Phil Jackson might think this was the hard part, finding someone to take J.R. Smith and his $6.4 million player option for next season off his hands. The president of the New York Knicks might even want to throw himself a ticker-tape parade for uncovering a triangle set that actually works -- a three-team trade -- in running Smith out of town and making him LeBron James' problem to boot.
But Jackson should go easy on the champagne here, and that has nothing to do with the fact that he handed Cleveland a first-round pick from a different Knicks regime, Iman Shumpert, whose youth, athleticism and defensive intensity couldn't cover for the conspicuous holes in his offensive game. As much as Jackson can sell the potential of this salary dump and talk up nearly $30 million in cap space this summer to ease the misery of all those fans stuck with a 5-32 team, he can't hide from this truth:
Jackson really hasn't done anything yet. He made a dreadful move in trading to Dallas big-for-small and good-for-sub-mediocre, subtracting Tyson Chandler for a disappointing Jose Calderon and a barely breathing Samuel Dalembert, the next of the Knicks' celebrity apprentices to be fired. Now Jackson has found the one flawed and increasingly desperate contender (it only takes one, people) any competent executive could've found to gamble on Smith, who does have off-the-bench value when he isn't busy untying people's shoes.
Jackson won't prove he's worth James Dolan's money, if any NBA suit can be worth $12 million a pop, until he signs meaningful free agents this July ... right after he hits a grand slam with the Knicks' top-three pick in the draft, of course. That's a problem too and a big one given Jackson is already on record saying this season from hell might make it difficult to land those free agents he was hired to land.
That confession came before another flurry of blowout losses, including Monday night's beatdown in Memphis, where the Knicks started a lineup (Jason Smith, Cole Aldrich, Calderon, Shane Larkin, and Tim Hardaway Jr.) that would have trouble beating the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in a best of five. Jackson's confession also came before Carmelo Anthony's body showed another round of wear and tear, surely raising concerns among potential future co-stars that his biggest box office days might be behind him.
Forget Melo, the one Knick above all who didn't deserve this. Go ahead and name the available franchise player Jackson will sign in July to play for Derek Fisher, who hasn't exactly been anyone's coach of the year. Not counting unrealistic targets the likes of James and Kevin Love (not even J.R. will compel them to opt out of Cleveland), Jackson will likely go after Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, for starters. Gasol and Aldridge are not leaving two highly functional Western Conference programs to take a pay cut to join the worst team in the league.
So where does that leave Jackson? Rajon Rondo will stay in Dallas, and Kawhi Leonard is a restricted free agent certain to be the next in a long line of San Antonio lifers. Goran Dragic and Greg Monroe? Not a bad summertime package, but certainly not one that will wake up the echoes of Clyde Frazier and Willis Reed.
Maybe the Knicks will get the first pick of the draft, and maybe Duke's Jahlil Okafor will make Jackson pump his fist like Dave DeBusschere pumped his the day he landed Georgetown's Patrick Ewing. Yet by the time Okafor develops into a championship-level center, chances are he's going to need more than an aging Anthony by his side.
So Jackson needs to come up about as big in July as his buddy Pat Riley came up in 2010, when Riles dropped his rings before the then-uncrowned King, James, and put together a recruiting class to end them all. Jackson has a lot more rings to drop on the table than Riley did. He needs to dazzle someone with the glare.
For now, anyway, Jackson is settling for this three-way deal with Cleveland and Oklahoma City that enhances his recruiting budget but adds no talent to his team.
"As our journey moves through this season," Jackson said in a statement, "we will search for the type of players that fit the style we hope to exhibit for our fans. Our desire is to improve our ability to compete. In addition, these transactions improve our flexibility to the current roster and the salary cap for future reasons."
Notice Jackson defaulted to Zen speak in calling this season a "journey." Knicks fans would call this season a lot of things, but a journey isn't one of them.
A couple months ago, Jackson said he would identify the triangle learners and non-learners on his roster by the holidays and make moves accordingly. Smith and the injured Shumpert fell on the wrong side of that divide, and Monday night they paid the price for it.
But Jackson himself has been among the non-learners to date, as he forced a system on a roster and novice coach ill-equipped to execute it. The result has been uglier than anything pulled out of Mike Woodson's playbook last year.
The Knicks have four more losses than the Sixers. They have 14 more losses than their neighbors in Brooklyn. They have 27 more losses than the Golden State Warriors, led by the luckiest man on the face of the earth, Steve Kerr, who nearly agreed to coach Phil Jackson's team in New York.
Jackson had better not swing and miss on free agents like he swung and missed on Kerr. At a different time and place in New York, Knicks executive Ernie Grunfeld said the most frightening front-office task in the NBA wasn't clearing cap space but persuading worthwhile players to fill the space you cleared.
That's where Jackson is right now. He just did the easy thing -- seizing upon the insecurities of a troubled, win-now team.
Now comes the hard part. Remember, Phil Jackson was paid $12 million a pop for the hard part.