Over the course of the 2015-16 NBA season, Today’s Fastbreak’s Charley Rosen met with New York Knicks president Phil Jackson to discuss the state of the team. This is Part 1 of “The Phil Jackson Chronicles.”
As they did in Phil Jackson’s initial season as team president, the New York Knicks convened their training camp at West Point. While there, Jackson was quartered in the Baseball Suite.
Just about every available wall space in the legendary Thayer Hotel is hung with photographs of celebrated West Point graduates: Generals, war heroes, Heisman Trophy winners (“Doc” Blanchard, Glenn Davis and Pete Dawkins), even a couple of presidents (Dwight Eisenhower and U.S. Grant).
West Point fielded its first varsity baseball team in 1890, so vintage photos, charts and several autographed baseballs are displayed under glass as Jackson settles into a leather easy chair. Among the famous major leaguers depicted posing with Army players are Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Yogi Berra and Duke Snider. There’s a shot of Gen. Douglas MacArthur chatting with Bobby Brown. Also Casey Stengel reading the orders of the day to the assembled cadets in the mess hall. (Too bad a sound recording of this doesn’t exist.)
And set by itself on the far wall of the living room is a framed list of the several dozen West Point baseball players who were either Killed or Missing in Action.
“I like the feel of West Point,” Jackson says. “It’s serious, sequestered, and there’s a sense of discipline everywhere you go. It’s a good learning place.”
Dressed in a dark-blue-with-orange-trim Knicks sweatsuit, and just having witnessed the team’s initial practice session of the day, Jackson turns his attention to basketball — his ball club in particular and the NBA in general.
“We’ll have nine new guys on our roster,” Jackson says. “Of the six holdovers only Carmelo, Jose and Cleanthony were with us for the full training camp last year. So in addition to so many players having to learn the playbook, they’ve got to learn how to play with each other. What do certain guys want to do? Like to do? Where’s everybody’s comfort zones? How do everybody’s skills mesh? And what will be the level of their collective on-court intelligence?
“We’ve only had six practice sessions so far, so everybody’s still a little tentative and sloppy. But everybody seems to be willing to do what’s necessary to make things work and they all behave as though basketball really means something to them. Nor are they afraid to expend maximum energy, especially on defense. Team chemistry is so important for any team to have any degree of success. It can be a slow evolutionary process and, right now, there’s no way of knowing what the results might be with us.”
One of the major factors in team chemistry is leadership. The head coach can provide only a modicum of this simply because he’s a civilian. Indeed, the most effective leadership has to come from among the players themselves. And Jackson feels that the Knicks are blessed with several players who are capable of assuming that critical responsibility.
“Carmelo isn’t going to yell or throw chairs,” says Jackson. “His style is much more subtle. For example, during the summer he took a bunch of his teammates to Puerto Rico so they could get to know each other in a relaxed, non-stressful and non-competitive situation. Carmelo also leads by example — practicing hard, preparing for games and then playing hard. Lou Amundson has the same quality. Willis Reed and Michael Jordan were also very effective leaders-by-example.”
Jackson then defines what an “active leader” does or should do: “Basically it’s holding yourself and others responsible for what’s not being done. Not by finger-pointing or accusations. Just taking someone aside and asking him why he didn’t get a particular job done the right way.”
Jackson also cites Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez for taking responsibility for stopping the ball on defense, and thereby prompting everybody else to do the same.
Next, PJ singles out who the Knicks’ most vocal leaders are and have been: “Jose organizes the offense and he’s much more comfortable doing this than last season. That’s mainly because he’s more familiar with the triangle, we have more guys who are committed to executing it properly, and also because he’s healthy. So, during practices or games, Jose will call the guys together from time to time and make sure they’re all on the same page.”
He points to Lance Thomas organizing a round of free throw shooting after this morning’s practice. And, even though Langston Galloway is only a second-year player, he’s also assumed a leadership role.
“The down side to all of this,” Jackson notes, “is that it’s possible to have too many voices. That’s something else that hopefully will work itself out.”
There’s no question that chemistry, leadership and talent are critical components. Nevertheless, Jackson says this: “It’s really about health. Carmelo is 100 percent recovered from his surgery, but he’s been pacing himself and not running full-out yet. So far, that’s the only serious health concern, but injuries are inevitable and we hope we have enough depth to tide us over if/when a starter or rotation player is out.”
Some critics have claimed that one of the team’s major shortcomings is a lack of dependable three-point shooters. But Jackson disagrees, pointing to Carmelo Anthony, Jose Calderon, Sasha Vujacic, Jerian Grant, Derrick Williams and Kristaps Porzingis as effective long-range bombers.
“It’s true, though,” Jackson adds, “that we did sign several bigs, which provides us with much more of a post-up game than last season. During yesterday’s scrimmage, Kyle O’Quinn — who’s at least 6’10 and 265 — tried to shoulder Kevin Seraphin — who’s 6’10, 290 — and got flattened. Something like that never happened since I’ve been here.”
Jackson went on to discuss the Knicks’ other bigs: “Of course, Robin Lopez is an excellent defender. While he’s not explosive on the offensive end, he knows how to create space. He’ll start at center and play anywhere from 28-30 minutes. Porzingis will play power forward and also log some minutes backing up Lopez. Most of the second-string centers around the league focus on rebounding and setting screens so KP should be able to hold his own on defense.”
Jackson also admits that he’s not done tinkering with the roster: “We’ll go into the season with only 14 players. Since Lopez is the only tried and true center with any length we’ll keep a roster spot open in case a player we like is cut, or some kind of attractive deal becomes available.”
It’s too early for PJ to determine who’s “up or down” in the East. Even so, he’s thinks the Kicks can “move forward.” What exactly are his expectations? Winning 35 to 37 games would be “tremendous, remarkable, a quantum leap.”
Also new this season is Jackson’s agreeing — at Derek Fisher’s request — to be more involved with the coaching staff: “There’s nothing radical about this. Guys like Pete Newell, Wayne Embry and Jerry West did the same thing when they had front-office status in charge of basketball operations. The truth is that Fish really wants to learn as much as he can about coaching. He really wants to get immersed in his job. That’s why Fish took the unusual step of coaching our Summer League squad. Something that head coaches rarely if ever do.”
For starters, the plan is for Jackson to watch what he still calls “game films” with just Fisher or perhaps with the entire coaching staff. “We’ll see how it flows,” he adds.
Last season, Jackson conducted only a single game video with the players. It remains to be seen if more team-wide sessions will happen.
If Jackson is studiously focused on the Knicks, as a student of the game, he’s also interested in the latest trends in NBA action. Due to Golden State’s game plan that led to a championship, small ball is the current rage.
“The three-point shot has had a dramatic effect on the game,” Jackson says. “It began with the old American Basketball Association with their striped ball and emphasis on backcourt play. Nowadays, you have to come out and guard the long-range shooters, which now includes stretch 4s. What this does is open up driving lanes. So most offenses come down to high screen fades, drives and kick-out passes, and guys getting fouled when they attack the basket. Even so, the game is still about ball penetration.”
Jackson is certainly liberal in his praise for the job that Steve Kerr did: “It calls to mind John Wooden who, early in his coaching career at UCLA, came to blame himself for his team’s lack of success. Then, instead of designing his game plan for the players he wished he had, Wooden worked with the players he had. The result was Wooden winning the first of UCLA’s many NCAA championships in 1964 with a team whose tallest starter was 6’5 Fred Slaughter. Steve Kerr did just about the same thing.”
And, since many other NBA coaches will endeavor to duplicate Kerr’s strategy, small ball will likely become the norm for the foreseeable future.
“However,” says Jackson, “this is nothing new. Boston, New York and even Chicago won championships with undersized players. People forget how many titles the Bulls won with MJ, Scottie Pippen, Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc and Steve Kerr on the floor in the endgame. Small ball is just the latest cycle.”
Jackson recalls when “Twin Towers” was all the rage. Hakeem Olajuwon paired with Ralph Sampson. Wilt Chamberlain and Nate Thurmond. And, don’t forget, David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
“The pendulum will swing back,” Jackson predicts, “when big men make a habit of crushing smaller defenders.”
Until then, Jackson has a few suggestions to improve the pro game: “Why not have a four-point line about 35 feet out? It wouldn’t be long before players will get reasonably comfortable shooting from out there. And having a four-point line would certainly serve to enable teams to catch up in what are now blowout games.”
In addition, Jackson supports adding six seconds to the shot clock: “This would give offenses more time to get low-post players involved, make defenses work harder, and encourage more passing and player movement.”
Overall, though, Jackson is not opposed to small ball. “I’m certainly not against it,” he says. “In fact, I’m not against anything.”
Perhaps he glances at the KIA/MIA list before he says, “Except war.”