in Carmelo Anthony and a potential young star in Porzingis, the Knicks should have much better luck in free agency. Phil Jackson has the clout to convince players to come to New York and Steve Mills has good relationships with agents which bodes well for a smart free agent approach. If the Knicks show continued success in ball movement in the triangle offense, it should become very hard for free agents to say no to Phil Jackson. But this coming summer, the Knicks will be tested based on their ability to delay gratification. Similarly like the kids in the Stanford marshmallow experiment, the team will have to decide when to use their valuable cap space. With the salary cap expected to rise by almost $40 million this summer, you can bet many impatient teams will be spending their new wealth on less than stellar free agents. Does it make sense to offer anyone not named Kevin Durant maximum salaries in the summer of 2016? Or are the Knicks better served to wait one more year and convince one of Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, or Kyle Lowry to become their point guard in 2017?

We will find out more about the Knicks future this July but with Phil Jackson as president, I stand here confident as I have ever been that the State of the Knicks is strong.

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