By John Schmeelk
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On Wednesday night, the Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher era starts for the New York Knicks.
“The start of a new era.”
Those are words that have been written dozens of times since the glory days ended with the departures of Patrick Ewing and Jeff Van Gundy.
First, it was Scott Layden. After players like Shandon Anderson, Howard Eisley and the bad knees of Alan Houston and Antonio McDyess ushered him out the door, Isiah Thomas became the next savior, paired with Brooklyn born Stephon Marbury.
The obese Eddy Curry was the successor to Ewing, and then Larry Brown came in to clean up the mess caused by those three. That combination of personalities was the equivalent of blowing up a nuclear bomb on the Knicks’ logo at center court. It was one of the most embarrassing times in Knicks history.
Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni were the next two men to wear the crowns, and they brought in Amar’e Stoudemire, who boldly declared “The Knicks are back.” Carmelo Anthony became the Knicks’ second superstar, but shortly thereafter Walsh and D’Antoni found out that no one rules at Penn Plaza for long.
Stoudemire’s knees began to fall apart. Glen Grunwald and Mike Woodson had one season of success with Anthony and Tyson Chandler, but that disintegrated just a year later.
So Jim Dolan went and found his next messiah, one with a lot of rings and a link to the last set of Knicks champions. Jackson picked his coach, rookie Fisher. But Jackson has not been able to pick his own players — not yet. For the most part, he is still stuck with the same group of guys put together by the likes of Grunwald, Woodson, Steve Mills and Dolan.
Jackson has changed as much as he could, bringing in a point guard to run his system in Jose Calderon, and acquiring other role players like Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin, Quincy Acy, Travis Wear and Jason Smith. But the rest of the roster has the same exact issues that it had under the old regime.
Jackson and Fisher are still stuck trying to figure out how to use two defensively-deficient big men in Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani. J.R. Smith might not ever figure out the triangle with its focus on quick decisions and ball movement. The team just isn’t very talented, especially defensively. A year that appears to be a new beginning is really more of a false start.
The Jackson era will really begin next offseason, when the Knicks have some cap room and a first-round draft pick. At that time, the new general manager will have an opportunity to truly build a team that reflects his basketball values. This year, Jackson will merely make do with the players and team he is stuck with. Odds are that no more than a handful of this year’s players will be back on the team next year.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t any value to this season. It will be a year in which Fisher can make mistakes as a rookie head coach and not suffer dire consequences that could spoil a potential championship season. Both he and Jackson can install the foundation and principles of their philosophy with players like Anthony, Calderon and Tim Hardaway Jr. That philosophy can carry over to whichever players will be on the roster next year. It’s a year that Anthony can learn how to play and win in the triangle, and become a more committed defender every night out.
Along the way, maybe the team can make it into the playoffs and give Knicks fans something to cheer for. In an improved Eastern Conference, the Knicks will have to finish over .500 to make it into the playoffs, something that should be within their reach. Expecting a return to the 54 wins of two seasons ago is asking too much, but a five-to-seven win improvement over the 37 wins the team had last season is realistic given the upgrade of Fisher as coach. That would get the Knicks the seventh or eighth seed and a likely first-round loss to either the Bulls or the Cavaliers in the NBA Playoffs.
The playoffs, however, are considered by some to be largely irrelevant. For their long-term success, the Knicks would actually be better off getting into the lottery and praying that they fall into the top three. It would also make it easier to let go many of the players who will be free agents after the season.
But there are intangibles to a playoff run, like setting a foundation and culture of winning and giving Fisher a chance to get some postseason experience. It would also give fans a reason to believe that the team is on the right track, which also has value.
On Wednesday, I listed the 10 questions that would determine the Knicks’ success level. The defense should be better thanks to Woodson’s departure. Anthony should be more efficient without having to score against multiple players in constant isolation sets. Young players like Hardaway Jr, Iman Shumpert and Larkin should improve and add a different dimension to the backcourt.
I’m landing the Knicks at 43-39, getting the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. It will be a good start to the Jackson and Fisher era.
You can follow me on Twitter @for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports.
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