Will losing the Phil-Melo drama put Knicks on winning path?

ByIan Begley ESPN logo
Friday, September 29, 2017

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- In late February, a few weeks after being released from the Knicks, Brandon Jennings sat in the visitors locker room of Madison Square Garden and reflected on his brief time in New York amid the ongoing Phil Jackson-Carmelo Anthonydrama.

"It definitely took a toll on the team," Jennings said then. "Because it wasn't even about basketball anymore, it was more about what was going on with Melo."

Whether it was Anthony's free agency, Jackson's critiques of Anthony's play or Jackson's wishes to trade Anthony, the drama between the All-Star forward and team president enveloped the Knicks.

That's why some of Anthony's biggest supporters in the locker room knew trading Melo would be best for both the club and the player.

"It just has to happen," one player said.

The hope, among some players, was that the end of the constant Anthony-Jackson drama -- most of which was brought on by Jackson himself -- would help lift the cloud hanging over the franchise.

And, if the first week of training camp in preparation for the 2017-18 season is any indication, that appears to have happened already.

"It feels totally different," one person who spent time around the team this week said. "There's just a lighter feeling around here now."

Coach Jeff Hornacek was a bit more diplomatic earlier this week.

"For us, it's a new start," he said. "The young guys are enthusiastic about the new beginning."

The Anthony trade and Jackson's ouster give the Knicks a chance to start over again. New York now has seven potential rotation players at age 25 or under and could have significant cap space in two summers, when the Knicks hope their young core could attract attractive potential free agents. The Knicks also own all of their first-round draft picks going forward. Assuming they make their first-round selection in the 2018 draft, it will be the first time they've drafted in the first round in consecutive seasons since 2008-09.

"Obviously now we have the opportunity to turn the page a little bit," Knicks general manager Scott Perry said.

The plan now is to build around Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., first-round pick Frank Ntilikinaandbig man Willy Hernangomez.For a team that has chased ill-fitting pieces or stars on the down slope of their careers in the past, this seems like a strangely rational approach. Combine that with the idea that the Jackson-Anthony drama is in the rearview mirror, and the Knicks actually have a chance to function as a "normal" NBA franchise.

"Part of my job," team president Steve Mills said, "is to try to add some sense of calmness to what had been a little bit of a crazy environment that we've been going through."

Mills, of course, has been in New York for much of the craziness since the turn of the century -- the Anucha Browne Sanders civil suit, the ill-fated Larry Brown era, the Charles Oakley incident, and more.

Perry, the man Mills hired as general manager, is optimistic that better times are ahead.

"I feel really good about the narrative about the New York Knicks being a positive one going forward in terms of ... functionality," Perry said in an interview on SportsCenter. "I just really feel good about the situation."

Of course, there are still reasons to be skeptical. There's the presence of owner James Dolan, who was heavily involved in major decisions before Jackson came aboard in 2014. During that span, the Knicks won just one playoff series. Dolan, however, gave complete control of basketball decisions to Jackson upon his hiring and said in a statement after Jackson's ouster in June that he'd remain uninvolved with basketball decisions going forward.

There's also the Porzingis situation. The third-year forward skipped his exit meeting with Jackson and Mills last April over frustration with dysfunction surrounding the team. Porzingis said earlier this week that he wasn't angry with the team, deflecting questions about the past by saying he wants to focus only on the present. Mills, for what it's worth, is confident that any ill feelings between Porzingis and the club will be sorted out.

"Whatever issues there were last year, we'll make sure those aren't a part of who we are moving forward," Mills said. "And [we'll] make sure that our players understand exactly what we expect from them and that they understand what to expect from us as management and make sure we have a good environment moving forward."

On Porzingis specifically, Mills added: "I think we're really good at building relationships with people, and I'm very confident that we will make him feel good about being a Knick and make him feel good about the environment here."

One litmus test for the Knicks will be whether Porzingis decides to sign an extension this summer or next. But that's an issue for another time. For now, after the first week of camp, things have been unusually quiet around the team. For starters, there haven't been any controversial tweets or mixed messages about the triangle offense.

All of this has brought a sense of normalcy to the Knicks this week -- one that Hornacek hopes is here to stay.

"Can our guys now handle distractions? I don't know," Hornacek said. "Hopefully we don't do [have to do] that. We just play the game, and the focus is on the New York Knicks."

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