The “resistance” to the triangle, as Phil Jackson dubbed it after last season’s conflict, has many roots in the AAU culture and the brand of selfish basketball it breeds.
So Jackson is skeptical.
“How do you teach a system that requires so many fundamental skills to players that really haven’t been taught them?” Jackson asked last season. “Some of that basic stuff with footwork and passing and all those rudiment type of skills that have changed over a few years? It’s a different game.”
Not that this is going to stop Jackson from prioritizing the system, above all else. It just means that, unlike last summer, he’s committed to finding those players more amenable to running the triangle, rather than revolting against it.
This all sounds like Star Wars but really it’s about basketball fundamentals.
“Some of it is about, can guys do the operating skills that we’re looking for?” Jackson said. “Guys that can catch-and-shoot, don’t have to put it on the floor every time. Guys that have the ability to pass, that’s really important.”
Where this mindset leads Jackson with the eighth pick in the draft is still undetermined, subject to alterations based on multiple unpredictable factors. But one logical answer is the lone European projected in the top-10 — point guard Frank Ntilikina — whose two-way style and length fit what the Knicks envision. He’s not going to jump out of the gym or blow you away with athleticism, but, “He’s a triangle-type of player,” NBA draft analyst and former St. John’s coach Fran Fraschilla said. “Simply because he’s not really a 1, and he’s not really a 2. He’s a guard.”
The Knicks have scouted the 18-year-old overseas and sources say the organization remains very interested. Ntilikina, still considered very raw with questions about his durability in the NBA, won his consecutive Rising Star award in the French League on Wednesday, joining past multi-year winners Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw and Evan Fournier. You never know with Euros, but the reputation is that they’re coached with more of an emphasis on teamwork and fundamentals. Therefore, they’re less prone to the “give-me-the-ball-and-get-out-of-my-way” mentality.
Jackson is clearly comfortable going overseas. His tenure is filled with stacks of failures, and two successful draft picks used on a Latvian and Spaniard (Kristaps Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez).
But the concern is whether the Knicks will pass on a better player — a potential franchise star — simply because he doesn’t fit into Jackson’s triangular box. Dennis Smith Jr. is an explosive pick-and-roll point guard out of NC State (with concerns about his attitude), who may or may not be around when the Knicks choose. But certainly he isn’t a triangle player. Smith’s been compared to Derrick Rose, and we all know how that worked out.
Here’s what Jackson may not care to understand but probably should consider if there’s truly a goal of setting up the Knicks for a better future: as soon as he leaves, the triangle is gone.
It dies the day Jackson walks out of that door.
Hence the problem with basing personnel decisions around his offense, especially in the draft where the repercussions can be felt for a decade or a longer. If it’s Ntilikina, he’ll only be 20 years old when Jackson’s contract expires in two years and the next executive wants to run-and-gun.
That’s not to suggest Jackson’s reasoning will lead to a poor choice in the draft. His track record in this department — while based on a small sample size of two first-round picks (Porzingis, Jerian Grant) and three second-round picks (Hernangomez, Thanasis Antetokounmpo and Cleanthony Early) — is pretty solid.
“We’re good at what we do,” Jackson, not exactly the beacon of humility, declared Tuesday.
But if the choice is system over talent, a mistake becomes less defensible.