Phil Jackson or the Zen Master as most people will have it, is the main architect behind the NBA’s wealthiest club’s stymied growth. A bold proclamation it sounds considering Jackson, since his appointment in 2013 as New York Knicks President has done what his predecessors failed to do in making the Knicks what it is built to be; a mega franchise feeding off the endless streams of advertising campaigns and television money constantly in the conversation for a title.
Jackson has done virtually the impossible by making notoriously impatient fix -it- quickly owner James Dolan accept his ways of constructing a contender, are without reward but adopting a gradual year on year development, is the way to go.
Tearing down a pricey but ineffective roster was the first step to cleaning the cupboard. As such, 2011 Defensive Player of the year Tyson Chandler, 2012 Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith and a fleet of basketball talents were ushered out of the Big Apple leaving Carmelo Anthony as the building block. The second phase went well after Jackson drafted high on mysterious big man Latvian Kristaps Porzingis in last year’s draft.
His gamble, with less than 20 games left to play in the season, has paid off following Porzingis impressive debut season in the league. However, what was supposed to be a playoff campaign for the Knicks all but ended with the sack of Derek Fisher following a string of losses that put them outside the playoff picture and all stems from Jackson’s undying love for the triangle offense. In the midst of a third straight absence in the postseason, the major drawback has been the team’s inferior quality in the league’s most demanding position; point guard.
Many of the modern game’s superstars man this position and have transitioned silky skills to transform their respective teams. Stephen Curry is leading the Golden State’s Warriors charge to score more wins than those of Michael Jordan’s legendary Chicago Bulls team of 1996, Damian Lillard has turned Portland Trailblazers into a playoff contender despite losing four starting teammates and Russell Westbrook keeps on churning out triple doubles by the dozen. In the camp of the Knicks, there is Jose Calderon, Langston Galloway and Jerian Grant.
In comparison, Robin Lopez is one of the better underrated Centers in the league, Carmelo Anthony is a multiple All Star Small Forward, Porzingis is in the running for Rookie of the Year title and Arron Afflalo is a more than decent player at Shooting guard leaving the “one” spot in need of an upgrade. Conversely, Jackson remains adamant his team does not need an elite point guard stating, “Chasing a point guard, where it becomes just an obsession, isn’t necessary. It’s not necessary. We can play the game without that” according to slamonline.com in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The motive for his dislike for a “ball dominant” point guard is stemmed in his obsession with the triangle offense he is synonymous with having won 11 titles deploying this system in Los Angeles and Chicago. The system relies heavily on shoot first point guards who are stationed in the corner with the shooting guard on top of the key ready to attack the lane. Due to the space-heavy nature of this system, guards with below average shooting will struggle. Calderon, Galloway and Grant have combined for 152 made three pointers all season; for the record Steph Curry has 330 of those according to basketballreference.com.
In B.J. Armstrong, John Paxson, Steve Kerr (Curry’s coach), Ron Harper and Derek Fisher, Jackson had a virtuoso blend of good, great and legendary shooters during stints with the Lakers and Bulls. Jackson’s current roster lack such shooting skill from deep and the Knicks would be better off using $18 million Dollars it will have next season to pursue pass happy but good shooter guards like Mike Conley.
An elite point guard who played a major part in Detroit Pistons dismantling of Jackson’s 2004 “All Legends” Lakers team in the final, Chauncey Billups recently objected to the idea of the triangle offense from a point guard perspective.
Speaking to Marc Berman of the New York Post, the 1997 third pick said,” “If I’m a top point guard and a free agent, I’m not going to want to be playing in that triangle. A point guard needs more pick-and-roll, more freedom. It’s going to be restrictive to my play. I think that would be a good thing — if they are opening it up a little. It’s the only way to get a point guard.’’
One thing that stands out whenever talk of Jackson’s incredible runs with the Bulls and Lakers come up is the presence of transcendent talent on the roster of both teams. In Chicago, there was Michael Jordan, in Los Angeles; there was Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. A strong cast of legendary names like Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen and Pau Gasol complemented the efforts of such luminaries. Take Carmelo Anthony- a superb scorer with subpar defense-out, the Knicks have no other player who comes close to the latter set and can’t even dream of lighting a match in the midst of the former set. Since its’ reinvention in the late 1980’s by Tex Winters who served as an assistant to Jackson, the system has yielded best results when supreme talent is involved. Despite the huge drop off in quality, Jackson’s insistence on running this offense is hard to understand.
The modern NBA is a three-point happy league. Teams are gunning away for their lives in order to stay relevant on courts with more spaces than predecessors of the game could have ever envisioned. The triangle offense, which relies heavily on space, ought to be the in-thing in the league where teams are playing at fast and furious pace.
But this is the point where things get different because the spaced out offense of the modern NBA relies on mismatches and stretch front court players to produce points. The state of running this system in today’s NBA can be seen in the disappearing disciples of the triangle from the league.
Over the past months, ex players of the system turned coaches got sacked following bad results. Denver Nuggets got rid of Brian Shaw, Orlando Magic fired Jacques Vaughn and “Phil’s Boy” Derek Fisher got ousted by the man himself. Another disciple turned coach; Kurt Rambis is running affairs on the Knicks sidelines in the interim but has no assurances he would get the permanent nod come season’s end.
Having a philosophy in place is all well and good but when such philosophies, meant to reinvent the system fails to work like Louis Van Gaal’s with Manchester United, a quick change can always come in handy.