Charley Rosen, author of 18 books about basketball and a former assistant coach under Phil Jackson in the Continental Basketball Association, 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, Part 5 and Part 6.
Date: April 23, 2015
Knicks' record: 17-65
WOODSTOCK, N.Y. -- Phil Jackson lived here in Woodstock during the four seasons he coached the Albany Patroons in the mid-'80s, and the greening woods and flowing streams and fresh air on this spring afternoon remind him of days gone by. "I love this time of year up here," he says, "and I need to get out of the city every so often."
In his first full season as head coach, in 1984, Jackson led the Patroons to a CBA title. His first season back in New York hasn't been nearly as successful.
The Knicks finished Jackson's first term as team president with 65 losses, the most in franchise history, and good for second-to-last place in the NBA. But the glimpse at his own past puts Jackson in an upbeat mood as he looks back and evaluates the performances of every player left on the Knicks' 2014-15 roster.
Quincy Acy, SF
"After some early difficulties, Q learned the triangle and learned how to play with his teammates. He also hit some shots and threw some nice passes. He's a doer with a professional attitude who always came to work. When [Andrea] Bargnani was hurt, Q had to play starter's time at power forward, which had him physically overmatched at times. Overall, he played about 19 minutes per game, which is the most action that he'd previously seen in his career, and he never complained when he got a DNP [did not play]. His constant effort is what made him one of our leaders by example.
"We used an accepted procedure to renounce Q to add more cap space and give us a chance to possibly re-sign him for less than he made last season. But our interest in having Q back depends on who we can draft and which free agents we can sign."
Cole Aldrich, C
"He's not as athletic as an NBA center is supposed to be, but he did improve his game as the season progressed -- particularly the accuracy of his lefty and right jump hooks. When both Andrea Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire were hurt, Cole played extremely well for about four games before he hit the wall. This was no surprise because he'd only played a little over a thousand minutes during his previous four years in the league, and he played just under a thousand for us this past season. So this season was an intense learning experience for him.
"A big physical problem for Cole was being so top-heavy that he couldn't move his feet quickly enough to avoid getting beaten on screen-rolls. Every team needs a big body, but Cole's NBA niche is probably being a fourth or fifth big man in a three-man rotation. We will definitely stay in touch, but again, his future with us depends on what happens in the offseason."
Lou Amundson, PF
"He's really good at what he does, but his shooting needs lots of work. That's because with each shot, from the field or the stripe, his feet are never in the same place from one shot to the next so his release is totally inconsistent. When he first came into the league, Lou was the worst shooter I've ever seen. But I really like him and I want him back. I mean, he's 6-9 and 220 and constantly giving up at least 60 pounds and several inches to the guys he's playing against. He's fearless, though, and has a very professional attitude."
Carmelo Anthony, SF
"He has an extensive rehab program [after undergoing left knee surgery] and he came back at full strength from a similar operation on his other leg. He's a quick healer so I don't expect him to be anything but 100 percent by training camp.
"Like Q, Melo is a leader by example, not by exhorting his teammates. He's also very into the triangle, and with a better supporting cast he has every chance to be the MJ and Kobe of our offense."
Andrea Bargnani, PF/C
"AB was and still is a big tease. When he was injured he refused to do simple non-contact activities like dummy our offense in practice. He seemed to be a malingerer and this had a bad effect on the team, and also on the way the Knicks fans reacted to him. When he was on the court, he had a hard time staying intense, didn't hustle back in offense-to-defense transition, wasn't active enough in defending screen-rolls. Still, his offense is perfectly suited to the triangle because he really doesn't have to work very hard to get shots. He's another guy we renounced, but whether we can agree on financial terms for his return, or he winds up someplace else, AB will always be somewhat of an enigma."
Jose Calderon, PG
"Hurt himself in training camp and had that same Achilles issue all season that bothered him physically and emotionally. He's a quality starting point guard, with good balance, a terrific shot and excellent judgment. Jose had an especially good on-court connection with Melo, knowing how to find good shots for him. I project Jose as playing 26-28 minutes per game, but we will have to provide him with a bit more defensive support. He's under contract and I'm happy to have him back."
"He does work hard, but like a lot of young kids, he believes that if his shots are falling then he's playing well. And like them, he'll force a few shots hoping to make them to convince himself and his coach that he's OK and shouldn't be yanked. What Cle has to understand is that defense has to be his calling card. It's defense that will keep him on the court, and his defense actually did improve late in the season. Of course, Cle lost time to three significant injuries so there was no continuity in his progress and he could never really get comfortable on the court. I can see him as becoming an effective lane-runner because he finishes so big. He could easily move into the rotation and play 28-30 minutes. It's up to him. But there are several things he has to work on.
"He's still learning how to be a professional athlete, but that's understandable. Cle has also got to understand when to put the ball on the floor and when to pick it up. His passing wasn't up to par, nor was his determination to run the floor. I think, and I hope, that when he learns to make the proper reads, his game will be suitable for the triangle."
"He's a long 6-2 who can definitely play the point in our system, and he does have a partially guaranteed contract for next season. Langston has a good base and finishes well when he makes good decisions. However, he does need to develop some other way to finish in a crowd when he doesn't have the chance to dunk. During the offseason he needs to work on his leg strength, his left hand and his entry passes.
"The bonus that Langston brings to the table is that, although he's a rookie who started off in the D-League, he's one of the three guys on the team who set an example with their professional attitude. The other two are Lou Amundson and Lance Thomas, both NBA veterans."
Tim Hardaway Jr., SG
"Timmy did hit some clutch shots for us late in the season. And when he hurt his right wrist, he worked on his left hand during the two weeks he was out, so that part of his game improved. Passing and handling with his left hand still needs work.
"Perhaps the worst part of Timmy's game is his ugly defense. We want guys to beat their man to the screen, to wedge themselves between the screen and their man -- something that Timmy rarely, if ever, did. Instead, he kind of threw his head back and acted as though it was somebody else's responsibility to correctly handle the situation. Timmy needs to grow emotionally to become an NBA player."
Shane Larkin, PG
"His play did improve, but he's still a long shot to be back with us. He's incredibly quick but he doesn't use his speed the way he should. Shane mainly wants to get his shot off a high screen-roll situation when he should be pushing the ball and getting his shots in an open floor. Another problem is that he can't control the ball because he has such tiny hands. For sure, every team needs a small, quick guard, but there are a lot of guys like that available."
Ricky Ledo, SG
"He tends to keep his dribble high when he tries to bust through a crowd and that only gets Ricky in trouble. Also, he has rounded shoulders that give him a slight hunch, which affects his balance and how big and robust he can play. But we'll give him a chance to play on our summer-league team and see how he develops."
"We have designed an offseason program for him to develop his strength, and he's eager to work at this. He has to be able to take a hit and not get floored. We'd love to have him back, but that depends on what kind of offers he'll get as a free agent."
Alexey Shved, G
"I enjoyed watching Alexey play. Where a lot of guys are conservative and robotic, Alexey is not afraid to drive into a crowd and take risks. And his interior shots are certainly unique. Driving from the left side, he takes a long step with his right foot and extends his right hand for the shot. He does this so quickly that the defensive bigs are caught off-balance. If a lot of Alexey's perimeter shots were front-rimmers, that's because he hadn't played much before he got here and he wasn't really in game shape. His vision, of course, is just terrific."
Jason Smith, PF
"The more he played, the better he played. Early in the season Jason didn't have enough power in his legs to get his turn-around-jumper off, but as he played, his legs got stronger and his [jumper] was effective. He also developed his shot from beyond the arc, so he's a real plus as a stretch 4. We've given him a program to develop his core strength and we really like him. Whether he returns or not once again depends on his market value."
Lance Thomas, SF
"Although he has a funny release and a funny gait, Lance is another guy I like. That's because he has a tremendous attitude; can penetrate and fan; has extended his range so that he's a genuine 3-ball threat; has quick hands; and likes to play defense. He's a fill-the-gap-type player who can be extremely valuable getting significant minutes off the bench. Lance wants to play in New York because he likes our full-function offense. A lot of teams will be after him, so we'll have to see how this shakes out."
Travis Wear, F
"We feel he can play multiple positions from point guard to small forward and even power forward against selected opponents. He can handle and has breakdown speed, but he gets nervous. Travis had a difficult time dealing with the pressure of playing in the NBA. We tried to get him about 15 minutes a game but his injuries prevented this. His play on our summer-league team and what new players we can bring in will largely determine his future here."
Of course there's more to a team than the players.
Derek Fisher, coach
"Fish did a terrific job. He was positive and supportive for his players as he made the difficult transition from the floor to the command seat. His handling of matchups and clock management got better and better. But I think the most important thing that Fish accomplished was motivating his players to always play hard, even when games were out of reach in the first quarter. I know he's going to be an outstanding coach for us."
Phil Jackson, team president
"I've learned not to make comments on Twitter! And although I'm not a great socializer, I learned to develop good relationships with agents and with the decision-makers on other teams. I think I've also learned how to help my coaching staff impose the right culture and the right foundation for us to move forward. That involved learning when to make my presence felt and when to stay away.
"I've always had a love/hate relationship with the Knicks since I left here. Love, because playing here was such a joy. Hate, because the Bulls always had to get past the Knicks in some very contentious series to advance in the playoffs. But I had to break up the team for us to move forward in the right direction. That means getting talented players that fit with each other on and off the court. Also getting players who understand that while playing basketball is fun, this is also a business. So we need guys who will ice after practice, watch what they eat, avoid having those three extra beers when they party, and get the rest they need. I think we succeeded in getting this particular cultural change.
"We also need players who have the quality of mindfulness, who can be here now, who doesn't get fixated on the refs, or on getting even if their man just scored. That's a difficult mindset for 19-year-old kids who've spent their entire lives in our current culture that caters to flash-interests.
"Certain other things will also have to change next year, namely our defensive game plan. I'd like us to exert more pressure in the backcourt. Press, trap, push sideline. Make opposing guards work to get the ball across the timeline, something that will tire them out late in the game -- this is extremely important. And after being pressured hard for eight feet or so, it will also be difficult for guards to continue their dribble deep into the attack zone. Pressure defenses also require opposing bigs to come help their guards and subsequently make quick decisions far away from their comfort zones. Of course, we'll need a deep, quick roster, but that's another thing we're aiming at. In addition, whenever our screen-roll defense allows a guard to penetrate, I'd like us to shift into a zone.
"Anyway, as I said. I did what I had to do, and Fish did what he had to do, so the season wasn't as calamitous as many think it was."