Phil Jackson: Free agency is priority

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Friday, March 13, 2015

LOS ANGELES -- By virtue of what he called a "project gone awry," New York Knicks president Phil Jackson has spent more of this season scouting college players that could help them in the future, rather than cleaning up the team's present.

But while scouting is a huge part of his new job, it's not how he plans on rebuilding the franchise.

"We know what the first-round pick is going to mean for us, but we also know we're going to build our team with free agents," Jackson said Thursday morning after the Knicks held shootaround at UCLA before their 101-94 win against the Los Angeles Lakers. "A hundred and ninety players or so are going to be free agents. Not half the league, but like a third of the league is going to be free agents. So that's where our priority stands."

The Knicks (12-51) have the worst record in the league and are in line for a very high lottery pick. Jackson said he hopes to find a future franchise player in the draft who can help the Knicks for the next 10 years.

But his main focus will be on finding the right mix of free agents who can help turn the team around quickly.

The Knicks are expected to have at least $25 million to spend in free agency this summer.

"What we're trying to do is look at what advancement there can be in the short-term," he said. "How quickly we can recover and get back in the hunt?"

He also said establishing of style of play will be important.

"It's not about who is going to have to have the most money anymore," he said. "That playing field has pretty much evened out, especially with the amount of money that's coming into the league. It's going to be whose attractive enough to get the people they want to play their style of play. The way they're doing it. So establishing how you want to play basketball is important. And there's only a few teams in this league that can say this is our definitive way that we want to play. We want to be one of those teams. So we have eyesight on who can play in our system and who wants to play."

Entering the season, Jackson believed the Knicks could contend for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. He acknowledged again Thursday that having a throwaway season in his first full year on the job was not part of his plan.

"This is where we wanted to be at the end of the year, not in the middle of the year," Jackson said. "We anticipated this is what we were going to look like after the final game of the season, when we were going to go into the market for players and effectively drafting a player.

"I think events created the situation that we're in: a number of injuries, a losing streak that was untenable. We put ourselves in position where we had to do things that ended up in this situation we have right now."

Jackson also took a strong stance on the need for an age limit rule in college basketball, so that players can develop more before entering the NBA.

"When you have 19- and 20 year-old players that are coming in the league, which is what the majority of the draft picks coming into the league right now, it's really hard to project what that player is going to be in three years, in the first contract situation," he said. "I think everybody would like to see [an age limit rule] happen, everybody but the agents that are out there making the money. The players' union is yet to really make a stance in that direction. But they need to do that. I think that's an important part of it. Once in a while you get a player like a LeBron [James]or a [Kevin] Durant, but that's few and far between. There are a lot of kids that don't make it that have to go back and struggle."

Jackson has met with the media about once a month since taking over as president of the Knicks. Thursday was the first time he's spoken publicly since posting a cryptic tweet Feb. 22 that the Cleveland Cavaliers' win over the Knicks gave "the basketball gods heartburn." Some interpreted those tweets as a jab at former Knicks J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, who showboated after connecting on an alley-oop during the game.

Jackson dismissed that idea, but didn't exactly clarify the exact target of his tweets.

"There's room for that. Players have an expressiveness that they go through. It's nothing against J.R getting the inbounds from Shump and their bench jumping up and down," he said. "That's not entirely it. Some of it is just retaliation, people who want to go back and forth at each other and not just play the game the right way. Just that kind of stuff is silly."

So who exactly was he referring to?

"There's a way to play basketball. That's a term we always used back in the day when I was coaching," he said. "It was a comment from one of the assistants, that 'the basketball gods weren't pleased with the way we played that game' and that's whether we won or we might have lost. It's how you share the ball, how you play the game, your conduct and character while you're out there, that's the most important.

"That's for anybody that resonates with. Could be fans, could be you guys, could be Cleveland, could be the Knicks players. The way to play basketball has certain parameters around it, and it measures itself out."'s Ian Begley contributed to this report.

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