On the eve of the NBA playoffs, Phil Jackson stood before reporters answering for the New York Knicks’ latest lost season without actually doing so. Questions were lobbied, and he responded to them extensively, with the aplomb and privilege of an executive that hasn’t overseen the Association’s third-worst winning percentage during his three full seasons at the helm.
His honesty is not to be mistaken for accountability. That’s part of his schtick. Candor without substance. His lone nod toward culpability was preceded by, and irrecoverably lost in, a disclaimer: “I never took a jump shot, never made a substitution, but the buck stops here.”
Ten words. Fifteen syllables. That’s all it took for Jackson to absolve himself and displace blame onto the coaches and players, before feigning fault.
Certain other things became painfully clear during that presser. Jackson still doesn’t understand the full value of the three-pointer and was happy Kristaps Porzingis didn’t attempt one during his season finale. He was impressed by Derrick Rose. He will not be deviating from his chief obsession, the triangle offense, to placate players and fans.
Oh, and he fully intends to trade Carmelo Anthony before next season.
“We’ve not been able to win with [Anthony] on the court at this time,” he said. “I think the direction with our team is that he’s a player that would be better off somewhere else and using his talent somewhere where he can win or chase that championship.”
Very little about Jackson’s tenure in New York proves, or suggests, or comes within miles of proving or suggesting, he’s the person to extract the most possible value from an Anthony trade. The 10-time All-Star’s market value is low enough. He’s going on 33, only checks in on defense against select players and squandered all the goodwill he built as a facilitator. And Jackson, somehow, has succeeded in driving his value lower still.
Openly turning Anthony into a nonessential ingredient bilks the Knicks of what little leverage they had in the first place. It almost makes Jackson’s first misstep, hocking him to the Los Angeles Clippers for a package constructed around Austin Rivers, seem justifiable. Anthony’s no-trade clause was a built-in excuse for that hypothetical. The Knicks wanted to move on, and Hollywood was one of the few locales for which No. 7 would, presumably, pull the rip cord. The moving parts of that scenario were awful, but there were at least traces of merit.
Jackson’s end-of-season presser lacked any of the same logic. Leading in, he had, by all accounts, beaten Anthony into submission. The 14-year veteran appeared ready to waive his no-trade clause, perhaps irrespective of where. At the bare minimum, it was reasonable to assume, to hope, he’d play for a team outside Los Angeles, Cleveland or Boston, exponentially increasing New York’s chances of dealing him for a half-decent return.
That ship might have sailed, if it ever docked. Shortly after Jackson’s deflection dance, The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski brought word that Anthony wants to “dig in to the final two years left on his contract and outlast Jackson’s regime.” This a monstrous hurdle, but it changes nothing about Anthony’s future. His timeline runs counter to that of the Knicks, and the chance to leave a self-sabotaging franchise may be too alluring and sanity-saving to pass up.
And, oddly enough, it’s here, at this juncture, Jackson is at his most sensible.
“This guy plays 34 minutes a game,” he said. “That’s a big hole to fill. We want a significant player that could hopefully fill that role, but that’s still to be determined. That’s a long way out.”
There are two ways to interpret this: HOLY WOW PHIL CONSIDERS AUSTIN RIVERS A SIGNIFICANT PLAYER, or he’s not prepared to unload Anthony as a desperate seller. For the Knicks’ sake, they need it to be the latter.
They can’t let the market dictate what Anthony is worth. His value to them, to their future, is the price tag, even if it ends up being too steep. And it’s fine if there aren’t any suitors willing to send back pieces of consequence, because the Knicks don’t need to move him.
Anthony has the option to forgo the $27.9 million he’s owed in 2018-19 and become a free agent after next season. Barring any sudden changes, he’ll enter the open market at the age of 34, looking to secure one last long-term payday. The Knicks need to treat him like an expiring contract. Taking back deals—like those of Jamal Crawford and Rivers—that extend past 2017-18 doesn’t make sense.
Interested suitors can use this quasi-expiring-contract status to lowball the Knicks, but that stratagem doesn’t hold water under these circumstances. Either Anthony opts in, giving his new team at least two seasons of services, or he reaches the open market, in which case his squad owns his Bird rights and will be able to sign him long term for a smaller annual salary.
Planning for the latter scenario presents minimal risk. There’s no way Anthony matches his $27.9 million payday for 2018-19 as a mercenary. The prospect of his decline curtails his market worth way more than his contract status.
Holding this hard-nosed stance does increase the likelihood Anthony goes nowhere. He could give the Knicks free rein to send him anywhere, and it would still be difficult to get a return that doesn’t compromise their books. Jackson doesn’t have to worry about appealing to free agents, since he flat-out can’t, but New York needs whatever malleability it can muster beyond next season to serve as a dumping ground for unwanted contracts that have first-round goodies attached.
And you know what? Retaining Anthony isn’t the worst-possible outcome. Not even for a franchise looking to pivot into a rebuild. He hasn’t ruined the locker room. Porzingis is his biggest supporter; he’s on record, more than once, touting Anthony’s importance. The idea that Anthony is somehow at the center of the Knicks’ cultural crapfest is a cop out, and evidently inaccurate. Willy Hernangomez and Porzingis, the team’s two youngest players, “liked” Anthony’s salty Instagram post in response to Jackson’s swollen-headed invective.
Most importantly, there is merit to Porzingis’ “Anthony makes things easier for me” slant. The Knicks were plus-0.9 points per 100 possessions with them on the court together last summer—a minor miracle knowing the team was a demonstrative minus overall.
Of New York’s 20 two-man units that cleared 600 minutes of action in 2015-16, just one posted a better net rating than the Anthony-Porzingis dyad, and only two avoided the red at all:
Not having Robin Lopez or another lockdown defender at the 5—hot damn, was that Derrick Rose trade bad—changes things. But in the 370 minutes Anthony and Porzingis played without RoLo last year, they pumped in what would have been a league-best 115.5 points per 100 possessions while improving their net rating, according to nbawowy.com.
As the primary hub through which everything ran last year, Anthony aided Porzingis’ development. He assisted on 16.1 percent of the Latvian Lord’s made buckets—second-most on the team, behind Jose Calderon. About 17.9 percent of all Anthony’s passes went to the then-rookie; only Jose Calderon, the Knicks’ actual point guard, sent more.
Porzingis’ field-goal percentage admittedly dipped off Anthony’s passes. He shot 39 percent on twos and 28.8 percent on threes, marks that pale in comparison to his season-long rates of 45.4 and 33.3, respectively. But there was promise during the scant times New York used both out of the pick-and-roll, and to Porzingis’ point, a greater share of his looks came inside the restricted area with Anthony in tow.
That burgeoning chemistry—Anthony did a better job putting Porzingis in position to make threes later in the season as well—translated to 2016-17, but to a lesser degree.
Roughly 14.4 percent of Porzingis’ made buckets came off Anthony passes. Only Rose accounted for more of the sophomore’s swishes (15.8 percent), and that gap isn’t nearly as big as it should be. Rose, as the Knicks’ lead ball-handler, sent nearly 200 more passes to Porzingis, yet he assisted on just six more of his shots:
Of all the things to criticize Rose for, this isn’t one of them. At least, it’s not the strongest one. If anything, Anthony should have sent more passes Porzingis’ way. The 21-year-old shot 50.5 percent overall and 44.1 percent from deep when Anthony deferred to him.
This was always the risk of introducing another ball-handler like Rose into the equation. It disrupted the offensive dynamic. Anthony wasn’t looking to distribute—that kind of changed down the stretch—because he wasn’t playing on the ball as much. Rose is a score-first point guard in need of his own shots and, through the faults of various factors and people, never forged a real rapport with the team’s most important player. The Knicks needed to experiment with Porzingis-plus-bench lineups just to ensure he wasn’t totally stripped of featured status.
Remove Rose, a free agent the Knicks have no business re-signing, from the equation, and there’s a chance Anthony and Porzingis are able to build off the groundwork laid in 2015-16. Even this season, they were able to recapture some of last year’s magic within certain lineups.
In the 125 possessions they played as the 4-5 combo without Rose in the game, the Knicks averaged 1.1 points per set—equivalent of a top-five offense. Add Rose into the equation, and they were just as effective. The defense remained a farce, something Anthony only compounds, but the two, together, can anchor an above-board offense. The key is putting the right defenders around them.
Which, again, isn’t a complete knock against Rose. He was actually proof of Anthony’s ability to play off the ball. The latter has long been one of the most deadly spot-up weapons in the game, and that hasn’t changed.
Anthony connected on 41.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys this past season. And among the 116 players who burned through 175 or more spot-up touches, only seven averaged more points per possession: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Channing Frye, Kawhi Leonard, Otto Porter, C.J. Miles and Kemba Walker.
Not every star has the versatility to excel while being used as a glorified ancillary device. Anthony does. Surround him with a ball-dominant point guard, and he can play away from the action while Porzingis and the floor general run 1-5/1-4 pick-and-rolls. Rose himself could have been that point guard if his first inclination was to pass.
Yes, the Knicks’ situation is more complicated than this. They’re not a pick-and-roll team. The tension between Anthony and Jackson won’t soon dissipate, and the organization has no business tailoring the roster to maximize his twilight. They have to sell him on being a supporting device to a team that won’t compete at the level he’d prefer. That’s not easy.
Overall, though, there are fewer roadblocks to making it work with Anthony than there are when trying to trade him. His off-ball marksmanship is a natural complement to the triangle, and he has shown, even if minimally, he will buy into a higher-profile standstill role when it’s coming at Porzingis’ gain. Their windows don’t align, but Anthony can be a non-detrimental bridge to the next era.
If the alternative is moving him to the Clippers, or the Celtics, or somewhere else, without adequately restocking the asset cupboard or manufacturing more flexibility, this doesn’t require much thought. Jackson has beaten and butchered and bungled enough of New York’s present and future. He has to win the Anthony trade.
And that, in the end, means recognizing the Knicks don’t have to trade him at all.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for NBA Math and Bleacher Report. Listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R’s Andrew Bailey.