It was surprising to hear Knicks president Phil Jackson take issue with NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s lighthearted remark about New York’s difficulty with the triangle offense last week. After watching the Knicks lose to the Pistons, Silver laughingly told an interviewer that the Knicks were “clearly” still learning the offense. Talking to reporters a few days later, Jackson, unprompted, suggested that the most powerful man in the NBA should mind his own business. “I wasn't so humored by the commissioner actually jumping in on top of that, too,” Jackson said. “He doesn't need to get in on that. There's enough focus on [the] triangle.”
It seemed like an uncharacteristically snippy reaction from the Zen Master. Jackson has always enjoyed applying the needle and smirking at others’ sensitivity – remember when he called Sacramento a “cow town,” and when he suggested the Spurs’ championship in 2000 was tainted because it was a strike-shortened season? Rarely has he been the one to show a thin skin. But these are difficult times in New York and they’re likely to get worse before they get better. You wonder if Jackson is already regretting leaving his Montana ranch to try to clean up this Madison Square Garden mess.
The Knicks’ spoiling of LeBron James’ homecoming in Cleveland’s opener seems a million years ago now. Their 97-95 loss at home to Orlando on Wednesday night was their sixth in a row and the most embarrassing of the bunch, because losing at home to Orlando is awfully hard to do -- the Magic were 2-30 in their previous 32 games on the road. That leaves New York at 2-7 on the year, which doesn’t even begin to fully capture their troubles. Jackson and his protégé, coach Derek Fisher, are saddled with a roster that can’t play defense and isn’t comfortable on offense. They are giving up 108.7 points per 100 possessions, a defensive rating that is No. 27 in the 30-team league. But that was expected of a team that only has two players (Iman Shumpert and Samuel Dalembert) who could be considered above average defenders.
The problem is that the Knicks are almost as bad offensively. Their average of 91.1 points per game is next to last in the NBA, and their offensive rating of 99.0 is ranked No. 21. The scoring troubles are largely a result of the Knicks’ lack of familiarity with the triangle, the offense with which Jackson won 11 championships with the Bulls and Lakers. These Knicks, of course, don’t have the superstars who helped make the triangle work in Jackson’s previous stops. No, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Kobe Bryant aren’t walking through that door.
The hope is that Marc Gasol will walk through that door next season, or maybe Kevin Durant the season after that. That’s been the Knicks’ strategy for years – try to entice the next big-name free agent to make the Garden his home. In that sense, Jackson, despite all the talk of a new era that surrounded his arrival, hasn’t changed a thing. He has already been snubbed in his first attempt to use his prestige – Steve Kerr backed out of a verbal agreement to coach the Knicks in order to take the Warriors job, a wise move if ever there was one. And there’s no particular reason to believe that Jackson’s drawer full of rings will be enough to close the deal with others in the future.
It might be even tougher to attract players because of the triangle, the specialized offense that often makes the Knicks look like high school freshmen trying to do calculus. At times they are almost robotic as they make their cuts, and at other times they appear to abandon the offense entirely, particularly at the end of close games. They often revert to Carmelo Anthony isolations in crunch time, which wasn’t supposed to happen after Mike Woodson was fired last season. Jackson and Fisher stress that this is a diagnostic period, that they are using the first part of the season to determine who fits in the triangle and who does not. “Thanksgiving through December,” Jackson told the media before a loss to the Hawks on Monday. “That’s when we say, if you haven’t gotten it by now, we’ll have to really think about if you’re a learner or if you’re not a learner.”
Right now, Shumpert appear to be the best example of a learner, and others, like J.R. Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr. look like they need lots of tutoring. Anthony is somewhere in the middle. He’s a willing participant in the new system, but he doesn’t seem quite certain as to where his shots will come, and it shows in his shooting percentage. He’s hitting only 41 percent of his shots and his scoring average is 21.0 points per game, which would be his lowest since his rookie year. But Anthony is still on board, and he says his talk with Jackson last Monday was helpful. "It kind of gave me some insight into how to approach this new system and what to expect and what mindset to have out there on the basketball court," he said.
Anthony will probably get his numbers back up to their usual levels eventually, but finding the players to accompany him won’t be easy. The Knicks need not just talent, but the right kind of talent, the kind of players whose skills fit the triangle and who have the ability to learn it. The system Jackson insists on limits the pool of players who make sense for the Knicks.
That’s why, as another Knick loss ended with Smith ignoring Anthony and air-balling a bad three-point attempt against the Magic, the Jackson era already seemed in jeopardy. Getting lucky with a free agent or two won’t solve New York’s problems. They are in need of a roster overhaul that probably can’t be completed in one offseason, or even two. This is a long-term project and there is no telling whether Jackson is committed enough to stay in it for the long haul.
“I can see progress,” Jackson said last Monday. He might be the only one, because even after only nine games, it looks like the Knicks, triangle or not, are still running in circles.