Phil Jackson doesn't move very well these days. Like many retired athletes creaking up on the big 7-0, the once-rugged NBA big man has undergone a multitude of operations, most notably a hip replacement. His declining health has been thrown in his face by critics since he took the job as president of the moribund New York Knicks last year. Is the hobbled old man serious about rebuilding this organization, or is he just going to sit back and cash James Dolan's checks? No one considered that the answer could be "all of the above."
Looking back on his measured, deliberate rebuilding of the team over the past few weeks, the Zen Master calls to mind not a disinterested codger, but another famous New York City boss: Goodfellas' Paulie Cicero, who "might've moved slow, but it was only because [he] didn't have to move for anybody." Once he finally got around to building the team he'd so thoroughly demolished, Jackson somehow got fans buzzing over strange old-man terms like "patience" and "financial prudence."
Jackson completed his teardown when he traded malfunctioning scoring machine Tim Hardaway Jr. for point guard prospect Jerian Grant on draft night. The 2015-16 Knicks will exclusively feature players acquired—or re-signed, in the case of Carmelo Anthony—by Jackson himself. With the old guard out the door, the president went about reshaping the roster through free agency—signing center Robin Lopez, center/forward Kyle O'Quinn, shooting guard Arron Afflalo, and forward Derrick Williams—in a manner that flies in the face of the Dolan Way. None of those players are stars, or even close. Most of them should be end up useful, affordable, valuable, and versatile. If pursuing players like this doesn't seem revolutionary, you haven't been following the Knicks.
Since the turn of the century, the Knicks' roster-building philosophy gone a little something like this: pick up a stat sheet, find the available player with the highest points-per-game average, then sign that guy at all costs. Does he play defense? Not important. Does he play the exact same position as the best player on your current roster? Who cares? It has been the driving force behind more than a decade's worth of unconscionable moves, from the Stephon Marbury/Steve Francis backcourt to the Eddy Curry trade to the psychedelic bummer that was The Andrea Bargnani Experience.
For the moment, at least, Jackson has taken an entirely different course. The flexibility in this new approach was evident during the Knicks' dalliance with free agent bigs Greg Monroe and Robin Lopez. The Knicks were linked to Monroe for months, in the most overstated and utterly bullshit New York media style, with talk of deals done well in advance and various Jackson confidants waxing creepily poetic on the importance of big men with big butts. New York did indeed meet with Monroe and his wonderful, Triangle-ready rump on the first night of free agency, but appeared gun-shy about handing out max money to a center who struggles to protect the rim (though Monroe's agent claims otherwise).
The Milwaukee Bucks swooped in and signed Monroe to a 3-year, $50-million deal and Jackson turned his attention toward Lopez, the defensive backbone of a Trail Blazers squad that won 50 games in back-to-back seasons against brutal Western Conference competition. Lopez's primary talents include protecting the rim, setting screens and boxing out on rebounds… in order words, he is the anti-Knick. There has been no word in the Post about the relative size of his butt.
Jackson augmented the Lopez deal with a string of moderately-priced signings. All told, the Knicks have handed out $96 million in contracts so far to four players—or, in other words, $4 million less than they gave Amar'e Stoudemire during their last big free agent shopping spree, in 2010.
The counterpoint to this is clear, and arrives ready-made in Stephen A. Smith's voice: you need stars to win in the NBA! It's true enough, to an extent: stars are essential to winning rings. But it's also important to remember that the term "star" is defined far too broadly. Stoudemire was a star, if also an elite scorer who gave back nearly as many points on the defensive end. He was also considered such an injury risk that the Knicks couldn't insure his deal. Handing out massive contracts to one-dimensional scorers is a damn difficult way to build a title contender, which—if you believe that the Knicks will always do the opposite of what's generally perceived as best practices—explains why the Knicks doubled down when they acquired Carmelo Anthony.
The Melo/STAT duo was never quite as bad as it's reputation, but never an elite unit. Unsurprisingly, the Knicks had their greatest success in 2012-13, when Stoudemire missed most of the season and the team was able to compliment Anthony with solid role players. In true Knicks style, the front office learned nothing from that season, tossing away draft picks for Andrea Bargnani, who will forever battle Michael Olowokandi and Kwame Brown in a very sad contest for the honor of Worst First Overall Pick Of His Generation.
To fully appreciate Jackson's new spread-the-wealth policy, consider the potential fate of his riskiest signing. Like Bargnani, Derrick Williams has done little to justify his hype as a high draft pick. At two years, $10 million, the Knicks are probably overpaying for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft. But that is still less money over two years than the Knicks paid Bargnani himself last year ($11 million). If Williams busts, the Knicks' cap won't be crippled down the line. New York is mitigating risk while staying clear of long-term, big-money deals that eat into the cap and ruin any chance at building a deep roster.
Jackson might have a difficult time selling this free agent haul to those fans hungry for a star. They suffered through a 17-win season, the logic goes, and the Knicks don't have their first-round pick next summer. This team must contend for a playoff berth immediately, for… whatever reasons would convince a person that it's reasonable to demand an immediate playoff appearance after such a season. It has been the Knicks great curse that the team's owner is one of the knuckleheads given to such demands.
For all their open hostility toward their own fans, previous Knicks regimes ran the club like a third-rate fan comment thread come to life: get stars, get scoring, win now. Fortunately for those fans, their team president doesn't appear to give a shit about any of that. Jackson has taken control of the NBA's most reckless franchise, and has spent the last week revealing his vision: a balanced team, looking to the future, with versatile, defense-minded players who know their roles supporting the team's star and a draft pick who could become one in time. Knicks fans know enough to expect a bumpy ride. But it has been a long time since they had the sense that a grown-up was at the wheel.