Mediocre play. Loud boos raining down from the crowd. Long losing streaks. 17 wins in 2014-15. 32 wins in 2015-16. Already one head coach was fired in Derek Fisher and replaced by Jeff Hornacek.This is not what Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson envisioned when he was named as the new Knicks General Manager on March 18, 2014. “The Zen Plan” that he envisioned was not working.
Jackson, who won an NBA record 11 NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers knew something had to change or his legacy would be dimmed as his time with the Knicks would be considered a failure. With a contract of 5-years and $60-million dollars the Zen Master knew the pressure was on him.
TRADING FOR AN EX-MVP
Jackson knew that the Knicks had to improve and improve quickly. New York fans can be quite impatient and rebuilding is not in their vocabulary. Luckily for New York and NBA teams, because of a new television deal, the salary cap has risen from $67-million dollars in 2015-16 to $94-million in 2016-17 and then an obscene $108-million dollars in 2017-18. For the first time in his 2 years at Madison Square Garden, Jackson had the money to spend in free agency as well as trading for high priced players. “The Zen Plan” was starting to take shape.
The latter happened on June 22, 2016. What Jackson did next started off what has been a busy summer and complete overhaul of the team. He made a trade with the Chicago Bulls for oft-injured and former NBA MVP Derrick Rose. The number 1 overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft and 3-time All-Star was a top 5 player in the world. All of that changed in a split-second.
April, 30, 2012. This was the day Rose would like to forget. In a first round playoff game against Philadelphia, the point guard drove the lane and jump stopped. However, his knee didn’t stop. The result?. A torn ACL in his left knee and a year of rehab. This began the rash of injuries.
Rose came back from the torn ACL and was playing well when on November 22, 2013, he tore the meniscus in his right knee. After another rigorous rehab, he came back until February 24, 2015. The injury? He tore the same meniscus in the right knee. His season was over and his career was in serious jeopardy.
KNICKS TAKING A GAMBLE
Trading for Rose is a gamble worth taking. With one-year left on his contract, New York can see up-close if the former Memphis University star is worth trying to sign next summer, when he becomes a free agent. The 28-year old had a solid 2015-16 season with the Bulls, averaging 16.4pts and 4.7ast in 66 games. Perhaps most importantly, his body stayed intact. Signing Rose was a precursor of what the next few weeks would entail. Phil Jackson and owner James Dolan went on an expensive free agent shopping spree.
FREE AGENT SHOPPING SPREE
$133-million dollars. That is the amount of money New York spent in just under 2 weeks on unrestricted free agents, which doesn’t include the 4-year, $27-million dollar contract SF/PF Lance Thomas received as a restricted free agent and the $21-million Rose is earning. All the money spent along with the players acquired are required to give help to the Knicks 2 main stars, Carmelo Anthony and rookie sensation, Kristaps Porzingis.
The shopping spree started off with the signing of Rose’s Chicago teammate, Joakim Noah. A former NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Noah signed a 4-year, $72-million dollar contract. Is it too much money for a player who’s game has regressed dramatically over the past 2 seasons? Yes, however the $18-million dollars per season is around the going rate for a quality big-man in the new salary cap era.
Noah is a fiery competitor who should be a crowd favorite. He is the type of player who should thrive in an intense environment like Madison Square Garden. Although he is on the decline and his 4-year deal is to long of a contract, new head coach Jeff Hornacek and Jackson would be thrilled if the former Florida Gator can give him at least 2 years of good basketball.
The 22nd pick in the 2008 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic, SG Courtney Lee is well-traveled in the NBA world. Lee signed a 4-year, $50-million dollar free agent deal a few days after Noah and the Knicks will be the 7th NBA team that the former Western Kentucky star has played on.
After struggling in his first few seasons, the 6’5″ Lee found a home in Memphis. His game revolves around playing very good defense and 3-point shooting. Lee’s “3 and D” game should fit in nicely with Rose’s driving ability. Lee has averaged 9.6pts, 2.6reb, and 1.6ast in his career. How these 2 mesh will be a key story-line entering next season.
BUYING AN INSURANCE POLICY FOR ROSE
A move that has gone under the radar has been the free agent signing of point guard Brandon Jennings, who signed a 1-year, $5-million dollar deal. The 6’1″, Compton, CA native was the 10th overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. Jennings, who started his professional career in Italy right out of high school seemed destined for stardom after a very good rookie season.
A career 15.5 per game scorer, Jennings game never improved to an elite level that many expected. Questionable shot selection and decision-making derailed his All-Star hopes, however he will be one of the best back-up point guards in the NBA and might thrive in Hornacek’s up-tempo system.
He also has motivation to silence his doubters. In January of 2015, while playing for Detroit, he ruptured his left Achilles tendon and was lost for the rest of the season. He is now fully healthy and if he plays up to his capabilities he will make his contract seem like a bargain.
FITTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
Phil Jackson didn’t spend $130+ million dollars to have the 2016-17 version of the Knicks sneak into the weak eastern conference playoffs. There is nothing as tough as the New York media and up to this point the only thing Jackson has been praised for was the selection of Porzingis in the 2015 NBA Draft. The 70-year old Montana native could have stayed on his ranch and away from the biggest media outlet and spotlight in the world.
Instead, he took on the challenge of making the Knicks good again. A “triangle” offense disciple, he is giving Hornacek a lot of freedom as head coach, which will be more of an up-tempo system, much to the delight of the players and fans.
Most of all, he is keeping his star player happy. Carmelo Anthony is a 9-time All-Star and one of the league’s biggest names. At 32-years old, his game is slowing down. He needed help. Porzingis gave him some last year and is undoubtedly the future for New York. However, Jackson is under the most pressure and has to win now. With the trade for a former NBA MVP, and the signings of the players mentioned above, expectations for the team are the highest they have been in years.
THE MECCA WILL BE ALIVE
Madison Square Garden is called ” the mecca of basketball” and for good reason. It is an electric place and when the Knicks are good, there is no better arena in the country to watch a basketball game. In a 3 week span, the New York Knicks have gone from a laughingstock to a serious contender in the eastern conference. If Anthony, Rose, and Noah can stay healthy, the people in the city that never sleeps will be flocking to the Garden to hopefully watch a winning team play. Phil Jackson’s legacy is riding on it.
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