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Lords of the rings: Phil Jackson brings championship expertise to new regime

Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks on stage at

Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks on stage at Phil Jackson in Conversation with Ben McGrath at the MasterCard stage at SVA Theatre during The New Yorker Festival 2014 on Oct. 12, 2014 in New York City. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Brad Barket

Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith were eating together at the Thayer Hotel at West Point during training camp when Anthony looked over at a table where Phil Jackson, Derek Fisher and a couple of Knicks assistant coaches were sitting.

Anthony asked Smith, "How many rings you think is at that table?''

Smith answered, "Maybe 20, 25.''

He was well short.

"No,'' Anthony corrected him. "There are 36 at that table.''

Anthony did his research on the Knicks' new regime. Jackson, Fisher, associate head coach Kurt Rambis and assistant Jim Cleamons have earned a combined 36 NBA rings -- many of them together.

They have brought that knowledge and expertise to the Knicks, hoping to add to that eye-popping total.

"When they talk,'' Anthony said, "we listen.''

Schooled by Holzman

Jackson is the ring-leader, literally. He has won 13 championships, a record 11 coming as the coach of the Bulls and Lakers. Jackson won two with the revered 1970 and '73 Knicks, who were coached by Hall of Famer Red Holzman. Holzman emphasized the importance of sharing the ball, playing unselfishly and putting the team first.

Injured during the first title run, Jackson was an indispensable reserve for the second. With an angular, coat-hanger torso and freakishly long arms, Jackson was disruptive defensively and shot a crowd-pleasing, sweeping lefty hook.

Jackson took the principles Holzman taught him to Chicago and Los Angeles, instituting the triangle offense in both places. All he did was succeed, posting a .704 winning percentage in the regular season and .688 winning percentage in the playoffs.

There's no doubt Jackson is an all-time great coach, but he also coached some all-time great players -- Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Part of Jackson's brilliance was being able to manage their egos and get them to play together.

Now as team president, he is trying to instill those core beliefs in the Knicks. He's brought some of his closest friends, confidants and disciples with him to carry forth his vision on how the game should be played.

Cleamons, a former Knicks teammate of Jackson's, has a ring for each finger on both hands. His first came as a rookie on the Bill Sharman-coached 1971-72 Lakers team that reeled off a record 33 straight wins. His other nine came as Jackson's assistant in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Rambis is an eight-time champion. He won four while wearing black horn-rimmed glasses and playing with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Pat Riley's Showtime Lakers, and another four as a Lakers executive and assistant coach during Jackson's reign.

Fisher was an integral part of the Lakers teams that enjoyed a three-peat from 2000-2002 and won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.

He made one of the most memorable shots in Lakers playoff history, catching the inbounds pass with four-tenths of a second left, turning and draining a game-winning jumper in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals in San Antonio.

Fisher, a lead guard and a good decision-maker, wasn't afraid to challenge Bryant, O'Neal or any of his teammates. He understood how Jackson wanted the team to play.

As a first-time coach, Fisher hopes to bring that approach to the Knicks, who haven't won a title since 1973. "A commitment to others'' and "service to others'' are some of the basic values Fisher is imparting to this team.

"They know what they're talking about,'' Smith said. "There's a sense of urgency there, but there's no panicking. In order to win 36 rings, you can't panic. You've been through pretty much every scenario, so pay attention, listen and focus like hell.

"If you don't listen, you're an idiot.''

Starting over

Amar'e Stoudemire jumped from high school to the NBA 12 years ago. He's experienced long practices, but never ones with so much teaching. He recently asked Anthony, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. if this was like college.

Fisher and his staff have been thorough. Attention to details has been stressed and repeated. Everything they do has a purpose.

They've gone over everything from two-line passing drills to dribbling drills. Fisher said they're "essentially starting from scratch.'' They're trying to get the Knicks to break bad habits and play differently from the way they have for most of their lives.

"The details we are going through are very strategic,'' Stoudemire said. "There's defensive drills, there's talking on defense, there's being aware, rotations, it's hands up. It's a college atmosphere. So I asked the guys is this how college was, and if so, it's great. You get a lot of fundamentals, a lot of teaching.''

Said Smith, "They really take time to explain what they mean and what they want. If somebody messes us up one play or a defensive assignment, they stop practice and go over it as a team, not just single out that one person. Everyone understands what's going on. I think that's the best part.''

The triangle is a free-flowing offense that features a series of screens, spacing, cutting and passing in and out of the post, with the ball moving quickly and everyone getting involved. Former Laker Rick Fox called it "a group dance and everyone's moving in sync.''

That's why many Knicks have to learn to play the game differently.

Anthony is a great scorer, but so many of his points have come in isolation or post-ups. He re-upped for $124 million over the summer and said he's committed to adjusting his game and making it work.

Smith has always looked for his own shot and rarely thinks he's taking a bad one. But during the preseason, he admitted "it's a struggle'' to put the team before himself and his scoring.

Smith knows he has to change because this system probably will be with the Knicks longer than he will.

"Look at the rings they have,'' Smith said. "It's worked. I want one so bad, I'll do whatever it takes. If it takes me sacrificing my scoring, that's what it takes.''

Sacrificing is a major part in winning big. Take the NBA champion Spurs. Their three stars -- Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- have always put team accomplishments over individual achievements.

That is part of the culture Jackson and Fisher are trying to create with the Knicks. A player still can get his points in their system -- Jordan, O'Neal and Bryant all led the league in scoring under Jackson's watch -- but the team must come first.

"That has to be the number one priority on both ends of the floor and in everything that we do,'' Fisher said. "That doesn't mean it robs you of your individuality as a person and as a man. But from a basketball perspective and in some ways, the way we try to handle ourselves personally on and off the court, it really is about our team, our players, our staff, really all being together for a common purpose.

"The X's and O's, the strategy, the triangle, the defense, all of that stuff will come. We'll put enough hours in to develop that. But we need to be a team first and create the type of habits that speak for who we are.''

L.A. story

Fisher was playing in his fourth season when Jackson arrived in Los Angeles in 1999 with much of his Chicago staff: triangle creator Tex Winter, Frank Hamblen and Cleamons.

Jackson was able to get through to Jordan and helped him become arguably the greatest player in history, and now he was with the Lakers to help Shaq and Kobe fulfill their destinies as legendary players.

The Lakers were a good team that hadn't tasted playoff success. They were hungry to win, so they paid close attention.

"There was definitely a level of respect,'' Fisher said. "Their resume and their history and their experience definitely created a really high level of attentiveness and respect from our group, for sure. We all wanted to be where they had been many times over. I thought it created a great working relationship right from the start.''

Fisher said it "was a slow process'' and "took a while'' for the Lakers to fully grasp the triangle, but you would never know it by the results.

The Lakers won 67 games -- 16 straight early in the season and 19 in a row near the end. They closed out the season winning 33 of their last 37 games and ultimately captured their first of three straight championships.

The Knicks lack the star power and personnel that those Lakers had. Jackson also brought in some former Bulls to help in the transition.

Everything is new for the Knicks, and Jackson isn't the one coaching. Ultimately, the plan is to load up on talent in the summers of 2015 and 2016 -- Marc Gasol and Kevin Durant likely will be Knicks targets -- in hopes of achieving success similar to that of those Lakers.

But for now, Fisher is trying to lay the foundation for how they want this team to think and play.

"I do see a group of players that want to be successful and really just want to figure out how to do it,'' Fisher said. "That's our job, to try and help them be the best of who they want to be.''

The triangle does have its detractors. Jackson is the only one who has succeeded with it. Tim Floyd and Bill Cartwright tried it with the Bulls after Jackson left, and it failed. Cleamons ran it in Dallas and went 28-70. Rambis was 32-132 in Minnesota.

Former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy recently said, "Systems don't win games, players do.''

Staggering success

Thirty-six is a mind-blowing number, even to Fisher. He played in a record 259 postseason games and appeared in eight NBA Finals, seven with the Lakers and one with the Thunder. Yet 36 elicited one word from Fisher: "Wow.''

Imagine how his ring-less players feel.

"I need one of them,'' Stoudemire said. "I just need one of them.''

Veteran big man and first-time Knick Jason Smith called it "crazy'' and "amazing.''

The 36 rings are such a stark contrast compared to the little success the Knicks have had.

Five of them have never played in the postseason. Four -- Samuel Dalembert, Jose Calderon, Andrea Bargnani and Jason Smith -- have never won a first-round series. They've been in the NBA for 37 seasons combined.

The entire Knicks roster has played a total of 264 playoff games -- five more than Fisher.

"They know how much work needs to be put in in order to become a champion,'' Stoudemire said. "They know all the details that you have to know to become a champion. Things that guys like myself and the rest of my teammates who haven't won a championship may not understand until we hear it from guys who have done it before.

"So it's great to have that type of coaching to teach us what it takes to become a champion.''

 

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