"The Knicks became one of just two teams to take the Bulls to a seventh game in their six title seasons and the only one to have a 2-0 playoff series lead on them," notes Smith.
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Bulls and Knicks, a rivalry again?

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By Sam Smith | 10.28.2014 | 10:06 a.m. CT | asksam@bulls.com | @SamSmithHoops

It was a disintegrating New York Knicks team Phil Jackson experienced with his first Bulls champions, a disorganized, underachieving Knicks team needing direction and purpose.

Within a year it all changed and one of the NBA’s great rivalries of the era developed, the Bulls and Knicks, New York and Chicago, playing four memorable playoff series in the next five years. The Knicks became one of just two teams to take the Bulls to a seventh game in their six title seasons and the only one to have a 2-0 playoff series lead on them, which the Knicks did twice with also the 1994 series win when Michael Jordan was retired and the Knicks went to the NBA Finals.

Will it become a rivalry again—even if it isn’t now, though it wasn’t in 1991—as former Bulls coach Phil Jackson begins his first season in full control of Knicks basketball operations when the Bulls open the regular season Wednesday in Madison Square Garden?

“It was a wonderful rivalry because these two cities like to compete against each other in many ways,” Jackson said in a phone interview on the eve of the NBA season opening Tuesday. “Commerce and all the arts and (what) they vie for. People consider Chicago the true American city that portrays American ingenuity and strength, and New York is more of an international city. New York is where basketball really feels like this is the capital; this is where basketball resides, although Philadelphia and DC and other towns want to weigh in on their ownership of basketball. These people really are fans here and this is a really strong franchise over the years. I appreciate Chicago has finally come back into a strong position where they feel really good about their team and their fans and engaged, so it should turn out to be a really good rivalry.”

Whether it even comes anywhere near the passion and rage of the 1990s is unlikely given the stricter NBA rules about physical play. And perhaps felonies. Those Knicks, ironically, were a scourge of the NBA for the physical tactics of players like Xavier McDaniel, John Starks and Anthony Mason. Yet, Jackson laughs that he was the villain in New York. Not anymore.

“From a guy who was the person who wore a white hat because I was on a couple of championship teams in the 70’s, somehow or other I ended up being the guy in the black hat when I came to New York coaching the Chicago Bulls,” Jackson recalled. “Kind of got turned around. I always felt (then Knicks coach Pat) Riley was the reason for that. He was able to portray me in a way in which I was the evil guy, the opponent.”

Jackson now has put on his Knicks cap and his thinking cap in trying to reshape the Knicks, and, at least off the court, he won the first round with the Bulls.

The Bulls last summer had targeted Knicks star Carmelo Anthony as a free agent. But Anthony agreed to return to the Knicks on a long term contract. So the Bulls turned to Jackson’s two-time champion center in Los Angeles, Pau Gasol.

“There was a point (with Anthony) where we thought any number of teams (might sign him), maybe Miami, rumors of Cleveland and Chicago and L.A.,” said Jackson. “He went down to Texas. He got to look at all these opportunities. That’s what a player does, plays for free agency. That’s his right to do that. In our heart of hearts, we kind of felt this would be the best place for him. Even though it was kind of a new team, not like a team with the next step to a championship like maybe the Bulls have that opportunity, maybe some other teams. He was going to be a keystone to the development of our organization. And I think that’s kind of where we sold him; that it would be nice to drop into a team to help a team move toward a championship or get to another level in the playoffs. But to really have a team and be part of a building process and be the foundation of (it), that is kind of special.”

But Jackson said the Bulls did well with signing Gasol even if Jackson tried hard and wished Gasol had joined him in New York.

“This is a guy who likes teammates,” Jackson said of Gasol. “He likes to play, he wants to compete at a high level. I think that’s why he chose Chicago. I thought we had a better offering. Dealing with UNICEF (Gasol is a good will ambassador). You have U.N. headquarters here. I tried to sell him on that, our opera, which is good. He’s an opera guy. He likes the arts. He’s a very cultured guy. He felt, I think, he was going to have a more competitive chance to win a championship with Chicago; I have to respect him for that.

“He’s the guy who made all the difference in the world for the team in Los Angeles,” said Jackson. “We were able to acquire him. We gave up a terrific player in his brother, who is now one of the top centers in this game. But we knew Pau could make a big difference for us and we just took off as a basketball team from that point. In my coaching tenure, he made a wonderful difference with that team, liked to play, liked to pass, liked to combine with his teammates and enjoy the game and the city and was a person the fans really took to in Los Angeles. I think he’ll be the same in Chicago. The fans will enjoy (him); he’s a multi-purpose guy, he has lot of facets to his game, does a lot of things, pass, rebound, score, shoot the ball. And once he gets comfortable in their offense and game, I think he’ll help the team a lot.”

It’s not the Bulls whom Jackson’s Knicks are chasing quite yet as much as competitiveness and respectability. There’s been much talk about the new coach, Derek Fisher, who played for Jackson. There are the questions about the triangle offensive system being implemented and the possibilities for the Knicks. Jackson is in his first tenure in club management after becoming the winningest championship coach in NBA history with the Bulls and Lakers. But he sees possibilities for the Bulls’ opening night opponents.

“We want to see ourselves in a playoff situation at the end of this season,” said Jackson. “I think we are underrated; I think we are rated lower than we are going to be.”

The Knicks under Jackson quickly turned over about half their roster. So they should have a better spirit, though Jackson agrees with observers that it will be slow at first as players become more comfortable with the new system, that they may think before reacting, which isn’t ideal for basketball.

Yet, Jackson also has an intriguing plan for the Knicks’ future just because of the system of play. The conventional wisdom is you need another star to join Anthony for ultimate success (Jackson, by the way, isn’t an advocate of players being recruiters). But the Bulls built around Michael Jordan only going through the draft, the Lakers were able to make a trade for Gasol, who wasn’t viewed as a star. And a team like the Suns is an example of using a system of play (Mike D’Antoni’s speed game) and adding players who fit that system and might not work elsewhere and leading the conference in wins without signing the stars of the game. The Knicks could have substantial salary cap room next summer and in years to come. But Jackson believes his team can have success even without adding one of the few elite superstars of the game.

“When you play a system of offense like we have we know what we need,” said Jackson. “We know what will help us. So we can be pretty specific in what we have to go out and find in players that will help us move forward. I think that’s where we might have a little advantage; maybe not have to spend so much, maybe not have to get the superstar or franchise player, but people who are real solid players who we want to come in and they want to be part of a championship and play on the team.

“We’re trying to build some chemistry here and bring some hope and develop this team in the process,” said Jackson. “Our organization has invested in a D-league team. We’re decidedly trying to develop players because we think you have to do the development aspect of players. You have to do free agency to try to bring in talent that can fit with players you have and the draft, where you pick up young talent that brings the future to the franchise. We have our first round pick next year and X amount of dollars maybe to be flexible when free agency happens next summer. So we’re thinking while this isn’t a wash year, this is a year we learn how to play together and build something together. We don’t see our team in the championship caliber; we see our team in the playoffs.”

It’s not inconceivable as the Knicks have an MVP caliber player in Anthony, a former top reserve in J.R. Smith, a clever guard in Jose Calderon, young athletes in Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway and a veteran like Amar’e Stoudemire, whose health seemed better late last season.

“I’m a novice at this, but we put our money on Carmelo Anthony as a player of the future of this team,” said Jackson. “Even though he’s 30, we felt he could carry our franchise as we build. And we could pick up some pieces as we go through to bring us back to a competitive level. We had an opportunity to trade a player that is valuable and had a high salary in Tyson Chandler and a point guard in Raymond Felton and got back two players we think can help us a little bit in that direction and save some money in the process and also got some draft picks as a result. So we’re trying to work both areas and this year we had one cap level free agent space, which in this day and age got us a guy who can play a little bit of starting and some backup four and five in Jason Smith. And we got a few rookies and two guards in Jose Calderon and Shane Larkin. And Samuel Dalembert is a big guy in the center to replace Tyson.  So as a result we’re trying to put things together, put together a competitive team we think is going to take a little while to play together (because) they are new.  

“(You’re) going to see a team trying to think their way into some things in a game in which you have to be very reactive,” noted Jackson. “So they’ll still be thinking on their feet a little bit while they are learning how to operate in this system and how to bring out the system’s strengths. Which is ball movement, player movement. You have to have spacing… and changes have to happen for some players, particularly our power forwards who have to play a wing role. Our guards have to be able to play in a two guard(s) role. The team will get in these situations where they’ll have a dearth or drought and things will happen that look a little stilted. But they usually find their way out of it. There’s maybe three or four minutes things happen; they may lose a lead or they may get in a deficit situation. But they have showed resiliency. We have some scorers on this team who can shoot the lights out. So we have enough fire power, I think, to keep ourselves in games and maybe learn how to play toward the ends of them. That’s where the real critical part is going to be, our end game.

“As you know,” said Jackson, “a lot of the NBA game (comes) down to the last six minutes and that’s where you really have to figure that out. Fortunately we have guys who can score at the end, Carmelo, if we can figure out exactly how to use him.”

The one time rivals, both in the 90s and last summer, meet again Wednesday. Who knows where it will lead.

There is no Next, a book by Sam Smith