Most often when an executive gets fired from an organization, it’s proof that things are in disarray and it’s anyone’s guess what comes next. In the case of the Knicks, Phil Jackson’s departure should give way to a giant sigh of relief. The suffering is over, and there’s reason for optimism to immediately fill the air.
To be fair, both sides are leaving one another with parting gifts: Jackson will hightail it out of New York with the rest of the $24 million set on his pact, and the Knicks can start to clean up his mess with building blocks Kristaps Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez still in town. Though many have raved about his aptitude for the triangle offense, Frank Ntilikina is a versatile player who can likely find success in any offense. His defensive prowess is also likely to win him favor with passionate fans who have followed this team for a while.
Luckily for the Knicks, the man primarily responsible for such prospect victories, Jackson’s Vice President of Player Personnel Clarence Gaines Jr., appears to be staying put. That will be a big benefit to this team’s future.
Speaking of the future, there’s a decent chance it will be bright. Removing Jackson should be considered addition by subtraction. Steve Mills is excellent in relations (a personable skill Jackson obviously lacked) and is held in high regard by players and agents alike. Gaines obviously has strongly proven talent evaluation skills. He’s supported and complemented by an impressive scouting department that already includes Kristian Petesic and Kevin Wilson. As for the coaching staff, Jeff Hornacek can give the Knicks more of a taste of the success he realized in Phoenix, both in running his offense and targeting players. Hornacek helped young players thrive while with the Suns.
The front office is in much better shape than it was a week ago, but Mills and Co. could use all the help they can get in building a winner. As far as attainable executives go, there’s arguably no one better prepared and well suited to lead New York’s efforts than Masai Ujiri.
Of course, the Knicks are quite familiar with him. Ujiri brokered the deal for Carmelo Anthony and netted the Nuggets an absolute haul in return. Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler have become complete mainstays in Denver ever since; they’re both still making contributions today. Ujiri also drafted Kenneth Faried, another longtime Nugget who has been part of the team’s core for the past six seasons. With career averages of 11.9 points and 8.5 rebounds, the 27 year old is a quality NBA player. Ujiri knows talent and values consistency and organizational stability. More proof of this can be found in his work with the Raptors. Both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have flourished into perennial all-stars. Toronto improved in each of his first three seasons at the helm. They’ve amassed four playoffs appearances and three division titles. Last year’s 51 wins was considered a down year. The Knicks would only be so lucky.
As Ian Begley reports, New York has also had internal discussions about OKC Thunder GM Sam Presti, but Ujiri should be their guy as an outside addition. His ability to grind and work his way up the ranks since 2002, and international experience, make him a special candidate. More importantly, Ujiri’s addition wouldn’t attract major pressure. Phil Jackson’s arrival came with unrealistic expectations due to his “sexy” name and big (coaching) resume. Ujiri is a proven winner in this particular area of building and administrating a ball club. Jackson was not.
But first, the Knicks’ primary on-the-court focus should be developing its youth. Still, such youngsters will need role models and veteran players to help them guide them and create a positive culture in the locker room. Now that Jackson is out and the stigma/negative focus on the triangle departs with him, the organization can target and appeal to free agents in a healthy way again. With a promising core, they have the opportunity to do something special. Veteran players can be offered notable roles, more money, and a fun time playing basketball again in the Big Apple. The latter option could not have been promised with Jackson’s negative cloud hanging over this franchise. The task at hand now should be resolving the Anthony issue so that all other dominos can fall into place.
As this team moves forward, they’ll likely do so with a weight lifted off everyone’s shoulders. Things should get easier from here on out.