After hiring first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek and significantly upgrading their roster with the off-season acquisitions of former league M.V.P. Derrick Rose, guards Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings, and the defensive-minded Joakim Noah, pre-season projections had the New York Knicks ending their three-year playoff absence and challenging the Eastern Conference’s top contenders in 2016-17.
Thanks to victories in four of their last five games, those lofty predictions don’t sound as absurd as they did during New York’s 3-6 start. But the new-look Knicks have already looked eerily similar to a few of Madison Square Garden’s more recent NBA residents, and team president Phil Jackson hasn’t been the front office hero that the franchise was hoping for when they hired him back in March of 2014.
During Jackson’s first two-plus seasons in New York, the Knicks have been under the guidance of three different head coaches, set a franchise record for fewest wins , missed the playoffs twice, and earned a combined record of 49-115 [excluding 2016-17]. Of course, the potential for disaster only increased when Jackson dropped a boatload of cash on an aging, one-dimensional center and traded for the potential time bomb otherwise known as Derrick Rose.
On paper, adding a former league M.V.P., a pair of capable guards, and a once-elite defensive specialist, to a veteran, yet still-productive superstar, and a 7 foot 3 sophomore-sensation, sounds like a great idea. Unfortunately, varying priorities, a rookie bench-boss, and too many cooks in the offensive kitchen has led to obvious shortcomings on both ends of the floor and serious questions about the future.
Entering Tuesday night’s tilt versus the Portland Trail Blazers, New York ranked 21st in points allowed per game [106.2], 22nd in point differential [-3.8], 21st in points per game [106.2], 19th in turnovers per game [14.1], and 19th in free throw percentage [.758]. And the reality that the Knicks may soon be facing makes those depressing numbers seem promising.
Although Rose was once thought of as the league’s premier point guard, knee injuries have taken an obvious toll on the Chicago product and the 66 games he logged last year with the Bulls is the closest he’s come to playing a full season since starting 81 games in 2010-11. For the recently point guard-less Knicks, adding Rose was a risk worth taking due to his ability to make an immediate impact, and acquiring a former M.V.P. reassured Knick Nation that the team is trying to win now.
But despite being cleared of recent allegations of sexual assault, Rose can easily become a distraction in New York’s fragile locker room, and given his history, some feel that he’s a significant injury waiting to happen. Even if he stays healthy and avoids off-court drama, he’s also currently in the final year of the five-year deal he signed with Chicago, and is therefore playing for a new contract—so theoretically, the Knicks might end up paying around $21 million to ”rent” the former Memphis Tiger for the season.
A few years ago, signing a high-energy center such as Noah would’ve been cause for a parade in New York City. But time and injuries have forced Noah’s numbers into a steady decline in recent years. Last season, he saw action in just 29 games, and the former Florida Gator has only played in more than 70 games on three occasions during a nine-year career.
Signed to a four-year deal worth $72 million, Noah has already gone scoreless in three games and finished with only two points in three others, forcing Hornacek to explore other starting options barely a month into the season. And when he is on the floor, Noah’s defense-only approach makes it much easier for opponents to double-team Kristaps Porzingis.
Implementing the Triangle offense was at the heart of Jackson’s return to New York, but with Rose better suited to pick-and-rolls, Anthony needing his freedom, and the fact that Porzingis needs some freedom of his own in order to continue his development, Hornacek has rarely turned to the Zen Master’s bread and butter. However, during training camp, Hornacek told the media that Jackson had agreed to give the rookie head coach his freedom.
”We talked a lot about it over the summer,” said Hornacek via ESPN. ”Phil [Jackson’s] given us the ability to run it any way we want, how we set it up. We talked [about] what we feel is a good working way to run it with different options. We’ll get to all those as the year progresses, but it should be pretty easy.”
Armed with an unrivaled resume, Jackson’s heroic return was supposed to mark the beginning of a new era in franchise history that, at the very least, would see the Knicks rise to reside among the Eastern Conference elite. But with just two years remaining on a five-year contract, Jackson’s front office stint with the Knicks is now riding on the results of the team’s expensive off-season.