NBA Windows: The Realistic New York Knicks
This year, more than any in recent memory, the NBA is about windows of opportunity. As we gear up for what could be a classic season, Grantland will take a close look at the ones that matter.
The Knicks’ training facility is an anonymous collection of low-slung buildings on the edge of an office park in leafy Tarrytown, New York. Photos of Knicks greats festoon the surprisingly cozy interiors of the lobby and media room — Willis Reed, “Dollar” Bill Bradley, Dave Debusschere, Walt Frazier, Phil Jackson, Earl Monroe, and all the rest. They stare down, in black and white, from 40 years ago, looking strangely aged for men in their primes.
On the morning of media availability for team president Phil Jackson, rookie coach Derek Fisher, and general manager Steve Mills, the pictures of those old Knicks greats seem like an indictment. Greatness built, greatness squandered, greatness lost. So long ago, it may as well be forever.
“Parking the bus,” in soccer terminology, means to sit back and absorb the opposing team’s pressure. The goal of NBA media day is to park the bus. Say you can contend; say you’re excited by the roster you’ve assembled; say you believe you’ll surprise some people. Fat has been burned away, replaced by 10 or 15 pounds of lean muscle. Hope springs. What went wrong last year? Now is the time to focus on this year. But not too deeply. Not yet.
Knitted through the say-nothing platitudes about Carmelo Anthony’s weight loss, the wisely noncommittal statements about who starts, and the “write two letters” explanations regarding the defensive breakdowns of last season, though, is a refreshing sense of realism not seen around these parts for some time. And while the requisite “we expect to be a playoff team” sounds have been made, no one is talking reckless and guaranteeing titles.
This is an interesting season for New York, but for different reasons than previous years. It’s the first season of the Melo era to be universally recognized — by the team, by the media, and by the fans — as a developmental year. A placeholder year. This, despite a 30-year-old Carmelo Anthony in the midst of his career peak, re-signing for a fingernail’s-length short of the max ($124 million over five years). Defensive stalwart and team engine room Tyson Chandler, worst starting point guard in the NBA Raymond Felton, and head coach Mike Woodson are out. Jackson, Fisher, and a clutch of new players including Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, and Cleanthony Early are in.
The changes go deeper than new staff and new personnel. Jackson begins his first full season at the controls. With him comes a treasure trove of experience — as a player and as a coach, spanning several decades of NBA history.
And yet, for all of his rings, there’s a curious air of vulnerability around Jackson. He’s a rookie executive, after all. Some who closely follow the team wonder whether Jackson’s presence really means that owner James Dolan will relinquish his influence over the team. What will happen, for instance, should Dolan return from his world kazoo tour and decide he wants to play with his toys again? Would Jackson leave?
Mills has been notably vocal about Dolan not being involved with the team. In a funny moment during the press conference, Mills answered a question from the New York Times’s Harvey Araton on whether Dolan has had a role on decision-making since Jackson arrived. “I can honestly say that I haven’t had one conversation with Jim this summer since the end of the season. We’ve had more conversations about the D-League and the investment that he’s making for us in terms of developing players and that process.”1
The Dolan stuff, ultimately, is a distraction. Dolan has loomed over every aspect of the team in the years since he ascended to the chairmanship of MSG, so the questions about Jackson’s independence are natural.
To Jackson, the triangle isn’t just a basketball system; it’s a philosophical lens through which to view life. It’s a microcosm of what he believes about cooperation, society, sharing, and democracy. The Knicks have represented many things over the past several seasons — incompetence, profligacy, unrealistic self-importance, antagonistic relationships with the media — but rarely, if ever, have they actually stood for something. Ideally, the Knicks, under Jackson, will stand as representatives of the triangle offense and a style of play that — again, ideally — links the team with the spirit of its past and those pictures lining the halls of the training facility. Five players on the floor playing as a single unit, sharing the ball. It’s a past that Jackson understands firsthand.
So, while expectations, in terms of wins and losses, for the team are realistic, the stakes for Jackson are incredibly high. This season, and the seasons to come, will probably answer the question, once and for all, of whether the triangle offense is a viable system in the NBA. I’m betting it’s his relationship with the triangle — his desire to salvage its reputation — more than any other factor that will drive Jackson in the years to come.
“The sideline triangle that we promoted all those years and thought was such a fine system has really been denigrated over the past few seasons,” Jackson told the Chicago Tribune’s K.C. Johnson while on a 2013 tour to promote his latest book, Eleven Rings.
Denigrate might be a bit strong, but questions have been asked about the system’s effectiveness in the modern NBA. The dearth of coaches using it at the pro level is as quietly damning as those photos of Knicks greats frozen in time.
The triangle is a famously complex offense, with numerous Goldberg-ian variations, and I will not claim to understand it in full. Still, it’s clear that in emphasising post-up play, midrange shots, and offensive rebounding, some tenets of the system are swimming against the tide of recent NBA trends.
In a conversation with Chuck Klosterman on Grantland in 2012, Jackson railed against the small-ball, 3-point-heavy style of play that, not incidentally, has produced the last three NBA champions, not to mention the Knicks’ best regular-season win total in 16 years. “The game is evolving into a 3-point shooting game. You can’t win a championship with a European offense, like what Phoenix has run for the past few years. But that seems to be the style people are copying. My issue with a team like Miami is always, ‘Who is going to score in the post?’”
Many of the best teams in recent years have moved away from post-centric scoring and all but abandoned offensive rebounding, believing that the former is inefficient and that the latter hinders a team’s ability to smother opposing fast breaks.
The league-average offensive rebounding percentage last season was 25.5 percent. Last year’s Finals participants, the Spurs and the Heat, were both in the bottom quarter of the league in offensive rebounding percentage — 22.7 percent and 20.6 percent, respectively. The 2012-13 runner-up Spurs posted one of the lowest offensive rebounding percentages ever. The Pistons had the best offensive rebounding percentage in the league last year, at 31.4 percent, and they won all of 31 games. The midrange jumper has, famously and a bit unfairly, been labeled by the fashionably analytical set as “the worst shot in the NBA.”
Jackson’s last title team, the 2009-10 Lakers, finished with a top-five offensive rebounding percentage, the best ranking for an NBA champion since the 2000-01 Lakers (also coached by Jackson). Of course, the 2009-10 Lakers had Pau Gasol and a (mostly) healthy Andrew Bynum. The three-peat Lakers had some dude named Shaq. Both teams had Kobe.
This gets to another reason some basketball thinkers look sideways at the triangle. Yes, Jackson rode the offense to Eleven Rings™, but those teams also had Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, O’Neal, Bryant, and Gasol. It’s fair to wonder whether those teams could’ve won titles with the “just roll the ball out” offense.
A few other coaches have attempted to make a go of the triangle, and have found far, far less success. Tim Floyd, who succeeded Jackson in Chicago, kept Jackson’s system in place and never won more than 17 games in three full seasons. He resigned 25 games into his fourth campaign, at 4-21. Kurt Rambis learned the triangle as one of Jackson’s assistants in Los Angeles. He brought the offense to the Timberwolves and won 32 games in two seasons. Brian Shaw implemented some facets of the triangle, dependent on game situations, and one could argue that Denver has been better when not using them. Jackson’s own triangle guru, Tex Winter, who learned the system from creator Sam Barry at USC, was fired after two seasons coaching the Houston Rockets in the early ’70s with a combined record of 51-78.
Jackson’s response to the triangle’s lack of success in the league and its lack of traction with his fellow coaches is to make note of the ideological purity of those failed missions to the summit. “Kurt did not run basically the triangle but a combination of offenses, including Rick Adelman’s type of offense,” said Jackson in that same conversation with Johnson. “Bill Cartwright ran the triangle offense here when he was coaching the Chicago Bulls. And Jim Cleamons, an assistant coach I had, went to Dallas and did not have a long tenure there, but he did not run the triangle offense. But a lot of people point to those situations as — too difficult to run, too difficult an offense for present-day NBA basketball. And I don’t think it’s true.”
Now we find out.