By John Schmeelk
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Phil Jackson wants to trade Carmelo Anthony. He might not have the guts or autonomy to say it, but that’s what he wants to do. There’s no other conclusion you can draw from the negative things he has said about Anthony over the past couple of seasons, and the recent reports that the Knicks have approached multiple teams to trade Anthony.
That decision would mark yet another change in plans for a Knicks president who hasn’t been able to stick with one long-term vision of the team for more than a few months at a time. For someone who is considered a deep basketball thinker, Jackson has continually veered left and right like a ship without a rudder.
When Jackson was first hired by owner James Dolan and the Knicks in the spring of 2014, he talked about how the team could make the playoffs the following season. They had won 37 games under coach Mike Woodson the previous season and were coming off a 50-win season just two years prior. Jackson replaced Woodson with an untested Derek Fisher, who received a lucrative, long-term contract.
Jackson’s big move that offseason was trading Tyson Chandler for Samuel Dalembert, Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and two second-round draft picks. The thought was that Calderon could stabilize the point guard position, while Dalembert could replace Chandler and Larkin would apprentice as the point guard of the future. All four players the Knicks acquired in the deal never helped the team in any impactful way, and the two second-round picks were used on D-Leaguers Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo. It turned out to be a terrible return for a player with some legitimate value.
Jackson also chose to re-sign Anthony to a five-year deal for close to max money, showing he had every intention of trying to field a winner. He unwisely gave Anthony a no-trade clause, a decision that looks very foolhardy now considering how quickly Jackson soured on Anthony.
The team that Jackson thought could make a legitimate playoff run went on to have the worst record in franchise history and win only 17 games. Despite only getting the fourth pick in the draft, Jackson then wisely chose to draft Kristaps Porzingis. Jackson then doubled up on Europeans when he chose Willy Hernangomez, Porzingis’ teammate in Spain, in the second round. He, however, did not arrive until this season. Jackson also traded Tim Hardaway Jr. for the rights to Jerian Grant, giving the Knicks two first-round picks that season.
That offseason, it was clear that Jackson had moved on from his “make the playoffs” mantra from the season before and was looking to mold the team the right way. He signed younger players (Robin Lopez, Langston Galloway, Derrick Williams, Lance Thomas, Kyle O’Quinn) at reasonable prices to supplement his draft picks and try to slowly build a young talent base around a young head coach. The hope was that Porzingis could be the eventual centerpiece of that team, but he still had much to prove. It was easily Jackson’s best offseason since moving into the Knicks’ front office.
Despite Anthony’s continued presence (which seemed to be at odds with the direction of the team), Jackson had set the Knicks on the right path. They started the 2015-16 season at 22-22, a record far better than anyone expected. They then lost 11 of 12, as Anthony missed time with an injury and was ineffective when he did make it onto the court. On Feb. 8, 2016, after the first nine of those 11 losses, Jackson fired Fisher.
The plan for the Knicks to grow slowly with a young coach was trashed after only a season and a half because the team had gone on a losing streak in January when their best player was dealing with an injury. Fisher was ignoring Jackson’s hand-picked assistant coaches and wasn’t running the triangle enough. Fisher’s off-court problems with Matt Barnes were of his own making, but Jackson’s main impetus for the change was basketball related.
Jackson put Kurt Rambis in charge, had him run the triangle, and the Knicks went 9-19 the rest of the season. Jackson seemed to have decided that if he was going to run an NBA team, it was going to be run his way with his system. That idea lasted only a few months.
After ignoring the obvious best coaching candidate on the market, Tom Thibodeau, Jackson went with Jeff Hornacek. The two had no real past connection, and Hornacek had never run the triangle when he coached in Phoenix. He ran the type of high pick-and-roll, spread system that Jackson had fired Fisher for employing. Rambis was the only one of Jackson’s hand-picked coaches Hornacek decided to retain. By December of this season, the triangle was abandoned. It was another change of course for Jackson.
That offseason, Jackson also abandoned a serious plan for long-term success to a win-now strategy. He jettisoned Lopez, Grant and Calderon for a one-year rental in Derrick Rose. He then proceeded to give an oft-injured, 31-year-old Joakim Noah, who looked far closer to being washed up than playing at a first team all-defense level. Noah was also the perfect triangle center with his passing ability, even though Hornacek would rarely use the system. Meanwhile, Williams and Galloway walked away.
Nearly all of Jackson’s work from the previous offseason was thrown away. Only Porzingis, Thomas and O’Quinn remained. It was a whole new team — again. The Knicks were trying to make a run not just at the playoffs, but at being a real contender behind veterans Anthony, Rose and Noah.
Shortly thereafter, the negative words about Anthony began leaking into the media. Whether it was direct quotes in Charley Rosen’s column, interviews with online publications or Rosen’s own opinions suspected to be Jackson’s quotes, it was clear Jackson was no longer enamored with Anthony’s game. Unfortunately for Jackson, he was the same person who made the mistake of giving Anthony a no-trade clause.
When the issues with Anthony came to a head in the past couple of weeks, the Knicks star met with Jackson, but the right questions weren’t asked. Multiple reports detailed the conversation as Jackson asking Anthony whether or not he still wanted to be a Knick. Anthony, of course, said yes. It should have been Anthony asking Jackson whether he wanted him in New York.
With the latest trade reports, it’s rather clear that answer would have been no, if Jackson had answered truthfully. So just 2½ years after giving Anthony a no-trade clause, and less than six months after trading for veterans to make a playoff run, Jackson had changed course again and wanted Anthony out.
Of course, will Jackson ever have the guts to tell Anthony the truth, that he is trying to trade him? Does he even have permission from Dolan to trade him? Would Anthony then agree to a trade? In the Byzantine workings of Madison Square Garden, no one ever knows.
Jackson has run the Knicks for just 2½ seasons. He is on his third coach. He is on this third very distinct and different roster. He has flip-flopped on Anthony. He went from trying to win now, to rebuilding, back to trying to win now, and now he wants to trade the team’s best player.
It should be no surprise that the team can’t ever win significantly when its president can’t decide what direction he wants to bring the franchise.
Until that changes, nothing else will.
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