Charley Rosen, author of 18 books about basketball and a former assistant coach under Phil Jackson in the CBA, spent a day with Jackson in every month of his debut season with the New York Knicks, during which the Hall of Fame coach-turned-executive talked frankly about his roster and his new role as team president. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5. Check back next week for Part 7.
Date: March 23, 2015
Knicks' record: 14-57
Phil Jackson sits at the same round table in the same ritzy private suite in which we'd met just before Christmas. The room is still ringed with uncomfortable-looking metal chairs, and a monstrous TV screen remains affixed to the far wall. Even the buffet is similar.
Many of Jackson's thoughts about his team, even three months later, are likewise familiar.
"I was especially unhappy by the way we lost to Philadelphia last Friday," Jackson says, referencing to the 97-81 defeat at the hands of the 17-win 76ers three days earlier. "When Philly's defense aggressively denied the wing entries, we failed to counter by using our automatics. What was supposed to happen was the center flashes to the high post, receives the ball from a guard, then passes to a wing who's perfectly set up for a back-door cut. None of this happened. Nor did the centers make back-door cuts when they were overplayed in the low post. At this point in the season, these failings are bothersome."
Jackson then goes into specifics on several of his players: "Alexey Shved has been a pleasant surprise," he says about the 26-year-old guard acquired from the Rockets at the trade deadline. "You never know what he's going to do every time he has the ball, but he's tricky when he gets to the hoop and he's an outstanding interior passer. He's an erratic shooter because his release is a little low, so most of his misses are front-rimmers. Also, he's not very strong so the slightest bump can derail him. It'll be up to him how hard he wants to work on his strength during the offseason. But he's certainly a welcome addition."
Despite a protracted stretch of poor play, Jackson remains a fan of Lance Thomas. His up-to-date evaluation of Quincy Acy, a player he was "really enthusiastic" about in the preseason, wasn't quite so positive: "He does work hard, but too often he looks to shoot a jumper. It's like he wants to see if he's hot or not."
Travis Wear is progressing, "but he's overly cautious with the ball because he's so afraid of making a mistake."
Langston Galloway hasn't made a full recovery after "running full-speed into the rookie-wall."
Jackson is happy that Andrea Bargnani is finally back in action after missing most of the season's first half and playing reasonably well. "He's such a good shooter that defenders have to bite on his shot-fakes," Jackson says. "Even so, when Andrea does drive he almost always moves in straight lines. He rarely, if ever, executes any kind of change of direction. And he gets hurt because he can't avoid the resulting contact."
Jason Smith elicits Jackson's most direct comment: "You can tell by his demeanor that he's not happy coming off the bench. He was pressed into a starter's role because Andrea was out, but since he's been coming off the bench, Jason hasn't been shooting well and is much less active on defense."
While Jackson admits that Shane Larkin's play has improved, he's still unhappy with one critical aspect of the smaller guard's game: feeding the pivot. All of Jackson's championship teams featured a center who could use his big butt to establish and maintain low-post position. But Smith, Bargnani and Lou Amundson, lacking the same posterior mass, are obliged to use their arms and elbows to seal off their defenders.
Overall, because of injuries and bench players having to play starters' minutes, "a lot of the guys are worn down, and much more often than not we simply don't have enough juice to be competitive for 48 minutes."
With the present in disarray, Jackson turns his attention to the future -- specifically the numerous unrestricted free agents who will be available on July 1 and in the upcoming draft. It's no secret now that the Knicks' success -- and Jackson's -- entirely depends on the choices he makes in the offseason.
"This will be a very top-heavy draft," he says. "There are lots of guys I really like. D'Angelo Russell from Ohio State. Jahlil Okafor from Duke. And a bunch of guys from Kentucky: Devin Booker, a 6-6 guard; Willie Cauley-Stein, a 7-foot forward who played wide receiver in high school and loves contact; and of course Karl-Anthony Towns."
The widely held assumption is that, should the Knicks secure the top pick, it's a tossup between whether Jackson would go with either Okafor or Towns. However, after recently watching Kentucky play and witnessing one of their practice sessions, Jackson has this to say about Towns: "For sure, he's a better defender than Okafor, but even in the limited minutes he got during the season, Towns was always in foul trouble. Also, he's not very core-strong. Plus, his big feet will make it difficult for him to maneuver through heavy traffic in the paint. I think in four years Towns will be a better NBA player that Okafor, but Okafor is more NBA-ready right now and we need help ASAP."
Another draft-eligible player Jackson likes is Emmanuel Mudiay, a 6-5 point guard who opted to play in China in lieu of college. "He was hurt over there," Jackson reports, "and he didn't play long enough to bond with his new teammates, but the kid is a team player and very talented."
In addition to watching hours of tape throughout the season, Jackson says he has also done lots of what he calls "intel work" to prepare for the draft.
"It's of vital importance to try to discover the ethics of a player," he says. "What's important to him? In what direction does he want his pro career to go? Is he a leader or a follower? Is he coachable? What's the size of the universe he lives in? In the case of Mudiay, he has a needy family so he needed the immediate money that he could get in China. That tells a lot about the young man's priorities."
Depending on how the ping-pong balls bounce, Phil could also choose to trade down. "It's conceivable that we could trade picks, still get a guy I like, and also get a player who's already an established star, plus another young player who might be on the verge of stardom. There are, and will be, plenty of possibilities."
Even so, Jackson says the game plan en vogue in the NBA will greatly influence the free agents he will investigate. "Screen-roll and screen-pop with stretch-4s are all the rage. That means, on defense, big men must be able to either switch or step out and stop the guards from penetrating. Guys like Chris Bosh and [Nerlens] Noel can. Guys like David Lee and Greg Monroe can't. So finding someone who is able and willing to fit our specific needs is more important than just having lots of salary cap money to spend. Plus, the kicker is that we can't do anything in the free-agent market until we're sure that either Marc Gasol or DeAndre Jordan are available or not."
Jackson will also be seeking a guard who can get to the hoop. "Wes Matthews would have been perfect for us, but it's a player's recovery from a severe Achilles injury like the one he suffered that is always problematic."
In addition to the private room, there was one more all-too-familiar circumstance that was evident at Madison Square Garden this night: The Knicks suffer another loss, this time a 103-82 defeat to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Jackson, however, remains optimistic.
"There are many examples of a team that went from sh-- to Shinola in a short few years," he says. "Like the Celtics when they added Larry Bird, or the Magic when Shaq and Penny Hardaway got there. So there are plenty of reasons for Knick fans to keep the faith."