Two Years Into Jackson Era, Knicks Have More Questions than Answers

NEW YORK — Standing at his locker following a third straight home finale with no postseason to follow, star forward Carmelo Anthony refused to speculate on the offseason needs which might return Anthony and his New York Knicks to the place that prior to the past three seasons, the nine-time All-Star and former NBA scoring champion had reached in each of his first ten years in the league (when making the playoffs was routine for Anthony with the Denver Nuggets and then in Anthony’s first two-plus years with the Knicks).

Asked to offer his viewpoint of the types of skillsets New York could use the most — without being prompted to mention any specific names that team president Phil Jackson might target with the Knicks’ $20 million in available cap space this summer — Anthony disobligingly answered, “That’s a setup question. I would like to answer that question, but that’s a setup question. So I’ll have to go to the next question on that one.”

However, that response came only four nights after earlier reports which cited Anthony as saying he wanted to have input on Jackson’s player personnel and coaching decisions.

So make no mistake — although Anthony may not wish to publicly declare his thoughts on the matter at the present time, he definitely has some strong opinions on how Jackson should continue to build New York’s roster and who should ultimately be chosen as a head coach.

Yet one thing that Anthony — with three years left on the five-year, $124 million contract Jackson gave him when the Knicks president took over the teams’ operations two years ago — had no issue divulging was his willingness with sticking it out in New York, rather that the possibility of waiving the no trade clause Jackson gave him.

“No, I don’t think about that,” Anthony said. “Not right now. I can’t think about that. My mindset is just figuring out how we’re gonna better this situation, how we’re going to grow as a team, grow as an organization [and] not get used to going home this early, in April.”

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Three years removed from the Knicks’ only division title since 1994, when he won the league scoring title while leading New York to 54 wins, Anthony was hoping to again soon be the main star on a 50-win team.

At least that’s what Jackson — who initially thought last year’s 17-win team, the worst in franchise’s 70-year history, was a playoff team — sold Anthony on two years ago.

However, the Knicks will need to beat an actual playoff team (the Indiana Pacers) on the road in their season finale on Tuesday night to win 50 games over the first two years of the Jackson era combined, and to avoid another 50-loss season after New York turned a once-promising 22-22 start this year into a disappointing 10-27 stretch ever since.

Despite that reality, Anthony and interim head coach Kurt Rambis (who took over for Derek Fisher, whom Jackson fired after hiring him only 136 games into his coaching career) focused on the positive takeaways from the Knicks’ 93-89 loss to the playoff-bound Toronto Raptors (who currently occupy the top spot in New York’s division while sitting in second-place in the Eastern Conference) at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night.

Those thoughts centered primarily on what New York’s young rookie talent showed this season and what it might offer beginning next year, especially that of 7-foot-3 Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis (whom Jackson drafted with the fourth overall pick last April) and point guard Jerian Grant (whom Jackson traded for in the same draft).

Before ending his season with a slight shoulder injury, Porzingis started in all 72 games he played this season while becoming the NBA’s first rookie to score more than 1,000 points, grab over 500 rebounds, make greater than 75 three-pointers and block more than a 100 shots.

Grant came along much slower, playing in 75 games this year, while making just his fifth start on Sunday night.

But Grant has impressed as he has finally received more playing time recently (at the prompting of Anthony, to Rambis), leading to his career-highs of minutes played (38), points (19), made field goals (seven) and attempted field goals (16) on Sunday night.

Anthony said he was excited with “the upside of the young guys that we have on this team. Jerian [has] showed the last three weeks what he’s capable of [and], the type of player he can be. He has a lot of upside, of course everybody’s seen K.P. (Porzingis) what he can do… so the young talent that we have on this team, the sky’s the limit if they keep working.”

On Grant in particular, Anthony said, “He’s in [the practice facility at] 7:30, 8’oclock in the morning before practice is at 11 [a.m.], so that’ll give you an idea of how far in advance he’s at the gym. His days are pretty much 8-3, 8-4, after practice, he’s still in there getting his work done. That work has paid off and I think everybody has seen that.”

Rambis added of Grant, “He’s got tremendous speed. It’s been a learning year for him all year long, learning how to run a team, learning how to get his teammates involved, [to] manage game, [to] see where his opportunities are to attack and… to push the basketball in transition, [and to] move the basketball along when avenues get shut down.

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“There are so many things a point guard has to learn in this league… for young players, that first year in the league, you get overwhelmed. Even when you go into a new arena, you don’t even know where the locker room is. Everything is a transition for him. He’s such a willing listener, he’s coachable, he wants to be really good, so that lays the foundation for him to have an exceptional NBA career… now he’s got a  feel for what NBA life is like, so he’ll take that challenge and come back better and be stronger next year.”

Having taken advantage of his increased opportunities, Grant noted, “It can build momentum into next year. I am getting to play [more lately], I’m getting to play with the starters and that’s giving me a lot of confidence.”

It’s also helped that Grant hasn’t had to look over his shoulder as much as before.

“You play loose and you just play your game,” he said. “You don’t worry about [questions like], ‘Was that a bad play?’ or ‘Is Coach going to take me out?’ It makes the game easy.”

Grant has also been able to effectively grasp New York’s triangle offense well.

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“As the season’s gone on, I’ve learned more and more,” Grant said. “There are [still] things I can learn, but the basics [of the triangle], I think I’ve got it down.”

And Grant is eager to absorb more, even if he winds up in the Summer League again in July.

“[That’s] going to be [Rambis’] decision, but I plan on it.” Grant said. “It can help.”

Although Rambis knows that Jackson still has his work cut out for him in trying to build a winner in New York, he remains optimistic about what lies ahead for the Knicks.

“We are going to continue to help this team grow,” he said. “They’re going to get better as individuals. We know we can add some pieces going into next year.”

Discounting last season’s tank job which eventually yielded Porzingis, Rambis added, “This was Year 1… of our transition. We knew it was going to be a process and depending on happens moving forward, we’ll be able to add pieces that we want, and guys learning how to play together, learning how to run the system that we want to run, and to be able to play the kind of defense I want them to play, we see that there’s going to be a bright future for this team as they get connected… as we learn how to play unselfishly and playing together.

“To me, this team has a huge upside in their ability to move forward, in playing together and winning [a lot] more ball games.”

Later, forward Sasha Vujacic said, “It’s frustrating not making the playoffs, but one step at a time.

“We definitely have capabilities. One thing we were struggling with all year long was consistency. We showed [at times that] we can compete with anybody in the league. It’s fun to see the young guys leaning how to execute. I am glad they are getting experience.”

Expecting Porzingis and Grant to make significant strides next year, Anthony said, “The offseason after your first year is always your biggest offseason. You’ve got some games under your belt, you’ve got some experience… for a lot of people, that [first offseason] can solidify you as a player and what type of player you’ll be from here on out.”

While all of that from the likes of Rambis, Vujacic and Anthony paints a great picture for part of the Knicks’ more immediate future, it doesn’t answer New York’s most important questions that will loom this offseason and beyond.

With much better head coaching candidates such as Tom Thibodeau, Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson, David Blatt and others potentially available, Jackson, at least for the moment, seems stubbornly committed to eventually removing the current interim tag from Rambis’ status, as if Jackson has completely ignored Rambis’ 65-163 career coaching record, including an underwhelming 9-18 mark since Fisher was let go.

Jackson is even more tied to making sure that his outdated (yet still effective?) triangle system, which no other team in a pick-and-roll dominated league, is continually force-fed as the primary staple of the Knicks’ offense.

That could prove to be a big deterrent to potential big-name free agents who might not be interested in having to learn a whole new way to play in New York.

Another drawback in that regard could be that Anthony, who despite coming off a good season, will turn 32 in May and will enter his 14th year in the NBA, with some knee issues in his fairly recent past, as his prime will likely wind down before Porzingis reaches his.

Some Knicks fans, loyal perhaps to a fault, have blind faith in Jackson’s plan, whatever it may be, even though two years into his rebuild, he’s taken New York from 37 wins to 17 last season, to either 32 or 33 this year.

The Knicks’ 237th consecutive sellout on Sunday night for a team that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs in three years, and which went just 25-57 at home over the past two years, will attest to that faith and unyielding allegiance.

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But not everyone’s happy, as evidenced by the four different times during Sunday night’s loss to the Raptors, a Knick fan yelled loudly to tell Jackson that at least in his opinion, the all-time leader with 11 NBA titles as a head coach “stinks” thus far as an executive.

In fairness, Jackson’s results have been at worst, mixed.

Pieces like Porzingis, Grant and veteran center Robin Lopez (a Jackson signee) should keep working out nicely for the Knicks as they continue to  complement Anthony.

However, even a hopeful Anthony acknowledged his present frustration and concern for what’s to come minutes after he and his teammates thanked Knick fans for their undying loyalty by signing jerseys on the court and throwing t-shirts out to the crowd right after New York’s loss to Toronto.

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“I hope [it will turn around quickly],” Anthony said. “As players, we want this to be a welcoming to the postseason… we shouldn’t get used to having [a true] Fan Appreciation Night this early.”

Like the fans, Anthony, perhaps with a little more trepidation than those who root him on, maintains his faith that Jackson and others in the front office will figure it all out while he’s still in his prime.

“There’s plenty of uncertainty right now… but that’s what guys get paid the big bucks for,” Anthony said.

In Jackson’s case, that’s a whopping $60 million over five years for someone who aside from his Hall of Fame coaching credentials, was a rookie executive only two years ago and who has an awful 49-114 record (.301) to show for the first two years of a five-year plan that as of now, doesn’t seem to have an overwhelming vote of confidence from the Knicks’ best player.

Anthony continued, “Everybody’s gotta put their heads together and try to figure out what’s going on and what’s going to happen, and how we can continue moving this ship forward and getting better.”

On how long Knicks fans should wait for that to happen, Anthony optimistically said, “I don’t think it’s time to give up on us just yet.”

Not yet, but it’s time for Jackson to start providing more answers than questions on exactly where the Knicks are headed.

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons).Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship).He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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