There is no more entertaining day on the sports media beat circuit than TNT's annual pre-Opening Day "Inside the NBA" luncheon in Manhattan, and Monday's was no exception.
But there was one noticeable change in this season's yukfest featuring Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson: The barbs aimed at the Knicks were fewer and further between than usual.
Not that the guys were delusional about the Knicks' prospects. Asked if they are close to title contention, Barkley said, "No, they're not close."
Still, given the influence the popular show has on perceptions both inside and outside the league, it was interesting to hear the (very cautious) optimism about where the Knicks are and, more importantly, where they are headed.
Or maybe they all were just protecting themselves in anticipation of Tuesday night's show live from Times Square.
"You have to respect and admire what Phil Jackson's accomplished; you have to give him a chance," said Barkley, who endorsed Madison Square Garden executive chairman James Dolan's decision to be less hands-on with the team. (Dolan also is CEO of Cablevision, which owns Newsday.)
"They're going to be better because they don't have the chaos of all the noise," Barkley continued. "Think about it: Last year every week it was 'Mike Woodson's going to get fired.' It's tough . . . You can't play under those circumstances.
"You at least have a window where that's not going to happen. Derek Fisher probably has a window where it's at least a two- or three-year window, maybe four years, before you want him fired. So the noise alone won't be there."
As he did regarding Jason Kidd last October, Barkley sounded a note of caution about Fisher making a transition directly from player to coach, but he added, "Obviously, he has some advantages with Phil Jackson being with him."
Fisher also has the advantage of Carmelo Anthony back in the fold. "I thought he made a good decision coming back to New York," said Barkley, who with Marv Albert and Reggie Miller will call the Knicks' visit Thursday to Cleveland for TNT.
"There was no guarantee he'd win in Chicago . . . If Carmelo can bring a championship here, it would be amazing. I love coming to this city. It's an amazing place. I've been a lot of places, and there's nothing like the energy here."
The others mostly deferred to O'Neal on the subject of the triangle offense, given that he experienced it firsthand as a Laker. He said the Knicks will need more than one elite player to make it work as well as Jackson's Bulls and Lakers did.
"It's very, very difficult because there are a lot of options, and when you're playing while the ball is flinging, you have to be quick with those options," he said. "If you stall the ball in the triangle, it's going to mess it up."
Later, he added, "The triangle is difficult. Like the Pythagorean theorem, it's hard, but once you learn it, it's actually easy."
As is his custom, Barkley held court on many other topics.
On leaning toward leaving the show after 17 years when his contract expires after next season: "I don't want people to get sick of watching me. It's fun and everything, but you don't have to stay until they kick you out the door."
On his strained relationship with Michael Jordan, whom he criticized for his stewardship of the Bobcats two years ago: "It's unfortunate we're not friendly, but I still love him. He's doing a good job now."
On his recent radio interview criticizing those who would accuse the Seahawks' Russell Wilson of not being "black enough": "It's a dirty secret in the black community. Unless you're a thug or have a criminal record or you're just a jackass, some black people don't think you're black enough."
On the NFL's response to domestic violence: "I'm very disappointed in [commissioner] Roger Goodell and [NFLPA executive director] DeMaurice Smith . . . It's a joke what these two guys haven't been able to accomplish."