LAS VEGAS — Derek Fisher’s job as coach of the New York Knicks just became more manageable now that Carmelo Anthony has decided to return on a five-year contract.
It almost appeared as if team president Phil Jackson didn’t want Anthony to return when free agency initially began July 1. Jackson challenged Anthony to accept less than the maximum contract to help facilitate more moves to improve the Knicks’ roster.
Anthony did accept less than the $129 million that he could have signed for over five seasons, a few million less, but at least it was a positive response to Jackson’s request.
With that, the Knicks continued to take positive steps toward their transformation, moving Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler to Dallas for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, and skilled second-year guard Shane Larkin.
The Knicks, who lost a first-round pick acquiring Anthony in 2011, jumped back into this year’s draft and grabbed Cleanthony Early from Wichita State and added Thanasis Antetokounmpo in the second round. Anthony was apparently pleased with those moves because it showed that Jackson was willing to do more than just let bad contracts expire and hope the Knicks brand would be enough to attract fans.
Anthony is a game-changing player but not on the level of LeBron James. He needs assistance. He needs players who are invested in doing their jobs. He needs teammates who are healthy. He needs a carefully scripted game plan that can accentuate his skills.
Enter Fisher, who is spending this summer implementing the triangle offense to his Las Vegas Summer League team and will soon converse with Anthony about mastering his role.
“People are saying everybody around Carmelo needs to be different and I don’t necessarily agree with that mind-set,” Fisher said Monday after the Knicks beat the Hornets in a summer league game. “We have some very good basketball players on our team and as you can see in summer league, we’re playing the game the right way.”
A few months ago, Fisher was helping the Oklahoma City Thunder scrap with the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals. He was named Knicks coach shortly after the Thunder were eliminated and is making the transition to coaching a franchise that is desperate for success and has been infamous for blowing opportunities with wasteful contracts. They did four years ago when after they missed out on the LeBron sweepstakes they signed Amar’e Stoudemire, whose knees couldn’t hold up, and also signing players such as Felton and J.R. Smith.
Fisher knows success in New York will require teamwork and a more elaborate plan than just dumping the ball to Anthony on the block.
“What I have most thought about is how much the game will be easier for him, that we won’t just give him the ball and say, ‘save the day,’ ” Fisher said. “We’ll utilize our offense. We’ll utilize he and the guys around him to be successful on the offensive end, build trust, build chemistry, build a fun way to play for guys so our defense is better.
“That’s what he wants in the conversations I’ve had with him. He doesn’t want just the basketball. He wants to be in an environment where everybody is effective. He wants a balanced basketball team and that’s what we need to build.”
Fisher has the right plan but executing it will be a challenge in the short term. The Knicks are stuck with the contracts of Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani for one more season so it won’t be until next summer that Jackson can chase premium free agents and begin to reform the roster.
Anthony and the Knicks current cast are a playoff-caliber team and perhaps Knicks fans will be appeased for a season. Anthony sent a major sign around the league by endorsing the Jackson-Fisher combination and he also changed the perception that he was simply about the big-city life without making the big-city sacrifice to win.
While New York offered him substantially more money than the Bulls, Chicago would have been a perfect situation to join a championship contender. Los Angeles would have enhanced the career of his actress-wife LaLa and Anthony would have been revered by Lakers fans who adore star power.
Anthony decided to stick around Madison Square Garden and watch 7-foot Bargnani launch 3-pointers or Smith untie opponents’ sneakers. It was a financially fruitful choice but one that comes with thorns.
“We have to turn Madison Square Garden into a difficult place to play,” Fisher said. “I believe in the guys we have. Even if nothing else changes, we’re good enough to be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. I think it’s a great opportunity for Carmelo as well, for where this organization is going. I think it’s a good time for it.”