4020 some odd days. It’s the funniest joke on twitter. The Knicks haven’t won a playoff game in some 4000 odd days. Hilarious. The last time the Knicks won a playoff game, something in the past was the present! Hilarious! You guys are great.
As the Knicks bomb out to the Heat, down 0-3 in the series, Knicks fans like myself are left scratching our heads. Here’s the quick recap of how it all went sour. Coming into this year, I felt that the Knicks were going to get point guard play and win the title (because I’m one part homer and one part just starved for Knicks success). For the first third of the season, the Knicks got no point guard play and lost about two thirds of their games. Then Linsanity happened, and the player I expected Baron Davis to end up being for the Knicks was replaced by a point guard who was doing stuff I didn’t even think Baron could do, and the Knicks won a ton of games and looked like a team that indeed had a puncher’s chance. All the while Melo and Amar’e were in and out with injuries. Then Linsanity slowed down after the all star break, eventually leading to the young PG going under the knife for a knee issue that idiots seem to think is going to derail his career, and Amar’e got hurt again, but Carmelo Anthony started playing the best basketball of his life and the Knicks went into the playoffs red hot and looking dangerous. Stumbles from the inept all season Amar’e on the way back were overlooked, and hope of beating the most dangerous team in the East existed.
Well, the Knicks started the series with their backup PG due to Lin being out, and after a productive start, Baron Davis hurt his back and was not a factor. Tyson Chandler, the DPOY this year, had a serious case of the flu. The Heat started to destroy the Knicks. Iman Shumpert, the starting SG, blew out his knee and is lost for a long time. With a hobbled backup PG and no SG, at least the C was feeling better, but not healthy, by the start of game 2. Chandler still wasn’t himself, Knicks still lost big, and Amar’e decided to demonstrate his Punch Out! skills on a fire extinguisher and busted his hand open. At this point, the Knicks were down 0-2, and the starting PG was out, the starting SG was out, the starting PF was out, and the starting C still had the flu. Melo was hopefully going to be enough for game 3, and Chandler was finally back to 100%, leaving the Knicks with a solid 40% of their starting lineup at the Garden, but a 4th quarter manslaughter from LeBron killed the Knicks hopes.
Now massive questions are being asked of a 7 seeds inability to beat the best team in the East with 40% of it’s starting lineup. Sounds stupid? Welcome to New York. And the Knicks already have fired one coach, the new coach is all but out the door after this year, and now Phil Jackson is the hot button rumor of the hour, as Knicks fans and the media wonder if his ties to the Knicks and love of money will convince the Zen Master to come out of retirement and save the Knicks.
Nobody outside some Knicks fans thinks this Knicks team is good enough for Phil Jackson to bother with. Phil Jackson is a winner who only wants to win and win big, and likes to get paid exorbitant sums to win. Melo and Amar’e have never worked, the Knicks aren’t good enough, so why would Phil Jackson bother to try to drive a car through a brick wall? I’m just a Knicks fan, so I don’t have the answers to the questions everyone is posing, but I’m also the man most qualified to set the table that Phil Jackson is going to consider dining at, because I watch the Knicks religiously and have the clarity to say exactly how things are and how Phil probably sees it.
The major questions about the Knicks that Phil Jackson has to sort out are two fold: Can Amar’e and Melo ever work, and if not, can Melo lead the Knicks to the title as their best player? The answer to the first question is obviously no. Melo is a beast when he is on, but Melo does not have the game to mesh with another scorer. And Amar’e is, or at least was, just a scorer. He’s not defending, not rebounding that well for his position, not that much of a leader, he’s just a basket maker (or again, at least he was). The triangle is not going to make Amar’e the player he once was. Amar’e is a sunk cost at this point in his career.
The second question is a lot more complicated. My man Bryan here does not think that Melo is the top of the line talent that can lead the Knicks to a title. My friends in person tell me all the time how Melo doesn’t have what it takes to win a title as the best player on a team. Melo has the worst playoff win percentage of all time for a player with 50 playoff games. He’s never won in the playoffs. He’s sure as hell not doing the Knicks any favors this year. Despite his past career success against LeBron, the league MVP is owning Melo on both ends of the floor in a brutal fashion. Let’s not hold that against the reigning NBA Eastern Player of the Month for April, after all, LeBron owns a ton of players who are very good. LeBron is the best in the league and it’s not close. Melo’s near 30 and 8 in April are indicative that he could be the kind of player that could lead a team deep. But how deep?
The only answer to that question is “we don’t know”. Melo’s never had a prayer in the playoffs before of winning a ring. The injury to Shumpert, the flu of Chandler, and the Knicks not getting the early wins to bring Lin back for the end of the series doomed this Knicks team this year from the start. Last year, Billups went down and Amar’e threw his back out before game 2, leaving Melo to play with 7 total scrubs against Boston. In Denver, Melo never had the better team. He joined a 17 win Nuggets team. He led them to 43 wins, then faced the #1 team in the West, the 58 win Timberwolves. The Nuggets improved to 49 wins by year two. His reward? The 2 seed and eventual NBA champion Spurs. A division championship in year 3, the Nuggets first since 1988, was rewarded with a 6 seed who won 3 more games then the Nuggets did. 45 wins got Melo the 6 seed the next season, and his reward was against the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. Melo finally won 50 games the next season. It got the Nuggets the 8 seed and a date with the eventual Western champs, the Lakers. Finally in 2009 Melo won another division title and got the 2 seed. The Nuggets waxed a couple teams before falling to the Lakers in the WCF, a team that won 11 more games then the Nuggets did, and the Nuggets up a great fight in that WCF. In Melo’s final year in Denver, the Nuggets won the tiebreaker to win their division for a third time, and Melo dropped 31 and 8.5 over 6 games vs the Jazz, the team they tied with in record during the regular season, but despite his top flight scoring and good shooting percentage, it was not enough.
It’s not like Melo only snuck into the playoffs due to his own shortcomings that his teams in Denver consistently drew terrible matchups against superior opposition. The Nuggets won a ton of regular season games, the West was just stacked. And in New York, the playoffs have been a circus of disasters, players getting injured left and right against very tough opposition, a healthy Celtics team and this juggernaut Heat team. There is no evidence that says Melo can win a title, but it’s not like Melo is Dirk. Dirk had plenty of chances to make a legit run to the championship before he finally did. The Mavs lost to lesser teams often before they won it all. Melo lost to better teams, usually much better teams.
So the question is, can Melo really be the best player on a top team to start with? He did it once in Denver and they did what they should have done, made the Western Conference Finals. The rest of those years, his support was pretty trash. Melo has never played with a player as good as Tyson Chandler, a piece he meshes very well with. Jeremy Lin has the chance to be a great player with Melo. Shumpert is the kind of defensive stopper at the SG position that just makes sense with Melo. Those four have the chance to be something in the East, even if you write Amar’e off completely.
The answer to if the Knicks can compete is not no. It’s not yes. It’s a giant maybe. The Knicks aren’t going to get better. But for stretches of this season, the Knicks were unquestionably good enough. J.R. Smith and Steve Novak will probably leave the team this offseason, but the core is more or less intact for a long while. Lin will sign for at least 4 years, Landry Fields will be brought back with Bird Rights, Shumpert will get healthy again at some point, and Chandler is locked up. Fringe furniture will more around, but Lin, Shumpert, Melo, Chandler is going to be the Knicks for the next 3 years, the time frame Phil Jackson would likely want to commit to.
So if the Knicks truly rate out as a “Who the hell knows how good they could be?”, what will Phil Jackson do? As usual, whatever he wants to do. The Knicks will have no problem meeting the demands of Phil Jackson on the salary front. $60 million for 3 years may sound stupid until you remember that Larry Brown got $28.5 million for one season and 23 wins in New York not too long ago. I believe that Jackson probably sees the Knicks the same way I do. Melo is a great player, but the question on if he is great enough to lead a team to a title is very much undecided either way. Tyson Chandler is a stud. Jeremy Lin is the kind of player who can excel in this league, he’s the kind of complimentary piece that can make a team one step better, and he’s got room to grow still. Shumpert, if he heals, can be a weapon on the defensive end few teams have. And the rest? If Phil Jackson does show up, the other roles will sort themselves out. Players like Malone and Payton didn’t come to the Lakers to chase a ring with Rudy T or Del Harris. Jackson will attract a roster upgrade at the fringe spots with his mere presence.
Does Jackson want to gamble on this team? That’s up to him. It really is a bet he can win, and that’s without considering any miracle scenario that involves Amar’e returning to his old form. You give Phil Jackson a great player like Melo, two defensive studs who can score, and a player like Lin that he can get serious secondary production from, and he may not be the favorite in the East, but he’s going to get a high seed, he’s going to beat a lot of teams, and the Heat don’t roll over this team like they are now. It’s also a bet he can lose. If Melo really isn’t the kind of player that can get very far more then once in a blue moon, if Lin doesn’t produce at a decent level, if Shumpert isn’t the same player after his ACL injury, if Amar’e can’t get out of his own way, and if nothing that fills the holes is worth anything, the Knicks can find themselves stuck in that low seed first round trap, and with Melo’s luck, drawing the tough teams on the top half of the bracket year after year after year, and Phil Jackson will see his reputation take a hit for it. He’s got a lot to lose, but on the other hand, he does have a ton to gain from most everybody who follows the NBA and questions if he could ever win with a roster that was not top of the line.
The stupid thing about the criticism of Phi Jackson is that nobody ever wins without a roster that could win it all. Even the Pistons got really lucky during their unexpected run to the Finals and had four All-Star caliber players. Just because Phil Jackson doesn’t coach teams with no shot really shouldn’t be used against him, because a team with no shot just doesn’t win a title, no matter who is coaching them. None of the great NBA coaches of the past ever coached a team that didn’t have a shot to win the title and won anyway. But within this paradox lies what could be the more interesting thing about the Knicks for Jackson. Nobody thinks they can win a title, but I think a Melo led team with Lin and Chandler and the right pieces around it is a team that maybe can win. And this affords Phil Jackson a chance to perform a bit of NBA magic on the NBA universe. The best thing he could do to cement himself as possibly the greatest coach of any sport ever would be to take a team that could win the title, but nobody actually thinks could win a title, one led by a polarizing superstar with a history of playoff failure like Melo, with a polarizing secondary piece who people love to doubt like Lin, a rock at center that has championship defensive, leadership, and intangibles, and actually pull this off. Success in New York for the Knicks, a basketball mad town in a basketball mad city for an awful franchise that is starved for a title, in the greatest city in the world, at the Mecca itself, this would make Phil Jackson a God. I think he knows that. So to me, the real question that will decide if Phil Jackson does come out of retirement and try to save the Knicks is this: Does he think he’s already obtained divinity?