Riding With Phil: Do the Knicks have the patience?


For the New York Knicks, this year’s improvement has not been enough to sate many impatient fans’ desires for success. But the Knicks would be wise to ignore calls for dramatic change. The ride with Phil has been a success, and the fans need the patience for the journey.

This time last year the Knicks had ten wins and were about to farewell star forward Carmelo Anthony to season-ending knee surgery and embark on a period where Andrea Bargnani and Alexey Shved would lead the team in scoring. Things couldn’t have been bleaker.

Bleak yo.

At the time we preached patience. That was a nadir for the Knicks organization, even by their relatively ‘impressive’ standards.[1] In the off-season team president Phil Jackson and General Manager Steve Mills began the arduous work of rebuilding this team into a contender. This begun with drafting the ‘Lativian gangbanger’[2] Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant, signing Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez[3], and retaining Jose Calderon and Lance Thomas[4]. Under the improving leadership of Derek Fisher, the Knicks won their 22nd game of the season recently, while hovering around .500 and staying in the race for the playoffs. From last year’s dust-bowl has emerged growth.

A recent spate of losses – six of their last seven games – has led to some questioning the roster make-up, the coach’s tenure, as well as the pace of improvement. Many believe that the Knicks should be pushing to make the playoffs this year, to capitalise both on the last few years of Anthony’s prime, as well as the organisational momentum built by improved performances this year. Jackson’s incremental improvement isn’t quite as sexy as it once was.[5]

Phil on a bike
Incremental improvement. Not as sexy as Phil.

But rather than pursue the path of rapid change, the patient work of Jackson and Mills in rebuilding this organisation should be maintained. As they are, the Knicks are just not going to make a dent in the playoffs – a negative points differential and a 9-19 record against teams with a record over .500 is evidence enough of that.


So what is to be done?

The front court is set for years to come. Lopez and Porzingis are a dynamic defensive duo, and the Knicks are holding opponents to a league leading 47.3 per cent at the rim. And to say Porzingis has been excellent underestimates his impact. Anthony and Porzingis have developed a good relationship on and off the court, and the addition of Porzingis seems to have given Melo the freedom to facilitate, rather than just shoot.

The back court is desperately lacking in depth, ensuring that efficient bench players like Jose Calderon and Langston Galloway are relied on as starters, and excellent third or fourth options on offence become inconsistent second options – witness the Knicks 1-22 record when Arron Afflalo posts a negative plus/minus.

The Knicks are too reliant on Afflalo’s inconsistent offence

Unfortunately to improve these positions within this season the Knicks would have to either try to find a suitor for their extensive list of surplus bigs, or their backcourt, in a ‘2 for 1’ scenario. The only problems being that with the switch to small ball means almost every team has surplus bigs, but less surplus guards. Finding a home for a big seems unlikely. Finding a spare guard without having to sacrifice depth seems impossible.

Regardless, trading one or either of these players for a ‘star’ wing or point guard is hopeful at best. Absent a miracle of sorts, the Knicks will have to instead wait for the offseason where they can upgrade at point guard, with several better (if imperfect) options available.[6]

But fixing the roster is only one step. The Knicks needs to remain patient with Coach Fisher. After treading water in his diabolical first year, Fisher has shown marked improvement this year, better identifying effective line-ups, incorporating Porzingis into the offence and helping turn Carmelo from shoot-only scorer to the facilitator and leader he’s always had the ability to be. He’s even got Melo to play defence. He has also altered the triangle to utilise pick and rolls more, allowing Porzingis the spacing and freedom to shoot from distance, and encouraged Lopez’s surprising post-game. These are all positive signs.

Fisher has the support of the organisation

Is Fisher a good coach? He still fails to stagger his starters effectively, leaving the Knicks vulnerable to runs against good second units (like the Celtics put on them recently). But it is clear he has the support of the organisation, and given the lack of a viable alternative[7], there’s no point abandoning him merely to hand over the reins to a known quantity like Mark Jackson, or an equally unknown quantity like David Blatt.

All in all it’s clear that the Knicks’ trajectory is pointing north for the first time in a long time. To continue to develop the Knicks will have to engage in that very un-sexy incremental change and improvement. Let’s hope they have the patience to stay on the ride.





[1] It was probably worse on the court than the Isiah years, but at least no sexual harassment lawsuits were launched against Phil?

[2] Thank you Michael Rappaport.

[3] And Kyle O’Quinn, and Kevin Seraphin…

[4] And Lou Amundson. Though to be fair if I’d re-signed him I would’ve made him keep the hair.

[5] I’m a massive fan of incremental change. I find it sexy all the time.

[6] It would be nice to try and get Mike Conley, but it seems likely someone will offer him the max and the Knicks would again need to sacrifice their depth (read half their damn roster) to make the space. The only thing I’m sure of is that Rajon Rondo would be a disaster in the triangle.

[7] I guess you could wait for Thibs, but I can’t see him wanting to get in on a developing Knicks team.

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