As if things aren’t bad enough for the Knicks, losing like they’ve never lost before to open an NBA season, now they try to figure out a way to deal with Anthony Davis, just the kind of player Phil Jackson desperately needs to get his rebuilding going.
The old Knick, Monty Williams, now coaching Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans, recently summed up his third-year forward with this appraisal: “He's just 21 years old, and when he's 23 to 27, we're going to see something the league has never seen. He’s just special.’’
While New Orleans has the next big deal in their future, the Knicks’ rebuilding is going nowhere, as Jackson himself had to admit on the eve of a game against Davis’ team in the Big Easy.
On Monday, following his team’s eighth straight defeat, Jackson bemoaned how he hasn’t been able to change the culture, as if he could have really done all that since taking over just last March. Maybe the very reason he’s being paid a king’s ransom, $60 million in fact, is because it will take several seasons and something close to a total talent transfusion for the toxic culture to be eradicated from the Garden.
We’ll see how long it takes, just as we’ll see if Jackson can pull off this job and accomplish something he’s never tried before.
Jackson can only dream about the day when he’ll land someone of Davis’ size (6 feet 10 inches tall), athleticism and skill-set. In one respect, having the kind of team that sure looks like it’s on a direct track to a franchise-first, 60-loss season and the draft lottery is one way to get such a player, if one actually exists in the upcoming drafts. Or, to have a shot at a player with Davis’ potential, the Knicks will try to do what they failed doing in 2010 with LeBron James, and attempt to lure a marquee free agent who could finally tip the NBA landscape in their favor.
Those players do exist, but Kevin Durant is two more summers from free agency and Jackson now sees that his team’s 4-18 start and the fact that his players have not exactly taken to the triangle offense is no way to impress Durant and other free-agent targets, notably Marc Gasol, the Memphis center who is free this coming July and in Jackson’s cross-hairs.
“I’m not happy about that,’’ Jackson told reporters after practice. “I think guys understand what we’re trying to do. Hopefully, they’re getting to be more compliant. There’s some resistance to discipline and order and culture change and things like that. I will call it a “crucible’ what we’re going through here.”
As Jackson has found to his disliking, that applies to his rookie coach, Derek Fisher, who has been in over his head. The late-game malfunctions at both ends of the floor speak volumes about a first-time coach who has been unable to call a late-second timeout, in one notable instance, and has used the wrong personnel or called the wrong plays at other times with the game on the line. It’s part of the reason the Knicks have lost their last five games by a grand total of 20 points and enter Tuesday night's game with only two more wins than the Sixers, who are trying to lose.
Jackson is still very much committed to Fisher, the player he once called “my surrogate son’’ when they were winning five titles in Los Angeles. He’s also still a believer in Carmelo Anthony. After throwing $124 million Anthony’s way last summer and providing a treasured no-trade clause for Anthony in his new deal, Jackson has no choice but to continue to put his faith in a player who has shown the boss that he still does not impact the game if he can’t score, as other stars are capable of doing.
You’d think Jackson would know that stuff because it’s not like Anthony is new to the NBA, as Davis still is. This is Anthony’s 12th season and he’s 30. At this point, what Jackson sees is what he’ll get from his best player.
You know where Jackson can see such a player? Down in Houston. You can make a great case, a quarter of the way into the season, that Houston’s James Harden should be part of the MVP discussion because of the way he has lifted his team while Dwight Harden is sidelined with what has been the biggest injury in the league. The Rockets have been without Howard, their All-NBA center, for nine games, and are also without two other starters, so there hasn’t been a lot for Harden to work with. Yet Harden has lifted Kevin McHale’s team to a 7-2 mark since Howard got sidelined by a bum knee that might prevent him from taking the court for several more weeks. They are 16-4, with only the 18-2 Warriors, the best team in the league, ahead of them out west.
Jackson has only Anthony, who couldn’t wait to let everyone know how concerned he is about his branding and all of his off-court business endeavors. But the place where he makes his reputation, he hasn’t done the kind of heavy lifting for Jackson that Harden has done for his team. So here was Jackson with a laundry list of to-do’s for ‘Melo.
“I’d like to see him flesh out the rest of his game,’’ Jackson said. “He’s been getting some assists, some rebounds. But every opportunity he has to offensive rebound, which is one of his strengths, I’d like to see him continue to do that. I’d like to see him continue to be aggressive, defensively. A leader at that end of the floor, too. Those are some of the things of where I’m at with Carmelo. I encouraged him to continue to do that. Which is a lot of energy -- it takes a lot of energy.’’
It also takes a special breed of player, one the Knicks desperately need to finally get turned around. They’ll get to see one tonight in New Orleans, in Anthony Davis.
Longtime New York columnist Mitch Lawrence continues to write about pro basketball, as he’s done for the last 21 years. His columns for NBCNewYork.com on the Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and the NBA, along with other major sports, will appear twice weekly. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch _ Lawrence.