Observations On The Eve of the Summer of Our Discontent (Conclusion)

Well, let?s wrap this up by looking at the other component of a strategic plan for the Knicks. (If you didn?t catch Part I and Part II go check them out.)

I suggested in Part II that by publicly backing Larry Brown the Knicks have made a de facto commitment to rebuild via the functional model. In this approach all the players, even superstar players, have well-delimited roles. Brown has been quite explicit about this, publicly stating his desire for players who can perform the following functions:

* Three guards that can bring the ball up against the press (presumably at least one is a pass-first point guard)
* Two small forwards (one that can play big guard, another that can play power forward if necessary)
* Four guys that can guard the post

In order for the Knicks to assemble the roster of Brown?s dreams however, they must get their fiscal house into some semblance of order. To that end, I would offer that the team’s strategic rebuilding plan should include a second major objective.

Objective #2: Institute a Zero-Growth Budget

We can all agree that the Knicks are in the seventh layer of salary cap hell, a place where the sign over the gate reads ?abandon your championship hopes all ye who enter.?

I teach college juniors and seniors, many of whom will graduate with enormous debt loads. Yet many of them exhibit better fiscal discipline than this organization. As one reader mentioned in the comments section of Part II, it seems as if Dolan is living out a boyhood fantasy. He tosses money around like he’s the BMOC. Back in the reality-based world however, Mr. Dolan is just another daydreamer doing a bid in the NBA debtor?s prison. He’s bound at the ankles to limited players with ridiculous contracts, a brilliant coach with exaggerated ego needs, and a front office in shambles. What’s worse is that all these parties are pulling in separate directions.

Zero-Growth Budget. A budget with limited or no growth would require more disciplined transactions, forcing the front office to walk away from many of the deals that have taken a bad problem and made it virtually intractable. Many reputable consumer debt counseling programs will demand that people destroy their credit card(s) in order to participate in the program. The reason is simple. Additional debt, regardless of the reason, can push some people into complete financial ruin. The same basic logic holds in professional sports managed by a salary cap. New York?s lack of fiscal discipline, and increasingly inane rationalizations for it, has put it in a position where it can no longer be competitive. Thomas?s efforts to swap expiring deals for so-called proven talent have proven too costly (e.g., Curry), superfluous (e.g., Jalen Rose), or worse, have robbed more deserving young players of needed development (i.e., Mo Taylor/Jackie Butler). Though he clearly bears the responsibility for this oddball collection of? ahem? talent, it would be a mistake to conclude that he simply should have gotten better players. The Knicks are a perfect illustration of how such thinking leads down the path to salary cap oblivion. Salary caps, for all their faults, punish the undisciplined and the intransigent who think they are being creative and clever.

A zero-growth budget is of course a bit of a misnomer. The Knicks will at bare minimum add draft picks to the cap each June, and presumably some players in trade. The real focus of the zero-growth budget is on free agency. New York?s free agency involvement is officially limited to free agent exemptions like the mid-level exemption (MLE), though more practically it also involves sign-and-trade deals.

The Knicks should treat the MLE the same way I treat the ?checks? I get in the mail from credit card companies. I shred them and put them in the trash because cashing those ?checks? worsens my financial situation rather than helps it. Just like those hyper-inflated loans masquerading as free money, the MLE market is systematically overpriced. It is the nature of any capped system to put a premium on the talent that lies between ?replacement level? and star quality. The Knicks have already paid far too high a premium in dollars, years added to the cap, and draft picks for other people?s headaches. Enough already; the Knicks will simply have to make do with less expensive role players from the veteran?s minimum market (i.e., NBA vets, D-League, CBA, and international players), undrafted rookies, and the NBA draft.

In the trade market, the overriding zero-growth principle is that no deal should add (net) salary or years to the cap. The kind of deal we want brings in players who perform a particular function and who match the trade counterpart in dollars and years. What we wish to avoid are the kinds of deals the real Isiah makes that net us a useless (on this team anyway) Steve Francis, depreciating in trade value by the day, while adding years to the cap.

One place Mr. Dolan?s mega-bucks, and his apparent willingness to throw them around, can actually help is in creating additional roster space by swallowing one or more contracts. Extra roster space can potentially enable the team to move one of the monster contracts by allowing the Knicks to take back multiple players. The Knicks could use targeted buyouts to help clear roster space. Even though teams hate to pay players not to play as a matter of religion, it may well may be worth it to create enough roster flexibility to move a bad contract without adding to the cap. Although bought out contracts stay on the cap, settlements do not. It would just be money out of Dolan?s pocket. Buyouts are one way Dolan can use his built-in cash advantage to actually help rather than hurt the team’s competitiveness.

The most interesting thing about selling a zero-growth budget to the fan base is that Isiah?s most fiscally prudent moves have been by far his best competitive moves, dollar-for-dollar. Thomas has drafted reasonably well, in sharp contrast to Layden, Grunfeld, and Riley. He plucked the likes of Jackie Butler, Qyntel Woods, and DeMarr Johnson (Denver) from the veteran?s minimum scrap heap, and each produced a 12 or higher PER this season. Since his best work occurs at the low end of the pay scale it seems the Knicks would do well financially and competitively to insist that he his focus his efforts there, and not allow his gaze to be diverted by anything shiny, sporting a high price tag.

So that?s it; a strategic plan with two straightforward objectives: pick a rebuilding plan and implement a zero-growth budget. Will the Knicks do anything like this during the off-season? I certainly hope so but what the hell do I know? I?m just some guy writing about an organization I know nothing about unless it appears in the newspaper. But, the NBA isn?t brain surgery. It?s pretty clear to anyone and everyone outside Madison Square Garden that the Knicks have mindlessly spent their way into oblivion, and currently have no idea how to get themselves out. So what else is there really but to pick a direction and quit mindlessly spending money? So get on with it already. Yeesh.

Observations On The Eve of the Summer of Our Discontent (Part II)

If you didn’t get a chance to see Part I go check it out.

In reading Sunday’s papers, the question now in the forefront of the collective mind of the New York Knick punditry appears to be, should the Knicks fire Larry Brown? Speculating about who deserves to be fired misses the point entirely. The point is that people who have been reasonably accomplished in the NBA continue to come to New York and bomb miserably. The point is that our beloved Knickerbockers, dear reader, lack purpose and direction. This is not a simple case of having a solid plan poorly executed by [insert your villain du jour here]. As self-centered, insecure, egomaniacal, and whatever else Larry Brown, Isiah Thomas, Stephon Marbury, et. al have been, New York?s biggest problem is NOT their personal shortcomings. It is the absence of planning. Dolan may fire when ready, and not without some justification, but new faces will generate little more than splashy headlines. One might think that even the New York punditry would be tired of that tune by this point.

Strategic planning is no magic wand. I strongly suspect that no strategic plan has ever inspired anyone to play better help defense or cut down turnovers. Nope. Not even the best strategic plans work that way. Rather, planning functions more like a compass; indispensable for staying on course but useless in the hands of those who have yet to chart one. The real benefit of planning is in what it helps prevent: getting lost. Any plan worth the space it takes up in memory should help prevent the sort of Hobbesian war of all against all that took place at Madison Square Garden this season. It was a textbook example of the criminally poor planning, or more probably the outright disdain for planning, that has characterized the entire post-Ewing era.

So, what should go in a plan whose obvious short- and intermediate-term goal is rebuilding? (Certainly, contending for a title is a long way away.) Well, the easiest part of rebuilding is admitting that it is necessary, and even that?s been like pulling teeth in New York. Therefore I am guessing that what really belongs in a solid rebuilding plan does not sound good to the Knick brass, many in the media, and certainly a segment of its fanbase. Well tough. The Knicks must decide on an approach to rebuilding and then carry it out.

I made some comments in Part I about the three key components in rebuilding (i.e., draft primacy, limited free agent spending, and player development). I’ll focus the rest of my comments specifically on what New York should do to begin rebuilding this off-season. (Drifting for the past several off-seasons does not count as rebuilding.)

Objective #1: Decide on a Rebuilding Model

New York is different than a classically rebuilding situation like Toronto or Atlanta; teams that have accumulated young, relatively inexpensive pieces that need time to develop, and the right mix of veterans to facilitate the process. New York is in a fundamentally worse position than these other teams because it has yet to take the most fundamental first step: deciding on an approach to rebuilding. In the NBA three broad approaches to building a franchise tend to dominate, and as you might imagine they are not mutually exclusive. I list them with some current examples to illustrate the concepts rather than serve as exhaustive lists of which teams use particular strategies.

The Superstar(s) Model. In this approach, the team is built around the (hopefully) transcendent talent of one or two superstar players who play roles well beyond what is typically expected from players at their specific position. The Cleveland Cavaliers and L.A. Lakers are undoubtedly built around the talents of superstars Lebron James and Kobe Bryant, respectively. The Heat are similarly built around the talents of Shaq and Dwyane Wade.

The Functional Model. In this approach players perform more limited, well-defined functions (e.g., Ben Wallace as rebounder/shot-blocker). Larry Brown’s in-season wish list for three guys that can handle, a shot-blocker, and a rebounder was precisely a request to build the team this way. The Pistons and Spurs have employed this approach with the most success, but I suspect it is the most commonly employed approach since transcendent talents are difficult to acquire.

The Style Model. This is something of a hybrid of the functional model. In this approach the team acquires players that, once again, fill discernable roles. What sets this model apart is that roles typically conform to a specific system or style of play. Mike D’Antoni’s Euroleague inspired fun n’ gun style, which requires front court players that can shoot 3s and really run the floor, is one example. Jerry Sloan’s highly orchestrated screen-roll offense in Utah requires a point guard with a specific skill set, one that even some quality point guards do not possess.

The Low Cost Model. I would be remiss to ignore one other approach. Though most franchises try to manage costs, here cost control is the primary objective; replacing strategic objectives altogether with accounting objectives. For years this had been the approach favored by Donald Sterling, owner of the L.A. Clippers. I fear Charlotte may be headed in this direction.

The Knicks have yet to choose an approach to rebuilding since the Finals run in ’99. The impact of this organization-wide confusion on personnel decisions has been illustrated?far too often comically?by Isiah Thomas, and Scott Layden before him. Yet in organizations individuals are rarely as dumb or as brilliant as they look. Given a list of tactical imperatives from Brown, accompanied by a serious rebuilding plan (along with a hard budget) from Dolan, Thomas could probably put together a pretty decent club.

Publicly sticking with Brown means that the Knicks are in essence committing to a functional model, though I wonder if they are even aware of this. Even if they are I have my doubts about whether they realize the urgent necessity for explicit buy-in to this approach, along with a hard budget to accompany it. Though the functional model is likely wisest for a team lacking lottery picks and cap space, much like our compass from earlier, the model can only provide direction if you already have a purpose.

Next up: Conclusion – Dealing with the cap and the roster

2006 Round 1: Odds & Rants

Only a few weeks ago the NCAA had one of it’s most exciting tournaments in recent history. There were plenty of upsets, as few people expected teams like Bradley and Wichita State to make the Sweet 16, and even fewer had George Mason getting to the Final Four. Even the one-sided championship game had enough acrobatics to keep viewers involved. For those that followed the NCAA closely, the opening round of the NBA Playoffs will seem like having War & Peace read aloud in Klingon: too long and quite unnecessary.

Long time readers of KnickerBlogger.Net know that I’m not a big fan of the first round of the playoffs. Mathematically most of the teams don’t have a fair chance of winning the first round. There is a well known equation that given a season’s winning percentages, you can predict the chance of any team winning a single game. If Milwaukee (.488 winning % on the season) played Detroit (.780) in a single game, they have a 21.2% chance of winning that game. Poor odds for the Cunningham family, but certainly doable. However, if the Bucks have to win 3 out of 5 games those odds drop to 6.7%. Make it 4 of 7 games, and it plummets further to 4.1%. All the above calculations were made using a neutral court. Factor in home court advantage, and well, the Bucks have already jumped the shark on their 2006 season.

Obviously I cherry-picked my example, as Detroit has the best chance of winning their 7 game series (96.1%). However the Spurs aren’t that far behind with a 92.4% chance. Despite the Grizzlies having the highest win% of all the road teams, their opponents, the Mavericks, are the third most likely to win at 80.8%. Granted not all the series are this lopsided. The second worst matchup is the Nets, but they still have a robust 72.6% chance of winning. If the Nets-Pacers played NCAA style, one game in a neutral arena, the Nets would only win 59.8% of the time.

It’s obvious that the collegiate style of tournament play would make for a more intense game, but unfortunately the league runs on money. Two weeks of television commercial revenue, ticket sales, and concessions mean more to the league owners than the integrity of the playoffs. As if the too long playoff system isn’t enough, the NBA has given critics another reason to ridicule the league. By David’s Sternpidity, the West’s 7th best team will get a home round advantage for the first round against the 6th best team. Had the NBA kept the 5 game series, the Nuggets would have about the same odds as winning one game in a neutral court (46.4%) as they would 5 with 3 games at home (46.1%). But the NBA’s expansion of the first round into 7 games, drops their chances down to 45.5%.

Outside of the Nuggets & Clippers, fans of the Wizards, Pacers, and Lakers have a reasonable chance of an upset. Meanwhile the rest of the games are not likely to be meaningful unless a home team suffers an injury to an integral player. The real excitement of the NBA playoffs come in the later rounds, where the difference between the teams are less pronounced, and the stakes are higher.

One Game
(neutral field)
One Game
(home game)
5 Game
(neutral field)
7 Game
(neutral field)

5 Games
(modified for home field)*

7 Games
(modified for home field)*

Note: Odds “modified for home team” are approximated using the binomial formula with the home team odds as (4*chance of winning game at home + 3*chance of winning game away)/7.

Observations On The Eve of the Summer of Our Discontent (Part I)

By Dave Crockett

With Wednesday evening’s in-all-probability mercy killing at the hands of New Jersey’s bench this nightmarish season will have ended. I’ll leave it to KB to recount the horror that was 2005-2006, should the spirit move him. Rather, over the next couple weeks I’ll offer some simple, slightly-less-soul-draining observations about what lies ahead for our beloved Knickerbockers in what promises to be a dramatic, if not especially productive offseason.

First Observation: The Missing Piece is Strategic Direction. That Comes from the Top.

Should Dolan and the Cablevision brass fire Isiah Thomas? I suppose. Disclaimer: Thomas burned his last bit of credibility with me at the trade deadline. So I have stopped defending him. Your mileage may vary. Having made that disclaimer, I am still less convinced than some that firing Thomas is a no-brainer, or that it even resolves the absence of strategic direction issue, which is THE fundamental issue facing the Knicks. Regardless, the possibility of firing Thomas immediately raises the question, who would even take this job? (Let’s ignore for the moment the possibility of expanding Larry Brown’s role in personnel.) Well, “outsider” candidates like Houston’s Daryl Morey seem particularly unlikely to land in New York since–in my estimation–identifying executive talent is more of a hit or miss exercise in the NBA than the NFL or MLB. Recent Knicks personnel chiefs Ed Tapscott, Scot Layden, and Isiah Thomas strongly suggest that the Cablevision brass has a predisposition for “insider” types. Consequently should Thomas leave, New York would almost certainly set its sites on an experienced personnel executive.

I also have serious doubts about whether any high quality seasoned executive would take this job right now, and far more serious doubts about whether team Cablevision could even spot said executive without help from a New York tabloid. The organization has been rudderless since at least the 1999 Finals run, sending mixed and contradictory messages about its strategic priorities and approach. Worse, from here it is hard to see any dry land. The brass, during Thomas’s tenure has never publicly shared a clear strategic direction. They have uttered the “R” word once or twice but then defined it away with Orwellian doublespeak whenever convenient.

The brass has not set spending limts, nor has it privileged the draft. (Chicago’s #1 pick in the 2006 draft resulting from the Eddy Curry trade will likely be told as a cautionary tale to young executives for generations.) The face on those failures is Isiah Thomas’s but at root they are organizational failures. Dolan could fire Isiah but in all probability he would simply hire another snake oil salesmen. Great personnel executives, like great players, need boundaries and strategic direction. When an organization lacks them, as New York so clearly and unselfconsciously does, the best candidates see that as a big, red flag.

So where does that leave the Knicks? Well, until the top brass is ready to truly rebuild it leaves them stuck on the good ship Zeke, adrift and rudderless.

Second Observation: Rebuilding Has A Specific Meaning.

Strategically, the Knicks are in a classic bad position; stuck between multiple approaches. Unlike the beginning of the decade the Knicks can no longer delude themselves into believing they are in contention, even in a watered down East. Yet they are not exactly rebuilding either, though they have paid lip service to the concept. As KB has noted, the team has not engaged in any of the hallmark activities associated with rebuilding, except for the losing part.

I would contend that rebuilding is associated with three pretty universal activities: 1. establishing the primacy of the draft; 2. limiting free agent spending; 3. developing inexperienced players (typically at the expense of winning). Unfortunately, despite the fact that everyone outside MSG seems ready for the Knicks to rebuild, the team is only halfway implementing the first and third activity while ignoring the second altogether.

Next: What Rebuilding Should Look Like

Noah’s Arc

Watching the Gators & Bruins play for the NCAA championship, I’m excited about basketball again. I can’t remember the last time I felt this way. While KnickerBlogger.Net runs on a linux server somewhere, the chief author runs on his passion for the game & his team. Don’t let the advertising banners on this page fool you, I don’t break even on this site monetarily. I spend hours writing, researching, and thinking about the Knicks & the NBA because I enjoy it.

This season has really taken it’s toll on me. None of my favorite teams have ever been this frustrating to watch. No matter what Walton, Coslett, or Kottite did to my Jets, there was always a bit of hope. Maybe not the year they were playing, but the draft could yield hopes of the next star player that could lead the team out of despair. Needless to say neither this year nor thoughts of the draft inspire me to write anything I haven’t said already.

Although I’m not normally a college fan, a Gator win would mean the difference between 3rd & a 5th place tie in my bracket pool. However there is more in this game than just a few bucks to pique my interests. Florida’s style of pressing and using team speed on defense is fascinating to watch. I had spent a week with Ms. KnickerBlogger in Al Horford’s wonderful hometown of Puerto Plata. And UCLA is strong enough to come back from a first half double digit deficit.

But it’s the play of Joakim Noah that has me glued to the television. I’m always intrigued by children of athletes, and the native New Yorker Noah is having a phenomenal first half. NBADraft.Net has him going in the 14th pick in this year’s mock draft, while hoopshype has him going 5th overall. The first has him compared to Anderson Varejao, the latter Rasheed Wallace. However I can’t help to think of him more like Marcus Camby. Granted his 4 first half blocks might skew my view, but his rebounding, speed & energy reminds me of Marcus’ days in New York.

The knock against him is his slender build, but I think the NBA is moving away from the lumbering big man. Gone are the days of Ewing and Malone, and Shaq is on the tail end of his career. The new NBA big man is slender and agile, more in the mold of Kareem. Kevin Garnett. Dirk Nowitzki. Amare Stoudemire. Even the Knicks Channing Frye is showing that he’s a better center prospect than his elephantine teammate Eddy Curry.

So I ask the question, where would you draft Joakim Noah in this year’s draft (on any team)?

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Winning or Hope: What Can the Knicks Offer Their Fans?

It is often said that a franchise can sell its fans one of two commodities: Winning or Hope. Having given up on winning, the Knicks redoubled their efforts to peddle hope. Despite being mired in their worst season ever, the powers that be gathered a Willis Reed-sized dollop of chutzpah, and sent letters to season ticket holders outlining their commitment to fielding a competitive team. Signed by both Isaih Thomas and Larry Brown, the message sang a seemingly harmonious rendition of: Tomorrow, tomorrow, the sun will come out tomorrow?

But is there gold at the end of the rainbow? While I realize prognosticating on how the Knicks can improve for next season may be subscribing to the same short-sighted philosophy that drove them into their current quagmire, I believe there are some simple moves that would improve the team without selling the future for the present. Heading into the off-season the Knicks have three holes to shore up ? Perimeter Stopper, Back-up Point Guard, and Interior Defense ? with three resources to do it ? Free Agency, Trades, and the Draft.

I exclude Trades from the analysis, because it takes two to tango, so any proposal is at best a rumor and at worst a fantasy. Also, we will see trades are not necessary to fill these needs. The free-agent market has its own problems as a team can only buy what is being sold, and this year the pickings are particularly slim. The draft is also expected to be marginal, but just because there is no superstar ability, does not mean there is not a density of contributing talent.

When filling the perimeter stopper role, ironically of all the available players, the most qualified athlete was not only traded away from the Knicks, but was stuck on the bench in the first place: Trevor Ariza. No other free agent fits the job description, much less would be available for the mid-level exception. The closest imposter would be the decrepit James Posey, a slowing Bonzi Wells, or the too expensive Caron Butler. So, to fill this need, the Knicks should turn to the draft. Equipped with the projected 21st and 29th picks overall, the drafts of recent years have proven that elite level defensive players are available at these slots: Trevor Ariza (43rd), Tayshaun Prince (23rd), Josh Howard (29th), and Gerald Wallace (25th), Bobby Simmons (41st), while both Ben Wallace and Bruce Bowen were undrafted.

The Knicks other two needs, Back-Up Point Guard and Interior Defense, do not necessitate a trip to the market, but instead a raid of their own cupboards, as they can both be filled in-house. The Knicks already serious roster issues have been further aggravated by mismanagement of their own players. Whether management does not appreciate star talent (Marbury), under-utilize production (Sweetney), bury budding talent (Frye, Lee, Butler, Ariza), or overplay inferior aging veterans (Taylor, M. Rose), the Knicks have run a Stern Business School clinic on how not to handle human resources. I offer these suggestions knowing full well that the chances are slim of the Knicks suddenly turning an about face and proving competent at handling players.

With Marbury and Francis starting in a dual-penetrating backcourt, much like Chris Paul and Speedy Claxton in NOK, the back-up point guard spot should be filled by Jamal Crawford. A team no less successful than the Phoenix Suns demonstrate that when going small and quick, the other team must compensate by substituting out their larger players to keep pace. Playing Crawford twenty minutes a night as a combo guard is a better fit for his skill set of smooth ball-handling and shot creation. Besides, Crawford has demonstrated an affinity for the reserve role this year, enough to merit early season nomination for the Sixth Man Award.

Moreover, consider the production of back-up point guards of many playoff teams and its clear that teams have succeeded with much less production than Crawford offers: Lindsey Hunter, Gary Payton, Jacque Vaughan, and Chucky Atkins, just to name a few.

As for Interior Defense, the answer is addition by subtraction: Replace Curry in the starting line-up with Butler. As an adept rebounder and shot-blocker and a capable if unspectacular offensive player, Butler is certainly worthy of a starting center spot. Pairing him with Channing Frye at power forward would be a strong defensive pairing. Since Curry isn?t a flashy, high-energy guard, it?s often lost that he would be best used as a Sixth Man. His skill set of high per-minute scoring, shot creation, and porous defense, makes him better suited for a reserve role, feasting on the league?s second units and back-up centers. Continuing to start him worsens the high turnover rate and lackadaisical effort that is plateuing his career.

So with the roster?s needs filled through the draft and proper roster management, who should the Knicks focus their mid-level exception on? The answer isn?t obvious, since no player out there can fill a need of theirs, and because, well, the players out there aren?t that good in the first place. I would grab the best available player and pull a Nuggets by trading them to a contender at the trade deadline. Anyone from the following would fit that bill: Lorenzen Wright, Bobby Jackson, Bonzi Wells, Vladimir Radmanovic, or Nazr Mohammed.

The rotation would be thus set: Marbury and Francis, with Crawford as the third guard; Woods, Frye, and Butler, in the frontcourt with Curry and Lee in reserve; then J. Rose coming in as a point-3; Robinson and Draft Picks filling out the end of the bench; and Q-Rich the NBA?s most expensive 12th man. Now, where does this leave room for Malik Rose, Mo Taylor, and Jerome James? It doesn?t. Perhaps Thomas should adapt a New York City tradition of getting rid of old junk: Flea-market anyone? I?d trade any one of those players for a decent armoire on any Sunday afternoon.

Why not trade these albatrosses you ask? Because the only general manager foolish enough to buy a bridge in Brooklyn already works for us.

With these relatively modest moves, the Knicks can employ a very solid rotation. While lacking any All-NBA talent, the roster is also bereft of any open sores, which is more than can be said of many playoff teams. Besides a second consecutive total tank job by their head coach, there is no reason to believe that the talent the Knicks field won?t be able to compete for an Eastern Conference playoff spot in 2006-07, as even our worst enemies admit we are not as bad as our record this season. Tomorrow, indeed, may have a brighter future than one would expect.