There were times when he played for Phil Jackson that Shaquille O’Neal took the Zen Master’s triangle offense and smashed it to pieces.
“They’d want me to pass to someone in the corner, that’s where the ball was supposed to go, and I’d say, 'the heck with this -- I’m going to the bleepin’ basket!’ ’’ Shaq told me not long ago. “I did that more than a few times.' ’’
He diverted from Jackson’s game plan and got away with it because no one could attack the basket and dominate like Shaq. But that doesn’t mean that Carmelo Anthony should start taking any cues from the NBA legend and start veering off on his own, as he plays in the triangle for the first time.
How’s it all going to work out for Anthony, Derek Fisher, the Knicks’ rookie coach, and, ultimately Jackson himself, as he tries his hand at building an NBA team for the first time?
Of course it’s way too early to know, with the Knicks only at square one, as evidenced by their 81-76 pre-season loss in the Garden on Monday night to the Toronto Raptors, one of several teams they will be chasing this season. From the looks of it, they could use an on-court leader or two and the roster still has to be significantly upgraded if Jackson is going to make Garden CEO Jim Dolan look like a genius for paying him $60 million and getting out of the way, at least temporarily, to make everything right for once. As one team official conceded, “our coaches know way more about the triangle than our players do.’’
After that, O’Neal thinks he knows what’s needed.
“For the triangle to work, you need to have two superstars,’’ he said. “It’s been proven over time. Look at what Phil needed to win his championships in Chicago. Then look what he had in L.A., with me and Kobe. You have to have two superstars playing in the triangle to win championships.’’
At least Anthony just got paid like a superstar, re-signing for $124 million when he had a better chance to win right away in Chicago or Houston. But his lack of success in the post-season means that the Knicks might still be two superstars away from delivering their success-starved fans their first championship since 1973. Great regular-season scorer? Yes, Anthony, 30, is undeniably that.
But when he recently called himself the “most underrated superstar’’ in the NBA, he must have blanked on his dismal playoff history, with only two trips out of the first round in 10 tries. Not exactly the resume of a superstar.
“He’s still young enough to have some great years ahead of him,” Jackson said during a Q&A. “He’s just touched the surface of his greatness.”
Sounds like pie-in-the-sky thinking from the Zen Master, but Jackson can afford to be upbeat because Anthony should be able to get the Knicks back to the post-season after last season’s flop, with 37 wins and a lottery finish that finished off Mike Woodson and had Dolan deciding that he needed to get out of the basketball end of Garden business, until further notice. Once you get past LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and Derrick Rose’s Chicago Bulls, the next six playoff spots in the Eastern Conference should be in play.
“With Melo and J.R. Smith, they’re too good not to be in the playoffs,’’ Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “The triangle is going to help their other players as much as it helps those two.’’
But the triangle will only get the Knicks so far. As Shaq knows from experience, it’s all about the superstars who will make the system go.
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.