Chess, Not Checkers: Why Phil Jackson’s Triangle Trade Was Genius

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It all started with a tweet from Adrian Wojnarowski that J.R. Smith was involved in a trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This is not a stunning development. The Knicks had been looking for a suitor for Smith for the last two years, and he had a rocky road with the Knicks.

Sure, he had some nice moments for the Knicks, but it did not outweigh the bad in the last two years. The defining moment was the one-game suspension got for elbowing Jason Terry in 2013.

After that, J.R. Smith had a precipitous fall of which he was unable to climb out. I mean, you literally can’t seem to get much more untraceable than Smith was at this point.

He asked girls if they wanted to get the pipe, had ex-girlfriends publicly talking about his marijuana use and was partying with Rihanna. The saga never ends.

Goodbye, Iman Shumpert


This one hurts. Any Knicks fan will tell you that Shumpert was a sentimental player. His value was not specifically tied to his on the court production; he represented something more than that. He represented something so many Knicks in this generation have lacked: heart, hustle, defensive intensity.

These were staples of the Knicks teams in the 70s and then in the late 90s.


While Shumpert struggled to develop, it was understandable that New York was losing faith in him.

I wrote last week that the Knicks could and should potentially trade him, but that was under the impression they would, you know, get something for him. ANYTHING. A guy that is young, talented and inexpensive is very desirable in basketball, as with any sport.

Reggie Jackson To The Knicks?

Let’s also take a moment to recognize that this trade broke Twitter for 25 to 30 minutes. Tweets were coming in fast and furious, with details emerging minute-by-minute about guys being moved in different directions.

Several big name sources like Chris Broussard and Brian Windhorst reported Reggie Jackson to the Knicks was involved.


For a moment, this seemed like a win for New York. He would be a young player to build around and legitimately would bring hope and desire to a decrepit and morbidly depressing team.

Then, we found out Reggie Jackson definitely was NOT going to the Knicks. The next logical question is, okay, who did they get, then?

So, What DID New York Get In Return?

Oh, well, they got nothing. Now this just hurts. A young and talented player, plus J.R., is now gone, and now we find out they got three guys who will be waived.

You know it’s bad when memes like this joyous departure are made.

Here is what New York received: two trade exceptions and a 2019 second round pick — one for 6 million and one for 2.5, so the total value of the exceptions are between 8 and 9 million.

Samuel Dalembert is also being waived. What Knicks fans also received in this deal was general sadness and constant head shaking.


This is misery on earth for a fan of the orange and blue. The team has thrown the white flag. There have been some dark days, but rarely, in history, has there ever been a Knicks team as bad as this one.

There is no heart; there is no effort. This may go down as the worst record in franchise history. Twenty-one wins was their worst season in the 1960s. This year’s team will probably top that.

So, let’s get past this season.

Reason For Optimism?


It has been reported that long term, the Knicks could save between 20 and 30 million from this deal. That could allow New York to sign two solid starters and a good bench guy.

Jimmy Butler? He would be a great fit and an attractive option. There are so many players worth exploring. What about trying to get Goran Dragić? He’s a real point guard in a league that lacks a ton of good ones.

You’re not going to get Westbrook/Chris Paul/Tony Parker. These guys don’t just grow on trees. Rajon Rondo has been traded. It would have been nice to get Reggie Jackson, but in reality, he will be a free agent after next season.

So, perhaps, the Knicks might be able to get him, after all. When you step back and look at what Phil Jackson is doing, it is not glamorous. From day one, Phil has proven to be anti-Lebron, meaning “chill mode” is never activated.


Fan favorite Tyson Chandler was the first true Knick to be traded in the last few years. Now Shumpert is gone. The plan is very clear: Get out of bad contracts at all costs.

At the end of the day, Shumpert, who still retains some trade value, was sacrificed in order to get rid of J.R. Smith. Think about that for a second: Phil Jackson had to give away Iman Shumpert in order to rid himself of Swish. Ouch.

The 2015 New York Knicks have to hope for the number one overall pick and Jahlil Okafor. After that, they need to get aggressive in the free agent market.

But, while we are still involved in this season, this will go down as, perhaps, the worst single team in Knicks history. That will be an image that’s hard to shake.

Knicks Trade Grade: A-


There were some positives from this deal. The Knicks got some long-term cap flexibility and rid themselves of Smith’s contract.

I would give the Knicks an “A” for this, but they netted nothing of on-court value for a young asset. So, for that, I am giving them an “A-.”

Cavaliers Roll The Dice

Cavaliers get guards Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith (from Knicks), protected 2015 first-round pick (from Thunder).

From the Cavaliers perspective, this is a gamble. With that said, you could get worse than a Dion Waiters for Iman Shumpert swap. Waiters is what he is. He’s had enough NBA service to determine what type of player he is.

At this point in both careers, I believe Shumpert adds more short- and long-term value to the Cavs. Waiters has one edge over Shumpert, which is his somewhat consistent ability to knock down three-pointers. Shump has not proven that yet.


Iman has also sustained quite a few injuries, which obviously makes him a risk, but Dion is a volume shooter who wasn’t making anyone better in Cleveland. Shump will at least play lock-down defense on the perimeter and can guard two or three different positions.

Then, you throw in J.R. Smith. I think this is the moment Smith needed to reestablish himself. LeBron will be the best player Smith (or Shump, for that matter) has ever played with.

If Smith can be a player who gives 12 to 16 points per game, that’s going to be fine for Cleveland. Can he be consistent? Will he have an efficient scoring performance on a nightly basis? I don’t think so, personally.

It is an opportunity for redemption, however.

The J.R. Smith Conundrum


Can J.R. harness his God-given talent and be a valuable role player on a championship team? If you’re relying on J.R. Smith to be your best player, you are not getting anywhere in the playoffs.

But, if you’re asking him to be the fourth or fifth option (toss up with Shumpert?), things might work out.

He can handle that responsibility. That ultimately comes down to Smith’s ability to mentally commit to the game of basketball. He has done it in spurts, but has gotten derailed several times.


In summary, this was an intriguing move for the Cavaliers. If it was just Iman for Dion straight up, I would think, talent wise, the Cavs did well.

When you throw in J.R. as a wild card, I see it improving the Cavs. Not by a lot because I doubt they are done, but this will help the Cavs depth short-term.

Cavaliers Trade Grade: B+

If Shumpert could stay healthy, and J.R. were still in Sixth Man of the Year mode, I’d give the Cavs an “A” or” “A-.” Because of how unlikely that is, they get a “B+.”

Thunder Make A Splash


This one is more of a head scratcher. If the Thunder’s plan is to bring in Waiters in the event they do, eventually, lose Reggie Jackson, then that tells you a lot.

The Thunder often have the same problem: Do they lock up young guys, or trade them and hope they don’t end up better than they expected? They guessed wrong with the James Harden trade. It netted them Kevin Martin and an endless feeling of regret, which costs a lot more.

Oklahoma City had to decide if they wanted to lock up Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, or substitute Harden for one of those guys. They chose Westbrook and Ibaka, and that has been an interesting situation to monitor.

Westbrook is an elite NBA talent. He possess the speed and quickness, plus explosiveness you rarely see. He is an all-world athlete. If he is healthy, he’s a top 10 — maybe top seven — best player in the league right now.


It’s hard to argue with letting him get away. Ibaka has great ability, too, and is clearly someone you can build around as a nice piece. So, in retrospect, keeping those two doesn’t sound so bad.

However, Harden brings that extra scorer that would change the game for the Thunder when Durant is being shut down. Bottom line: There just aren’t enough basketballs to go around for a Westbrook/Durant/Harden combination.

There should be, but it never was kept in tact. So, every time the Thunder make a move, it is built around Durant/Westbrook and Ibaka. If the Thunder don’t do much more, they are saying the other guy who can compliment those three is Waiters.

He will provide some steady outside shooting. He is better than Anthony Morrow — Morrow is a sharp shooter, but he can’t get you more than eight points a game.

Thunder Trade Grade: C+


Waiters will be able to pack a punch off the bench, but he’s not a game changer. Not by any stretch of the imagination. If the Thunder fear losing Jackson, then, I guess, this move makes more sense.

Maybe they hope Waiters plays well enough so that they can flip him at some point. I would still rather have Jackson than Waiters any day, but we will see how this plays out. For now, I’m giving the Cavaliers a “C+.”

The consensus here? A few things: Phil Jackson is cleaning house for the long-term benefit of the team. The Thunder took a risk they hope helps their short-term depth.

The last thing is the Cavaliers are making a huge push. Don’t be surprised if they are not dealing. For now, they added a few nice pieces to help them contend with the best of the best. Stay tuned, folks.

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