Phil Jackson hopes to make his critics finally eat crow after what the Knicks have had to ingest for the past two seasons.
Jackson won a record 11 NBA championships as a coach but the Knicks are 49-115 under his watch as team president, and he said they have had to “eat some dung” to be in position to potentially reach the playoffs this season.
“Fiscally, I’ve been very responsible as a president,” Jackson said. “I don’t think I’ve had an opportunity to do a lot with the personnel but we’ve been successful in getting it to a position where we can operate as a basketball team. That’s been our first goal. And to eat some dung in the process, we had to do that and live with it.
“I don’t know about assessment from one year to the next. I guess the proof is in the pudding, and we hope that this team is going to prove that they’re capable.”
Jackson has had an opportunity to do plenty with personnel. A constant under Jackson has been change.
Since the start of the 2014-15 season, 36 players have played for the Knicks. Only Carmelo Anthony remains from the team that Jackson inherited in March 2014.
Training camp opens Tuesday with six players from last year’s team on the Knicks’ roster. During the offseason, Jackson added some veterans with proven track records, and in some cases, something to prove.
Former NBA Rookie of the Year and MVP Derrick Rose was acquired from the Bulls for Jose Calderon, Robin Lopez and Jerian Grant. Jackson also spent $125 million to sign onetime Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, two-way shooting guard Courtney Lee and high-scoring guard Brandon Jennings.
Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis, Rose, Noah, Lee, Jennings and Lance Thomas give the Knicks a solid top seven. Jackson hopes the group can come together and help his reputation as an executive.
“There’s been a lot of anticipation about this season,” Jackson said. “There’s an excitement about it.”
It’s fair to assume that no one wants the Knicks’ three-year playoff drought to end more than Jackson, especially with his long-term future uncertain.
When he signed his five-year contract, he had an opt-out clause put in after this season. There has been speculation that Jackson, 71, might exercise it and return to his home in Los Angeles.
Jackson said he hasn’t thought about his future. But if he did opt out, he surely would want to be able to say he left the Knicks in better shape than he found them and moving in the right direction.
“I’ve just been going straight ahead,” Jackson said. “That really hasn’t been an item for me to think about. The fact that I had a clause put in the contract that in case there was a lockout that it might be a way to step away from the team or a job that doesn’t have any work action going on for a period of time. So that was one clause. That hasn’t affected what I’m doing now.”
Right now, Jackson and new coach Jeff Hornacek are eager to see how the Knicks mesh and blend their talents.
Jackson is optimistic because some of the players have been teammates before — Rose and Noah, Porzingis and rookie big man Willy Hernangomez — and thinks that they can gel quickly. Different groups of Knicks have been working out together and playing pickup games leading up to camp.
The biggest concern, however, is keeping Rose and Noah healthy. The two were cornerstone players for the Bulls, but missed a combined 350 games over the past five seasons.
But if they can stay healthy, the Knicks should have enough scoring, defense and versatility to reach the playoffs for the first time under Jackson, who considers Noah the anchor of his offseason rebuild.
“We looked at [Noah] as someone we want to have here to shore up our defense and give guys a certain sense of a cemented base defensively,” Jackson said. “We liked what Robin did last year. To get Derrick, we had to use Robin.
“So this is a combination of things I had to go through to put this team together. I think we did a nice job. I think we got a group of guys that can work together.”
1. Can they stay healthy?
Jeff Hornacek has a catch-22 situation: It’s his first year as Knicks coach and the team has three new starters so they need to work together to build chemistry. But he may not want to overwork them with the ages and health history of key players, Carmelo Anthony, Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings.
2. Will everyone buy in to the offense?
The triangle hasn’t been well received by Knicks players or successful for the team, but Hornacek said he will run “a lot of aspects” of it. He also promises to “blend” what he ran in Phoenix and Utah. Playing quicker and running more pick-and-rolls might be more appealing and ultimately successful.
3. How will the civil sexual assault lawsuit aginst Rose affect him and the team?
They need their point guard around to form chemistry. Phil Jackson said he’s “not concerned.” But if the case goes to trial, it could impact how much Rose is around the team.
4. Can the new additions make Anthony better?
Anthony has been the unquestioned leader of the Knicks, but he should have help this year. Noah is fierce and brings an unmatched intensity to the court, something the Knicks have sorely needed. He and Rose are among the league’s most competitive players, so they could lift everyone’s play, even Anthony’s.
5. Can the bench develop quickly?
After Jennings and Lance Thomas the bench isn’t very deep and could feature five rookies, including Willy Hernangomez, Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Marshall Plumlee. The injury histories of the key players means the reserves may be called upon at critical times so they’ll need to grow together in a hurry.