The New York Knicks: What Can Brown Do For Them?

NBA training camps are now clearly on the horizon and the off-season is drawing rapidly to an anti-climatic close. Now seems a good time to chime in with a few words about the state of our beloved Knickerbockers heading into the 2005-2006 campaign. For brevity?s sake I?ll try to focus my comments on a few key questions, leaving the rest for another day.

Question 1: What exactly is the plan?

To its credit the Knick?s front office finally began to use the word rebuilding this off-season, and many a die-hard fan has longed to hear it. Unfortunately the Knick brain trust, such that it is, has taken far too long to pass through its ?we?re-one-more-player-away? denial phase since the magical run of 1999 ended on Avery Johnson?s baseline jumper. The subsequent years of delusional decision making have taken their toll. The team has fallen down and lost its way. Though there?s not much reason for optimism Knick fans still have hope, especially now that the team has taken the first step; admitting that it needs to rebuild.

So what?s next, Zeke? The closest thing to a plan coming out of Madison Square Garden has been Isiah?s ?younger and more athletic? mantra; really more a slogan than a discernable strategy. Well the Knicks have?for the most part?managed to lower the age and boost the athleticism during Isiah?s tenure. The Knicks will break camp with at most three players above age 30 (Hardaway, Houston, and Malik Rose), none of whom will be counted on for major contributions.

Youth and athleticism are great to have, but not at the cost of fiscal sanity. That little detail has unfortunately continued to elude the Knick brain trust? such that it is. Fortunately, as John Hollinger notes in a recent N.Y. Sun (paid registration required) article, the 100% luxury tax bracket has forced many teams to go yea verily and overspend no more…

That spend-happy system was workable because, as Cuban put it, ?When I first got to the Mavs, there was no luxury tax, revenues from TV and the league went up every year, as did the salary cap.? [?] But once the previous collective bargaining agreement was passed five years ago, the landscape changed. Thanks to a lockout, a recession, and Michael Jordan’s retirement, the salary cap stopped rising every year. As a result, teams increasingly found themselves hemmed in by long-term contracts they thought would be eroded by the league’s history of salary-cap inflation. [?] One hopes the Knicks can learn a lesson from Dallas. With some help from the tax amnesty rule, the Mavs were able to stay competitive while lightening an onerous salary situation. Likewise, New York could greatly improve its payroll situation. If Houston retires and Isiah Thomas can resist the urge to trade Penny Hardaway or Tim Thomas for an even worse contract [emphasis mine], New York will sidestep the luxury tax in 2006-07.

Certainly, avoiding the tax or even being under the cap provides no guarantee that a franchise will suddenly become a hot free agent destination (Salt Lake City never has been, never will be). And at times, we fantasy GMs (I count myself among them) can be a more than a little unsympathetic to the realities of managing the cap in a market with real risk, where franchise players largely stay put and second tier talent is systematically overvalued. However, as any Knick fan can attest, salary cap hell is a uniquely unpleasant place in the NBA. Escaping it?or at least not extending one?s stay there?has to become a much bigger priority in the front office, or at least more apparent in its actions. When I hear credible rumors about New York?s interest in bloated contracts like Antoine Walker?s and Eric Snow?s I start breaking out in hives.

Question 2: What style will this team play under Brown?

Youth and athleticism is often a euphemism for ?inexperienced? and ?unskilled? unless it translates into scores, stops, boards, and ultimately wins. Conventional wisdom suggests that speeding up the pace can minimize the inexperience and lack of skill that comes hand-in-glove with youth. Certainly, one would expect Ariza, Crawford, Frye, and Robinson to excel in an uptempo game. Presumably, Thomas acquired these athletes precisely to play a running style. But is Larry Brown willing to coach an uptempo style? Well, before dismissing the possibility out of hand consider that Brown, in his plaid-jacketed Denver days, coached a pace far above league average. Of course he had David Thompson, Dan Issel, and Bobby Jones on the roster. But, he also quickened the Clipper?s pace in his second season in LA with Mark Jackson, Ron Harper, and Danny Manning. In fact, Brown?s teams by my count have played at or above league pace 11 times in his 28 NBA seasons. So it?s not inconceivable that Brown could speed this team up to suit its personnel. I certainly wouldn?t get my hopes up though. Only two Brown-coached teams since 1994 (his first season in Indiana) have played at or above league pace.

History suggests that Brown won?t have much of a discernable impact on the offense. Though much ink has been spilled over Stephon Marbury?s impending move to shooting guard the switch may have little or no impact on offensive efficiency if the Knicks don?t find a reliable post scorer that can to the FT line. (Or at least find more minutes for the best post player currently on the roster.) Last season?s Knicks were middle of the pack offensively at right about league average efficiency (103 vs. 103.1 league average). Not much that has happened this off-season suggests to me that the Knicks will exceed +2 or 3 of that output this season.

It is much easier to see where Brown will focus his efforts to improve the defense. And, as the KB points out, it?s a fairly safe bet that he will. Last season?s Knicks continued a pattern of wretched defense that has been the norm since JVG said no mas. They allowed opponents an efficiency score of 106.5 (4th worst in the league). But, this off-season key veterans (i.e., Marbury and Thomas) have at least given public lip service to Brown?s gospel of shutting down dribble penetration and helping on defense. They have made themselves accountable in a way that they have not up until now. In itself that won?t make them good defenders but a prerequisite to good team defense is a team culture that expects players to commit to it. I don?t think it?s unreasonable to project a 3-5 point improvement in defensive efficiency, which should lift the Knicks to the middle of the pack. If the Knicks can stay around league average offensively and improve to league average defensively they will challenge to win the Atlantic. (Why this is the sad but true state of the Atlantic Division is for another blog entry on another day.)

Question 3: Can Marbury and Brown survive?

I don?t anticipate as much trouble as many. The two have made their quid pro quo fairly public, and both are savvy enough not to have done that unless they really want things to work out. So a big part of me thinks both are committed to making the relationship work. Marbury will retain his freedom in the offense under Brown, perhaps by moving to the shooting guard. Irrespective of whether that happens officially Brown has been very clear that he wants Steph to score. For Steph?s part he has essentially promised to commit do what Brown asks of him by saying that Brown made him better during the Olympics. Whether this is mere lip service on Steph?s part remains to be seen but Larry Brown is probably the first coach in his career with the power to hold him accountable. There?s almost no way the public and the press will take Marbury?s side in a dispute about his defensive intensity. I suspect the rubber will meet the road early in the season on a night when Steph is playing with high effort defensively, getting lit up, but also not scoring because Brown wants him to set up his teammates. The Knicks lose by 3 points. How both react will go a long way toward determining what their relationship can be.

In truth, I predict a much rockier relationship between Brown and Jamal Crawford should Crawford remain in New York. Would it surprise anyone if Houston and Ariza split minutes at the SG ahead of Crawford? It will be difficult for Crawford if he finds himself out of the rotation. His game hasn?t matured much since he entered the league. He offers nothing defensively, and despite his obvious talent he?s not an especially good offensive player. I see Brown wanting to re-make Crawford?s game along the lines of Richard Hamilton; coming off picks, less ball-handling, fewer threes. I?ve read nothing at this point to suggest that Crawford isn?t already thinking about the next stop now that Nate Robinson has signed and Houston remains on the roster.

KnickerBlogger Chat

Come here for the KnickerBlogger chat, Thursday September 8th, 6pm EST (3pm PST), where I will answer questions from my readers. Feel free to submit your questions by email.


I’m here & just about ready to go. I’ll post an answer every few minutes starting at 6pm. There is still time to get your questions in. Feel free to leave a url and/or location as well. :-)

Afterwards I’ll open up the comment section.

Aaron (whereabouts unknown): Here is my question: Do you agree with all of the flack Isiah is getting about being the only GM who could screw up “the Alan Houston rule” and not use it to let go of Alan Houston? Is there really any chance for AH to return this season and be productive? thanks.

KB: AAron those are two questions. :-)

I’ll answer the second one first. No way in hell. I freely admit I’m not Will Carroll, but Houston had surgery 821 days ago and he’s still not healed? I talked about this topic nearly a year ago, and it seems that with this type of operation it’s either hit or miss. I think Allan’s was a miss.

As for your first question, right now Isiah is a lightning rod for any writer looking for a cheap joke. With the Knicks able to outspend every other team, anything short of a Finals apperance will allow these guys to continue mocking him. Every writer wanted this team gutted, but I would bet dollars to doughnuts that half those people would rip the GM that would have the grapes to do such a thing in this city.


Vadim (Russia): Hello. Excuse me for bad English. I’m from Russia – press-atashe of team “Spartak” (Vladivostok). My question – why on page http://www.knickerblogger.net/stats/jh_ALL_PER.htm is not present Andrei Kirilenko and other players from Utah?

KB: Hello Vadim! Andrei Kirilenko doesn’t appear on the page because he didn’t have enough games to qualify. According to the NBA you have to have at least 70 games or 1400 minutes to qualify in scoring, and that’s what I use for PER. That’s also why Utah’s second leading PER-er, CarlosBoozer (51 games), doesn’t appear as well. The first Jazz to appear is Okur with a PER just under 19.


Benny (TN): Hey. I must admit that I am somewhat flummoxed personnel-wise by another busy summer in Knickville. Can you please draft a projected 8-man and 10-man rotation, and for extra credit give some guesses on what stats each player will put up. For the double-bonus round you could even speculate on team defensive statistics, but I know it may be too early to guess on those.

KB: Marbury, Richardson, Sweetney, Ariza, James, Rose, Robinson, and Crawford. Jamal Crawford and Tim Thomas will quickly find the address to Brown’s doghouse. Thomas for his hyelophobic habits, and Crawford for his poor shot selection. I think Nate will leap over Jamal with his disruption on defense, and Brown’s desire to move Marbury to the 2. To fill out the 10 man rotation, I’ll take Taylor & Frye, if for nothing else that the Knicks will need depth at the 4 & 5.

For the double bonus, it’s way too early to guess. So I’ll say the Knicks finish 15th on defense, with full immunity for having to live up to the prediction.


Mel (Somewhere, Idanoe): What kind of seasons do you expect from the younger knicks players (Ariza, Sweetney, Fyre, Nate Robinson David Lee and Jackie Butler) under Larry Brown who has garnered a reputation for not liking young players much.

KB: Mel, I really think the youngins with talent (Sweetney, Ariza, Robinson) will thrive under Brown. Coaches, like Brown – who improve every team they touch, get the most out of what the roster has to offer. While Brown’s life with newbies is a topic for a further study, if he is going to succeed in New York he’ll have to make to make do with the Knicks’ younger players. As for Frye, Lee, and Butler, it’s just that I haven’t seen them play enough to have a serious opinion about them. I watched a little summer ball, and let’s just say they didn’t do anything to get my hopes up.


Kelly Dwyer (CNNSI): Why did the Knicks draft John Thomas in 1997 when they could have had Serge Zwikker?

KB: That one keeps me up late at nights.


Terence (UK) : KB, what do you think the likelihood of Allan Houston retiring is? Also, do you think that Isiah is likely to let Penny and TT’s contracts expire? Or will he go and trade for more payroll? In this era, looking at most of the successful teams, their payroll is quite low, it goes to show that you don’t need massive salaries to have a successful team. If the Knicks get those players off the books, their payroll doesn’t look so bad, it frees up financial flexibility doesn’t it? I’m a Marbury fan, but I think it might make sense to break up his contract, trade him for a couple of decent guys, get the flexibility, what do you think?

KB: No chance. No. Maybe. Not really. That could work.

First I don’t think Allan Houston will retire this year. He’s determined to play, even if it means playing a handful of games, and then wearing a suit for the rest of the season.

Second I don’t think I could put money down on Isiah letting both contracts expire. If he does trade one, my bet would be Penny Hardaway.

Third the Knicks are so far over the cap that letting those guys go won’t free anything up. Letting Penny & Tim Thomas’ contracts expire would be like taking a bucket of water out of the Hudson River. Of course if they get more long term contracts in exchange of these guys it will obviously hurt the team in the future.

Finally, I’m sure there are many ways of righting this ship, and some of them contain trading Stephon Marbury. It’s not that the move on it’s own that would work, but if you decide to undertake such an endeavor you have to go all the way with it and gut the team. If you rebuild like that you might get a LeBron James or Kevin Garnett to fall to you in the draft, or you could end up like the Bulls and spend half a decade rebuilding before you make the playoffs. Of course with Larry Brown in the picture, stripping the team is not the way to go.


Kurt (Forum Blue & Gold) : If the current New York Knicks were a band/muscian, which one would they be?

KB: Hmm… Last year’s group was young, and started off relatively well. However they weren’t very good, nor did they last very long. So my vote would be Hanson (yes I had this shirt for a time – but no that’s not me).

This year’s gang will have a more interesting cast of characters, but that might be the most entertaining aspect of them. I’d say they’re like the 2005 version of the Pixies. Frank Black would be the musician that most reminds me of Larry Brown. Brown changes his teams every few years, and Frank Black can’t decide if he wants to be in a band, have a band accompany him, or go solo. The Pixies frontman has one more on Larry, in that’s he changed his name enough times to make Diddy jealous. While the Pixies were one of my favorite bands of all time, I still have some reservations about them making future albums. Just like I have reservations about the future of this team.


Dogan (Netherlands): I love the KnickerBlogger Stats Page, keep up the good work, but it would be great if there would be a playoffs stats page too (especially PER). What it the reason for its absence?

KB: First thanks for the compliment!

Second, well I had a little problem with my old web host & parted ways. Unfortunately in the divorce they took all my files. I’ve put the playoff page back up from what I had cached on my hard drive. Let me know if you find anything terribly wrong.

http://www.knickerblogger.net/stats/2005pla/

Oh and since this is my third international questioner – a shot goes out to all the homies that are reading this page from far away, and a special shot out to all those struggling to read this in another language. You guys are hard core basketball fans!


And a quintet from Gabe F. (NY, NYC): : Which position is the most glaring weakness in the Knicks roster, and which is their most useable strength?

KB: The Knicks’ weakness is easily the same weakness they’ve had for the last few years, center. Jerome James couldn’t crack 17 minutes a game in center starved Seattle, and the reviews on Frye are mixed at best. As for their strength, that’s a tough one.

GF: What do you think are the most viable short-term (ie, for this year: playing uptempo, focusing on defense, lots of pick-and-roll, high post, etc) and long-term (ie, 5 years down the line: going for cap relief, start from scratch, who to build around) strategies for the Knicks?

KB: Short term, defense has to be the priority. The Knicks were nearly last in the league on D, and that has to change under Larry Brown. As for long term, with how the team is now the best strategy would be to build on their youth, aim to eventually get under the cap, and hope a big star will want to make an average team great under the big lights of New York.


GF: Can Jerome James be written off as a bust right away? What kind of expectations should Knicks fans have for him?

KB: Plenty of people have already tabbed him a bust. Anyone that thinks he’ll give us more than a handful of blocks, a couple of jogs back on defense, and less than a couple of turnovers is going to be dissappointed. The Garden faithful should look at his career numbers, and set their expectations accordingly. If James plays 24 minutes a night, hustles, and doesn’t pass the ball to Spike Lee more than twice a game, then New Yorkers should give him a hearty ovation every night.


GF: Is Q-Rich better suited in the Knicks offensive schemes as a long-range gunner, or should the team try to leverage his post-up abilities?

KB: I’m never one for having teams abandon their offense to take advantage of a mismatch. In other words, if your PG is posting the other team’s because Boykins is in the game, you’re going away from how you normally operate to score.

However, it will depend on what the Knicks need. If Sweetney and Taylor are manning the post, Ariza is cutting down the baseline, and Marbury is living in the lane, then Q-Rich should see plenty of opportunities on the perimeter. If Sweetney is forced to play mop-up again, Crawford is on the outside jacking them up, and Ariza still hasn’t developed his jumper, then Q-Rich should see some time near the paint.

Quite honestly, if he can do both, then the Knicks should take advantage based on opponent. I like flexibility up to the point where it won’t hurt you. If one isn’t working then he should concentrate on the other aspects of his game.


GF: Did Isiah Thomas make a mistake by releasing Jerome Williams under the amnesty clause, rather than Allan Houston? What are the benefits and drawbacks to each choice?

KB: Again, I’m not going to pretend that I’m Dan T. Rosenbaum. My understanding is that they saved more money with Williams. However I think that Williams would have contributed more to the team than Houston. On the other hand if the Knicks keep Houston, Dolan is on good terms with his golfing buddy.


That’s it – The comment section is opened. Thanks for all those who submitted questions!