By Joe Nocco
A season after finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference and missing the playoffs, the New York Knicks have revamped their team by re-signing Carmelo Anthony and hiring rookie head coach Derek Fisher. Finishing with a 37-45 record in 2013-2014, team president and general manager Phil Jackson hopes that he can lead the Knicks back to the postseason in his first full season in the front office.
After joining the Knicks front office in March, Jackson has attempted to change the attitude and culture of a struggling New York team through free agency, the trade market and a new offensive scheme.
It seems as if everyone in the Knicks organization is on board with the 11-time NBA Champion’s plan. In previous years, the Knicks’ complications stemmed from their lack of defense and focus solely on outscoring opponents. However, last season provided problems in all aspects of the game.
The Knicks finished in the bottom half of the league in most major offensive and defensive categories a season ago. New York ranked 20th in points per game—with 98.6—and 16th in field-goal percentage, coming in at 44.9. Despite ranking eighth in the league in fewest points allowed, the Knicks allowed the fifth highest field-goal percentage for opponents. Though the Knicks held their opponents to under 100 points per game, they allowed nearly 40 points in the paint per game as well.
It is difficult to win games when nearly half of the points allowed are inside the paint especially in close games. The Knicks went 3-8 in games decided by three points or fewer last season, while going 2-3 in overtime. Had New York closed out one of these games, they could have qualified for the postseason.
The Knicks also finished with a 15-29 record against teams with a win percentage over .500. With the second highest payroll in the NBA behind cross-town rival Brooklyn Nets, the problems begin and end at the top.
Derek Fisher, a longtime player under Jackson, was hired as the 26th head coach in Knicks history. Fisher was set to retire following the 2013-2014 after 18 seasons as a player and was signed to a five-year contract with New York on June 10. Fisher and Jackson won five NBA titles as a part of the Los Angeles Lakers and hope to implement a similar system that they used in LA in New York.
The system that will be used in New York is commonly known as the triangle offense. The sole purpose of this offense is to take the ball out of the hands of, in this case, Carmelo Anthony and spread the ball around. This would allow Anthony to get open without having the ball while letting other role players become involved with the offensive game plan. In the long run, the triangle offense relieves Anthony of the pressure of constantly handling the ball and always relying on him to carry the offense.
Carmelo Anthony finished second in the league in scoring, averaging 27.4 points per game. However, Anthony finished 72nd in field-goal percentage after sinking less than half of his shots. At 45.2 percent, the Knicks’ leading scorer made 9.6 out of every 21.3 shot attempts.
The triangle offense also translates to an effective defensive scheme. Instead of Anthony running down the court and chucking up a 25-foot shot, the ball will be worked around the perimeter until an efficient shot can be taken. This will increase the Knicks’ time of possession and keep fresh legs on defense, slowing down the tempo of the game. However, once the triangle is fully learned and executed correctly the tempo can speed up resulting in a high-scoring offensive attack.
Re-signing Carmelo Anthony was the key for the success of this offense. Though Anthony was a major part of this offense and team, the triangle offense cannot be executed properly with just one player. In lieu of re-signing the face of the franchise, Phil Jackson made his presence known in New York by making a six-player trade with the Dallas Mavericks.
Just 16 days after signing Derek Fisher to a contract, Jackson dealt center Tyson Chandler and point guard Raymond Felton to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for guards Shane Larkin, Jose Calderon and Wayne Ellington along with veteran center Samuel Dalembert. The Knicks also received the 34th and 51th picks in the 2014 NBA draft, a draft in which the Knicks previously had no picks.
The move not only bolstered the Knicks bench but made salary cap space for the possibility of Carmelo Anthony re-signing. Jackson’s thought processes proved effective after Antony returned to his hometown on a five-year, $124 million deal.
Jackson wasn’t finished after using the received picks to draft Cleanthony Early from Wichita State and Thanasis Antetokounmpo from Greece. The front office couldn’t believe that Early was still available in the second round and are expecting a strong rookie season. Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, will be stashed overseas to continue to develop for New York. His brother, Giannis, currently plays for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Still, Jackson wasn’t satisfied. The Knicks traded away Wayne Ellington two months after acquiring him from Dallas along with Jeremy Tyler in exchange for Travis Outlaw and Quincy Acy from the Sacramento Kings.
It seems as though Carmelo Anthony has bought into the Jackson and Fisher philosophy as the Knicks eye a playoff berth. Although the Knicks are set to win now, both Jackson and Anthony know that this may take time. However, along with the new acquisitions and the return of Anthony, the Knicks have other pieces in place that will allow New York to compete in a weak Eastern Conference.
Amare Stoudemire is in the last year of his contract and will be playing for his future—not just in New York but in the NBA. Stoudemire is set to make $23.4 million this season after signing a contract with the team in the summer of 2010. Former No. 1 overall draft choice Andrea Bargnani also returns to the Knicks’ lineup after suffering a season ending elbow injury. Both Stoudemire and Bargnani opted into the final year of their contracts to stay with the Knicks this season.
The Knicks backcourt comprised of Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Tim Hardway Jr. also remained intact, which will provide a three-point threat and solid defense at the top.
With his near $100 million payroll in place, Phil Jackson is ready to begin what appears to be an eventful 2014-2015 season.
“I flashed back to 1989 when I took over as head coach and had talked to Michael (Jordan) about how I wanted him to share the spotlight with his teammates so the team could grow and flourish,” said Jackson. “In those days he was a gifted young athlete with enormous confidence in his own abilities who had to be cajoled into making sacrifices for the team.
“Now he was an older, wiser player who understood that it wasn’t brilliant individual performances that made great teams, but the energy that’s unleashed when players put their egos aside and work toward a common goal. Good teams become great ones when the members trust each other enough to surrender the ‘me’ for the ‘we.’”
Joe Nocco is a writer for Scouts Alley and covers the New York sports beat on JoeNoccoSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter @JoeNoccoSports.