The Denver Nuggets and the New York Knicks look to be in similar stages of their rebuilds. Both have identified a focal point and future star, both have veterans who are on different timelines than their young players, both have young coaches who were unceremoniously kicked out of their last gigs and who are looking to reinvent themselves in a new organization. Denver has more viable young players but the Knicks can offer a spotlight that Denver can’t approach, which should make talent acquisition around Kristaps Porzingis easier.
But if Stage 1 of a rebuild is to identify a star you can build around, then Stage 2 has to be this: staying on the same page with your newly-uncovered star player. In that aspect, the Nuggets and Knicks are wildly divergent.
Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski had a great article on the dysfunction inside the New York Knicks and how it’s affecting their relationship with their star player, Kristaps Porzingis. From the article:
As Jackson publicly pushed for Carmelo Anthony to waive his no-trade clause and accept a move out of New York on Friday and disparaged coach Jeff Hornacek’s connectivity to the locker room, a bigger issue emerged: Kristaps Porzingis made a stand about the unprofessionalism and routine chaos that has lorded over his work environment.
Porzingis passed on the exit interviews, as ESPN’s Ian Begley first reported, and league sources say Porzingis is planning a long trip back to Latvia that may not include a return to New York until closer to the start of training camp.
The article discusses how several team members feel alienated from the Triangle system, the front office, and whatever the goals of the team are supposed to be. Knicks president/holistic basketball guru/out-of-touch shit-talker Phil Jackson has been waging a media war against Carmelo Anthony to get Melo angry enough to waive his no-trade clause - the same no-trade that Jackson himself gave Melo. In doing so he may win himself a pyrrhic victory, by alienating Porzingis and fomenting a rebellion on his own team that destroys any chance New York has at success.
How do the Knicks win back Porzingis’s trust at this point? He’s watched them snipe at Melo for months, tear down his coach, install petted favorites on the staff and splinter the locker room. How much of an encore is he really interested in, and why would he bust his ass to try to make Phil’s vision of the Knicks work?
Contrast that with the Nuggets. Tim Connelly keeps making it a point to talk about the families of the players he drafts. He’s discussed Jokic’s brothers as his grounding force and stability, mentioned Gary Harris’s family in this season’s exit interviews as a great support system, and talks up that aspect of all of this year’s rookies as well. He clearly looks for those things for his young players to make sure they are not trying to navigate the early rough waters of the NBA life.
By extension, Connelly views the team as both a business and a family network. He’s worked hard to move players into advantageous positions for them - perhaps too hard in the Jusuf Nurkic example - and has attempted to keep those honest lines of communication open. Connelly and coach Michael Malone are close, and were before he was hired. That allows them to work together in ways that Jackson and Hornacek obviously aren’t.
The Nuggets want to create an atmosphere that builds on itself and is self-perpetuating, where all players are as unselfish as the brand of basketball that Nikola Jokic himself brings to the court. Arguably Connelly’s worst trade decision came about because Jusuf Nurkic did not want to be that unselfish and the GM decided it was more important to remove the obstacle from the team than to get full value for the departing talent.
But that’s how important it was for Connelly to keep the locker room stable. During the brief Brian Shaw era, Tim had a front-row seat to what discord and disfunction in a locker room can do to a team’s potential, and how it might poison the young talent well. He may have held onto some of this year’s veterans too long under the idea that they were key to a playoff run with the inexperienced youth, but the small cracks evinced by some veteran comments down the stretch are nothing compared to the chaos inside New York.
As Connelly said in that year-end conversation with Jeff Morton: Nikola Jokic cares about winning rather than stats, and either you fall in line or you’re not meant to be in Denver. Phil Jackson’s Knicks care about everything but winning. The leader of that organization wants to win, but only with the approved scheme run by the approved players in a certain way. Malone and Chris Finch scrapped the offense they had spent the offseason working on in order to rework on the fly around Jokic’s other-worldly offensive talents and crafted one of the best offenses in the league that way.
Jackson would rather the Knicks lose with his scheme than win with someone else’s, and that ego and hubris is passed along to the players. The idea that it’s okay to be out for yourself since your boss clearly is could disintegrate the Knicks before our very eyes.
So maybe the Nuggets and the Knicks are in very different stages of their rebuilds after all - and that’s a very good thing from Denver’s point of view.