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.