Zen Phil Is Gone, but All Is Not Lost for Knicks

Zen Phil entered his state of Bardo (the Tibetan Buddhism transitional state between two lives here on earth) before he could, in a fit of pique, trade away Kristaps Porzingis, the 7-foot-3 pride of Liepaja, Latvia. Porzingis is a unicorn’s unicorn, a long river of a kid who can run and leap, has a soft touch near the hoop, plays underrated defense and can look smooth taking a 28-foot jumper. Carefully nourished, he is the sort whom the Knicks can build around for a decade. The Jackson Knicks handled him like a box in the cargo hold: In two seasons, he has had two coaches and played with two radically different rosters.

Might he one day become the equal of his 2015 draft mate, Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 25 points and 12 rebounds a game for the Minnesota Timberwolves last season? That is unlikely, although Porzingis remains a fluid and most unusual talent, the second best pick — and only other star — in that draft.

There is now, as well, a lottery pick point guard on the team — the intriguing Frank Ntilikina, a 6-5 French teenager with a pterodactyl’s wingspan. And the Knicks have Willy Hernangomez, the young Spanish center who can develop as the muscular core of the team, if he learns to play defense.

Even players who appeared lost in the Gobi Desert that was the Knicks’ last season, like guard Courtney Lee, may reappear as useful complementary pieces next season.

Then there is Carmelo Anthony, who no doubt threw back the curtains this fine New York morning wearing a Cheshire cat smile. Three years ago, Jackson bequeathed to Anthony a sea anchor of a contract, replete with a no-trade clause. The novice team president experienced near-immediate second thoughts and began to poke at and demean Anthony, in hopes of persuading his aging, knee-sore star to agree to a trade.

Anthony declined. He apparently enjoyed life in America’s biggest city and cared not so much if his season regularly ended in late April. Anthony has two years left on his contract (the final year is the player’s option). With luck, if he can be persuaded to pass more and shoot less — as he did a season ago — he could play another useful season and move off in search of a championship.

Other disasters of the Age of Jackson present greater challenges. There is, for instance, the four-year contract given to Joakim Noah. Jackson imported him from the Chicago Bulls to serve as a smart, tough veteran center. He turned out to be a broken-down plow horse who played only 46 games, few of them well.


Coach Jeff Hornacek, who diagrammed a play in October, tried to work within the contours of Jackson’s favored triangle offense.

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And the Knicks must hire someone not named Derrick Rose to handle the point guard position while Ntilikina learns his craft. When he was not disappearing from his team without explanation last season, and failing to play ambulatory defense, Rose offered entertaining takes on the triangle.

To wit: “Unless you see it go to the post, all the other stuff is just random basketball.”

And: “Do I have a choice?”

This was a hardwood philosopher.

Finally, Coach Jeff Hornacek came to town with a reputation as a reasonably clever basketball mind on offense. He put that reputation in a Sub-Zero refrigerator at Madison Square Garden as he was unwilling to challenge Jackson’s triangle obsession. Perhaps now he will have the opportunity to prove that he possesses the courage of his coaching convictions.

Which, building upward, brings us to the executive chamber in Castle Dolan. More than one fine coach, more than one fine general manager, has crossed the Bridge of Tears into the Garden. Men like the former team president Donnie Walsh and the former coach Lenny Wilkens possessed fine reputations built over a lifetime in this business.

All emerged headless.

For the Knicks to have a future, much less to consistently reach the playoffs, requires that some brave soul take the helm of the Knicks and insist on rebuilding the team for many years without interference. That special someone should not be a celebrity novice and the Garden being the Garden, that man might want to have his food taster in tow.

For the Knicks, drama is the only assurance.

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