There’s not one player on the Knicks roster Phil Jackson didn’t put there himself. A year and change since he took over, Jackson’s sweeping demolition of the team he inherited is complete. The foundation now forming looks unlike what anyone anticipated.
The man who, as a coach repeatedly compared rookies to whale shit, has acquired as many rookies as possible while running the Knicks. The crown jewel of his two-year draft haul isn’t a cautious investment in an American upperclassman or a big dude scooped from the middle of most rankings because he suits the Triangle offense. With the fourth pick, the Knicks selected Kristaps Porzingis, a spindly 19-year-old from Latvia with a dazzling array of skills and the kind of profile that spooks conservative GMs (and some fans).
Phil, we expected, would be conservative, and perhaps impatient. Carmelo Anthony has four years left on his contract and perhaps fewer in his knee cartilage, so the presumed goal was to cram the team with as many prefabricated contributors as quickly as possible so as to WIN NOW and disregard the future. And because it’s “The Zen Master” running things, the Knicks wouldn’t just have to WIN NOW, they’d have to do it while validating a set of precious, arcane basketball principles. These are not the marks of someone who values draft picks.
That’s why nearly every credible rumor — and every old friend — had the Knicks trading down to acquire veterans and swap their tanking-earned fourth pick to add a known quantity like Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. Or, perhaps a guy like Trey Lyles of Kentucky, whose skills weren’t worth a top pick, but would make him an apt vertex in a pure Triangle offense. If those trades didn’t materialize, maybe Jackson would thumb his nose at years of scouting and just reach for one of those “safe” selections. And then, he’d sit back and wait for the proven veteran players to become available in free agency. Because Phil is special and New York is special and all of us demand a specific kind of excellence immediately, however improbable that may be.
In every regard, this draft defied those expectations. Some perceive Porzingis as the riskiest pick in the lottery. He operates with stunning grace for a kid his size, but because he’s tall and white and Mike Francesa can’t pronounce his name, fans can’t see past reflections of Andrea Bargnani and Frederic Weis. As a big man who thrived in Spain rolling, popping and shooting threes more than he did with his back to the rim, he’s not a conventional Triangle fit. And weighing 230 pounds at the absolute most — like, clothed, drenched and pre-poop — Porzingis might not reach full form before Melo winds down.
Drafting Porzingis indicates patience and unexpected boldness. Bold, too, was battling other teams to exploit the penny-saving Hawks with a trade that swapped Tim Hardaway Jr. — the last Knick Jackson didn’t acquire himself, and a guy who played horribly in a horrible situation — for the 19th draft pick, Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant. And then Phil went and acquired yet another pick, trading for Philadelphia’s 35th selection so he could grab the rights of Porzingis’ Spanish teammate, Guillermo Hernangomez, and leave him abroad for at least another year.
Phil Jackson has now made six draft picks in two years. Five of them were acquired in a trade and three of them are stashed elsewhere. The biggest of them was used on an unconventional, unpopular home run swing. Phil Jackson’s living for the future. He loves rookies. He’s swimming in whale shit!
New York’s 2015 draft night may prove to have been a mistake. Porzingis, like anyone else, may bust. And indeed, the actual acquisitions could belie the deals that fell just short of fruition or the moves yet to come. We don’t know how close the Knicks were to making the lame-ass trades everyone expected and we don’t know if the summer’s about to be spent on lame-ass additions. Porzingis and his fellow rookies may merely be the fringe of a roster-to-come filled with short-sighted, unimaginative signings designed only to serve the system. It could happen.
But in their first real investment after Melo, the Knicks behaved like a normal NBA team. Even people who don’t love the Porzingis pick can appreciate what it represents. Instead of thinking short-term, playing it safe and valuing Triangle fit over talent, the Knicks took shots. They used the draft. They varied the roster, staggering assets for maximum flexibility.
Porzingis may not be the future, but moves like the one that brought him in suggest these Knicks take their future seriously.