NEW YORK -- The remainder of the New York Knicks’ season is essentially meaningless. They’ll pay lip service to the idea of making a push for the playoffs, but it doesn’t sound like they even believe it anymore. With six weeks to go, the Knicks are 26-38, 12th in the East and 5.5 games back of the eighth spot. Derrick Rose said Monday he’s been reading, meditating and watching documentaries to take his mind off of what’s happening at work, via the New York Daily News’ Stefan Bondy.
“You got to try to distract yourself from what the reality is sometimes,” Rose said.
The reality is that the Knicks aren’t going anywhere. Team president Phil Jackson assembled a team with a few big names and a hodgepodge of young and old role players with a best-case scenario of qualifying for the playoffs and reestablishing some degree of relevance in order to keep Carmelo Anthony happy and sell other stars on coming to New York. Unfortunately for everybody involved, something close to the worst-case scenario -- endless drama, embarrassing defense, injuries and -- has happened instead, and a significant portion of the Knicks’ fan base is now rooting for losses and lottery balls.
It is easy to identify all the things that have gone wrong in New York. The tougher question is what can be done to fix them. The front office did nothing at the trade deadline aside from waiving Brandon Jennings and signing Chasson Randle, and since Jackson rarely speaks publicly, it’s unclear what direction he wants to take the franchise. Here is a seven-step plan for the Knicks to become a normal, healthy team again:
1. Let Rose walk
Maybe he’ll take a discount on a one-year deal instead of asking for a maximum contract. Maybe New York won’t have any other great options in free agency. Maybe he’ll average 25 points from now until the season ends. None of that would matter -- there is no good reason to bring Rose back.
Individually, Rose has had a better season than some expected. Per NBA.com, he has averaged 10.3 drives per game, which ranks 11th in the league, and his ability to get in the paint was Jackson’s stated reason for acquiring him. He has only passed the ball on 25 percent of those drives, though, and he hasn’t exactly turned the Knicks into an offensive juggernaut. Rose was always an awful fit in the triangle offense, and his poor defense hasn’t gotten any better. Forget about the fact that New York gave up real assets to acquire him; the best move is to just look at this as an experiment that didn’t work out.
2. Be honest with Carmelo
More than the trade rumors and speculation about his future, Anthony has seemed exasperated this season because of management’s lack of communication. The star forward made it clear where he stands: he wants to remain with the Knicks and honor his commitment to try to bring them to prominence. He has said, though, that if the front office decides it wants to rebuild, he would have a conversation about potentially waiving his no-trade clause.
If Jackson and Anthony’s relationship is too strained for them to be direct with each other, then owner James Dolan, general manager Steve Mills or somebody else in the organization needs to sit down with the 32-year-old. Ideally, this is when he would be told that the team has decided to focus on building around the 21-year-old Kristaps Porzingis. The no-trade clause means Anthony would be welcome to stay, but he’d have to be OK with every move New York makes being about maximizing Porzingis’ potential and surrounding him with young players who will grow with him. If Anthony does not want to be a part of that, then he and the Knicks will need to discuss what kind of trade he’d accept.
3. Either commit to the triangle or don’t
Since the All-Star break, the biggest on-court debate for New York has been the renewed emphasis on the triangle offense. Rose still isn’t comfortable with it, but Porzingis told reporters that he likes it and the Knicks should have been using it consistently from the beginning of the season.
I’m not a big fan of using the triangle in the modern NBA, but I agree with Porizingis on this: If Jackson really wants his team to run it, everybody needs to be all-in. The coaching staff must believe in the offense, the roster must be constructed with it in mind and there shouldn’t be any confusion about how the team wants to play. It was unfair to ask coach Jeff Hornacek to install the system with Rose and Jennings as his point guards, and it made sense that he went away from it. Next season, either give him the proper pieces or let him run whatever he wants.
4. Stop signing high-priced vets
It’s a New York tradition to acquire brand-name players after they’ve peaked or while they’re dealing with an injury. When the goal was to get back to the playoffs as soon as possible, this was somewhat defensible. After the way the last few years have gone, though, the Knicks can no longer afford to go this route. They’ll have some money to spend when Rose’s contract goes off the books in the offseason, but they should be extremely cautious about how they spend it.
New York has already been linked to Jrue Holiday, who is turning 27 years old this summer, has played eight seasons in the league and has a history of leg injuries. He’s probably the oldest player I’d consider chasing if I was Jackson, and I’d be a bit nervous about it. In general, the Knicks need to invest in the future and stop worrying about getting Anthony veteran help.
5. Make Kristaps happy
When the Philadelphia 76ers were trying to make sure a rehabbing Joel Embiid got enough Vitamin C, they discovered he doesn’t like orange juice. He loves mango juice, though, so they started squeezing their own mangos for him, per ESPN. I have no idea what Porzingis’ preference is, but the Knicks should know that and make sure he has as much juice as he needs. He is their most important player by a wide margin, and they have a responsibility to not mess up his development.
It has been pointed out elsewhere that Porzingis was at the free-throw line when Charles Oakley got in a tiff with Madison Square Garden security in February, with a stunned, confused expression on his face. More worrisome, maybe, was the fact that he said he “wasn’t enjoying basketball” after a loss a couple of days later. As much as he’s described as a unicorn, New York needs to remember this is a real guy, and, like most people, he’d be happier in a less dysfunctional environment. It has to do everything in its power to make him comfortable and earn his trust.
6. Clean up the Oakley mess
Nothing that happened to the Knicks this season came close to harming their reputation as much as the Oakley fiasco. Nothing could help them more than making it right. Dolan will have to swallow his pride, but it’s time to admit the organization has been too sensitive to Oakley’s criticism over the years. It’s definitely time to publicly apologize for ejecting him, having him arrested and accusing him of having a drinking problem.
Oakley has said it will take time to forgive Dolan, but that doesn’t mean New York’s unpopular owner shouldn’t be trying to work this out. Get Oakley’s former teammates involved. Promise him a video tribute at Madison Square Garden. Maybe even retire his number. If he comes back to the arena for just one night, fans will go nuts. If his relationship with the team is actually repaired, perhaps he could be an ally.
7. Keep making smart moves on the fringes
Oh my God, it’s time to praise the Knicks. While their bigger moves haven’t gone well, they deserve praise for trading two second-round picks for Willy Hernangomez, nabbing Justin Holiday in the Rose deal and signing Lance Thomas and Kyle O’Quinn to favorable contracts. Any team could have had Ron Baker and Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who have both become fan favorites at MSG. Randle, signed through next 2017-18 at the minimum, seems like he’ll have a shot to be in the rotation next season, too.
Courtney Lee, Thomas and O’Quinn are solid players who can fit just about anywhere, but are they better for New York than having more prospects and draft picks? The front office should explore the trade market for all of them, and it should try to re-sign Justin Holiday, a free agent in July, on a team-friendly deal. Instead of making big swings, the Knicks can quietly improve by hitting some more singles.