Inside the implosion that rebuilt the New York Knicks

ByIan Begley ESPN logo
Thursday, December 21, 2017

It's hard to remember now, but there was a time when Carmelo Anthony and Phil Jackson had a relatively normal relationship. Shortly after theNew York Knickshired Jackson as president, Anthony said he was willing to do anything Jackson asked if it led to building a winner in New York. Around the same time, Jackson described Anthony as a great player with another level to reach: "I hope together, with the team we create, he can get there." Less thanfour years later, Anthony and Jackson found themselves stuck in one of the more dysfunctional marriages in NBA history. Bizarre public criticisms, organizational politics, an erosion of trust -- it all played a role in the ugly end for Anthony and Jackson in New York.

Now, with the Knicks owning a surprising 16-14 record and sitting eighth in the Eastern Conference, there's reason for optimism again in New York. In the wake of Anthony's trade to theOklahoma City Thunderjust before training camp began,Kristaps Porzingishas emerged as the leader of a young group. Through Tuesday, he was ninth in the NBA in scoring and third in the league in blocks per game."Everyone just seems a little lighter," one team source said. "The drama Phil created with Carmelo really affected the team and the joy factor," said another source with knowledge of the Carmelo-Phil dynamic. The joy factor seems to be back, and the dark cloud hanging over the team was significant.

We spoke to coaches, executives and agents familiar with the Knicks during Jackson's and Anthony's tenure for a behind-the-scenes look at how things imploded between the two in their final season together.

1. The odd man out

Some members of the Knicks organization became convinced in the summer of 2015 that the club was better off trading Anthony and building around Kristaps Porzingis. A little more than 12 months later, that feeling was shared by nearly all of the Knicks' decision-makers. "Everybody was on board to try and get rid of Carmelo," is how one source familiar with the matter described the sentiment. "The feeling in meetings was almost unanimous: They felt he just wasn't a winning player. They thought they could turn everything around if they just moved him." Some of those execs who wanted Anthony out were the same people who strongly supported him earlier in his tenure.

Anthony was well aware of this, and it was one of the things that bothered him most about the organization, according to people familiar with his thinking. When the executives acted as if they were still on Anthony's side during face-to-face interactions with him, he saw right through it.

2. No love for the triangle

Three weeks into the season, Knicks executives, coaches and players gathered for a meeting at practice. Jackson was there with members of the front office and coaching staff, but the players did most of the talking. One of the bigger issues that was discussed? The triangle offense. At least two veterans told Jackson directly that the offense wasn't working -- and wouldn't work -- because it didn't put players in position to be successful. Jackson defended the offense and eventually left the meeting upset, per a source. Some of the players and members of the coaching staff had heard from opponents that they loved defending the Knicks' offense because they knew exactly where players would be in their sets. "They could predict it," one opponent told a friend.

The meeting, which lasted more than an hour, didn't change much. The Knicks went back to running an offense with a heavy emphasis on the triangle later in the season. Jackson regularly went on the court during practice to point out different aspects of the offense, interrupting and essentially overriding head coach Jeff Hornacek. It was one of the many things Jackson did that rubbed Anthony the wrong way, according to people in the organization.

Anthony, through a representative, declined to comment for this story. A representative for Jackson did not respond to requests for comment.

3. The Melo-Phil meeting

Most people around the Knicks felt that the beginning of the end of Jackson and Anthony's relationship came in early December 2016. Jackson said in an interview with CBS that Anthony broke a team rule by sometimes holding on to the ball for too long. This became a national story, and Anthony was incensed, according to those close to him. Four days after Jackson's comments aired, he and Anthony held a clear-the-air meeting. The conversation was brief, and very little was resolved. Anthony said publicly after the meeting -- held at a gym at the University of Southern California prior to a Knicks practice before a game against the Lakers -- that he'd moved on from the issue. But the episode amplified his distaste for Jackson. "He's got to be careful with the choice of words that he uses," Anthony said. "He understands that."

According to people familiar with the dynamic, the meeting also had a detrimental impact on the Knicks. The club won the night after but lost 23 of its next 31 games as the season went off the rails. "It just caused so much unnecessary drama for the team. It wore on them," one team source said of the episode. "At that point, everyone could feel Phil trying to push Carmelo out."

4. Mindfulness training ... is less than successful

During his final season with the Knicks, Jackson presided over mindfulness meditation training with the players, as he had done with the Lakers and Bulls. The intention was to instill a measure of mental discipline, arming the players with exercises to calm themselves in high-pressure and volatile situations.

During the sessions, Jackson instructed the Knicks to sit on the edge of their chairs, eyes closed, and count to 10. Breathing in and out, the objective was to clear the mind. They repeated the process several times. Some players were dutiful in the exercise, some indifferent and some downright mocking of its worth, team members said. As Jackson's relationship with Anthony deteriorated, so did Melo's commitment to mindfulness training. In the final sessions, witnesses said, it became common for Jackson to tell the players to open their eyes at the end of the exercise, only to find Anthony's head tilted back, eyes still shut, seemingly snoozing.

5. "What the f--- is he doing?"

Jackson might have had a method to the way he handled things with Anthony, but people within his own organization wondered exactly what it was. About two weeks after Jackson mentioned Anthony's penchant for holding on to the ball, the Knicks returned home. An hour before tipoff of one of the games during their homestand, a high-ranking member of the organization was bewildered by Jackson's actions. "What the f--- is he doing?" the executive asked. "This is insane. How is this helping us win?" The answer to that rhetorical question became apparent over the next few weeks, as the Knicks lost 13 of 16 in a stretch of a little more than three weeks, beginning a backslide that would essentially end the season.

6. The Melo-Rambis blowup

Teammates say Anthony is usually laid back and affable, quick to joke around and laugh. But his demeanor wasn't so warm while sitting in the visitor's lockerroom at the Barclays Center on March 12. The Nets put up 67 points in the first half against Anthony and the Knicks, and according to people with knowledge of the event, Hornacek was livid, delivering an expletive-filled assessment of his team's play. Anthony had a few things to say after his coach was finished, saying to no one in particularthat "this whole thing" is a "joke" and adding "f--- this place" loud enough for most in the room to hear. Associate head coach Kurt Rambis responded to Anthony directly, asking him if he had anything he wanted to say. "Yeah, I have something to say: This place is a f---ing joke," Anthony responded. Rambis had his own R-rated retort, essentially questioning Anthony's effort. Some teammates in the room were stunned by the back and forth. The situation was defused when one of the players said to a few others, "F--- this, let's go shoot around."

7. Divergent drama

Of course, the Anthony drama wasn't the only issue hanging over the franchise. Young star Porzingis skipped his exit meeting with Jackson and then general manager Steve Mills over what team sources described as frustration with the drama and dysfunction surrounding the franchise. Jackson and the Knicks then discussed potential trades of Porzingis with several teams in the days and weeks leading up to the NBA draft. Those conversations were painted in some corners as Jackson teaching Porzingis a lesson after the skipped exit meeting, but multiple sources familiar with the matter say that there were members of the organization in favor of trading Porzingis at the time.

8. Competitors make their pitch

With trade rumors swirling as the draft neared, Anthony was in Paris along with several other NBA stars. His future with the Knicks was up in the air, and some of his contemporaries started recruiting him. Among those Anthony heard from? Jimmy Butler, who along with Dwyane Wade tried to convince Anthony to waive his no-trade clause and head to the Chicago Bulls. Of course, Butler was traded to Minnesota on draft night, and Wade agreed to a buyout and signed with Cleveland and LeBron James in September. Anthony later revealed that several other potential trades were discussed leading up to the draft. ESPN's Ramona Shelburne reported that the franchise decided it would not buy out Anthony, a sticking point that was one factor behind owner James Dolan's parting ways with Jackson shortly after the draft.

9. Phil's out. OK with you, Melo?

In early August, a few weeks after a nearly agreed-upon deal to send Anthony to Houston fell apart, Anthony was in Baltimore for the finals of The Basketball Tournament (a public, five-on-five, winner-take-all event) and a few community service projects around his hometown. Anthony said he was at peace with his uncertain situation, though he was still set on escaping New York, according to people familiar with his thinking. The subject of Jackson came up, and Anthony was asked about Dolan's decision to let Jackson go. "That was a business decision," Anthony said with a wry smile. "Dolan has to run his organization." Months later, those who spent time around the Knicks during the Anthony-Jackson era said there was no one incident that led to friction between the two men. Hall of Famer Walt "Clyde" Frazier, a teammate of Jackson's with the Knicks and an analyst for MSG Network, believes things might have worked out if the Zen Master had communicated more frequently with his star. "I think you can't motivate people unless you communicate," Frazier said. "But there was silence [from Jackson]. He never said anything."

10. He's no Rocket man

Anthony, along with most of the rest of the NBA, said in September that he strongly believed he'd be traded to Houston in early July. He'd been talking to friends about teaming up with Chris Paul and, eventually, LeBron James in Houston and how the Rockets could match up with the defending champion Golden State Warriors. He went as far as to detail individual matchups between that hypothetical Rockets team and the Warriors, surmising that he and the Rockets could take out the Warriors. For most of the offseason, Anthony was confident that the Knicks and Rockets would get a deal together. One potential trade involving the Bucks as a third team, with Jabari Parker headed to New York, was discussed. The Lakers and Trail Blazers, among other teams, had interest in dealing for Anthony. But ultimately, nothing came to fruition. Anthony was stuck in New York until new president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry moved him to Oklahoma City shortly before training camp.

11. A new leader emerges

Porzingis stood a few feet off of the court at Chesapeake Energy Arena shortly before the Knicks' season opener in late October, talking about leading a team without Anthony."I never doubt myself," he said. "I never feel like I'm not ready for something, even if it's the most difficult challenge in my life. ... I'm never too afraid of a situation. I'm here now, I had a great experience watching Melo, how he does stuff on and off the court. I think that's what I'm going to use to go forward." Now, it seems clear that Porzingis was ready for the challenge in the first season after the Jackson-Anthony era.

Some had surmised that Anthony was preventing Porzingis and the Knicks from playing the way they have early in the season: with solid ball and player movement and an honest effort on defense. But the 22-year-old Porzingis strongly rejected that theory. "Not at all," he said. "I can't say a bad thing about Melo."

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