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

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Part-time blogger on the Knicks at Knickerblogger.net and Seahawks at FieldGulls.com. In my free time I hang out at the University of South Carolina and occasionally fill thirsty young minds with knowledge about various and sundry things related to consumer behavior and marketing.

24 thoughts to “Observations On The Eve of the Summer of Our Discontent (Part I)”

  1. I’ve had similar success. 69-13, Champions in NBA Live ’06, AND under the cap. I even got us Okafor and traded Jerome James for Brent Barry.

    I think the most unfortunate part of our losing/rebuilding/letting-teams-beat-us-a-lot situation (other than Channing’s injury/falling numbers) is how all of the problems and solutions seem linked together in a chain-reation sense.

    What I mean is, if we fire Zeke, that leads to LB possibly leaving or Marbury being traded if LB doesn’t leave. If Marbury is traded, then Zeke is outed and LB is either moved up or moved out. If LB’s health gives out, Zeke might as well forget about making Christmas cards for his office mates this year, and that means bad things for Marbury down the road. If one of them is touched, they’re all touched.

    So, we’re stuck in the mud because one change addressed means several changes down the road, and I’m sure Dolan’s offseason goals list doesn’t include “Blow the whole ship up with one quote in a single media interview” anywhere on it.

    So, the only safe option is to keep giving Isiah second chances in regards to free agency or trading, since that creates the least amount of waves. Recent history hasn’t indicated that that’s the *best* way to go.

  2. I find this analysis pretty disturbing — probably because it’s so damn accurate.

    You’re right to take the lack of direction back to the ownership level, and you’re right about the lack of talented GM material available.

    If I held the trigger in my hands, I would go out and look for a real businessman…young, brilliant and totally devoted to the game. Forget experience as a basketball personnel guy. Most of the best up and coming GMs don’t come up through their sports anymore — they bring solid understanding of how to manage an organization to a sports franchise. Spotting talent? That’s what the scouting team is for.

    Being a GM means taking the best input from quality people, weighing it objectively, then putting together (as you pointed out) a plan to achieve success and sticking with it. You have to negotiate deals (not a sports experience skillset) and manage a bunch of different departmental functions each with their own strategic heads and pet ideas. This is primarily a MANAGEMENT SKILLS position, and I am frankly amazed at the number of teams that think an ex-jock is the most qualified person for the job. The successful ones like Joe Dumars are an exception to the rule, not the norm.

    Or that’s my opinion anyway. :-)

  3. “Forget experience as a basketball personnel guy. Most of the best up and coming GMs don?t come up through their sports anymore ? they bring solid understanding of how to manage an organization to a sports franchise.”

    Aren’t the best basketball GMs Kiki Vandeweghe and Joe Dumars? They were both all-stars in the NBA. Of course, Isiah and Bird have shown us that being an all-star is clearly not sufficient to be a good GM . . .

  4. I meant across all sports and I said most not all…in fact I think I mentioned Dumars by name did I not? :-)

  5. As I see it, Thomas is more desperate now than ever to pull of some kind of big trade with what little bargaining chips he has left. Though firing Thomas now would create a personnel void, it would, at the very least, ensure that he doesn’t make another series of ill-advised trades this summer.

    However, I can’t see Dolan firing Thomas after publicly supporting him so much this season. In all liklihood, Dolan will continue to give Thomas free reign and a blank check this summer, and my guess is that the Knicks will not take steps towards rebuilding, the only strategy that makes any sense at this point.

    The sad part is, if Dolan and Thomas had earnestly begun rebuilding three years ago, we might already be in a good position as a franchise.

    In a way, the competitive success that the Rangers are having of late is probably bad for the Knicks in that Jim Dolan will continue to think this F&*ked-up financial model he is using will pay off in the end (though Jaromir Jagr probably has more to do with it).

    A 23-59 season, an “ailing” coach who was ineffective when he was healthy, a roster full of untradeable, overrated guys signed through 2010, no cap space for the forseeable future, an incompetent GM, and an owner who stole from his own father. Sad state.

  6. “This is primarily a MANAGEMENT SKILLS position, and I am frankly amazed at the number of teams that think an ex-jock is the most qualified person for the job.”

    I think you get a good number of business types on the business side of sports. It is just rare that they have much say-so on personnel matters, which tend to be dominated by a traditional scouting approach. MLB has probably been at the cutting edge of blending analytical approaches based on advanced stats with traditional scouting than either of the other two sports. The NBA has lagged behind in that regard but I suspect that the tide is beginning to turn.

  7. Rebuilding that way never, ever, ever, works. The primacy of the draft is overrated. The chances of finding good players every time is slim. Even if you accomplish that, finding good players who fit together is even more difficult. You wind up with a team full of young players each with a lot of individual talent, 0 experience, and no clue on how to play within a system.

    Instead I like the approach of drafting players for the sole purpose of trading them. Not the Thomas way, but trading picks for established players WITH A PLAN on how they will be used. Since you already know what they can provide.

  8. “As I see it, Thomas is more desperate now than ever to pull of some kind of big trade with what little bargaining chips he has left.”

    In fact, one of the signature things about what Isiah has done is that he can’t make any “small” trades at this point unless he wants to trade one of the 2005 draft picks, which he has thus far shown admirable reluctance to do. Since everybody on the team has such a big contract, the salary cap forces the Knicks to take back either a comparably paid player or many lower-paid players, which the Knicks don’t have room for.

    So, if the Knicks make a trade this summer, it will almost definitely have to be a “big” trade. Small-name players don’t usually have Knicks-size contracts. The best we can hope for is that we’ll get a well-paid but misunderstood player from another team looking for the cap relief that Jalen’s and Mo Taylor’s contracts will soon provide. That’s how Detroit got Rasheed and Sacramento got Artest. Not sure who those players are this summer (Garnett, maybe?).

    By the way, Count Zero, I apologize for not noticing that you mentioned Dumars. I’m still not sure if there’s an archetype for a good NBA GM though and the ones that spring to mind happen to be former all-stars like Joe D, Kiki, and Jerry West. Grunfeld too, but he was only an all-star at the Maccabi Games.

  9. I think Zeke is a great GM. He has accumulated massive talent for the Knicks. I honestly do blame this season on Larry Brown solely. What the Knicks need to do is…

    1. Fire Larry Brown.
    2. Hire a hands off coach who will start Starbury, Francis, Rose, Lee, and Frye and let them run run run!
    3. Proceed to win 45 games.

  10. Do you think Crawford would be ready/willing to start at the point next year? He’s certainly showing signs.
    If so, theres absolutely no reason for Marbury or Francis to be here.

  11. A lot of the terrible former player GMs have been big men (Kiki was only tall). Unseld, Reed, Baylor, McHale (how does he have a job? bad drafts, questionable trades and oh, a little scam which only cost him 10 number draft picks).

  12. Seth-

    I hope the Knicks find a way to allow Crawford to continue doing just what he’s doing; score off the bench. I think it asks too much of him defensively to when he starts, especially alongside weak defenders like Marbury and Francis.

    More than anything it appears that Crawford’s improvement has been almost exclusively due to shot selection. The biggest change was that he went from 7+ 3pt attempts last season to something just over 2 (iirc). Much of the rest of his floor game is about the same–or in some instances (e.g., turnovers) worse than his career.

  13. I have to be frank with all of your guys responses.
    1) I do not sense as much justly deserved animosity here for I.Thomas or the Dolans as there should be. It appeared to me with the Curry, Rose, and Francis trades that Thomas was intentionally attempting to destroy the future of this team. As if Laden’s 7 year contract to Allen Houston was not encarcerating enough on our team. The Marbury trade? I will live with because it was an effort to turn things around- but Thomas has loaded this team with players who have never proven that they can win on any team.
    2) Contrary to popular belief- I do believe there is a way out of this- First off, Thomas should be fired yesterday and Brown should be given GM duties or Stan Van Gundy. Secondly, Thomas is a horrible exec but so are many others…such as McHale, Kupchack, and the list goes on- so if we can just get a decent GM- we can rip off one of the many other crappy GMs such as I. Thomas in the offseason…do any of you really believe that Kiki won’t trade for Marbury? Marbury will be the easy ditch- Rose will get some interest for a 3rd rounder. Jerome James may like to re-unite with McMillian in Portland, and Co’langelo may make a move with Toronto to get back QRich.
    You just watch.

  14. There?s a fundamental rule when it comes to winning championships in the NBA. Your team needs to have one of the best if not the best player in the league. Bird, Magic, Jordan, Olajuwon, Shaq, Kobe, Duncan. With the exception of the Detroit Pistons, each championship team in the last 20 years has had the best (or arguably the best) player in the league at the time they won it all. And with the exception of the Lakers with Shaq, they all acquired their franchise players through the draft.

    So what is the point of my rant? The only way the Knicks will become a championship contender (and let?s not kid ourselves ? we would only be content if they were championship contenders and not simply playoff contenders) is if they acquire a superstar through the draft. Which is why the Eddie Curry trade is so disheartening. The Knicks could have tanked next year (or intentionally tank a la Cleveland Cavs in 2004) and would have had a great shot of drafting Greg Oden, who, by judging from all the hype around this kid, is the real deal. But in all likelihood, the Knicks will have the first pick in 2007, Chicago will swap the pick and Greg Oden will fall into Chicago?s lap just like Jordan did back in the day.

  15. I think the chances of the Knicks having the #1 pick next year are slim.

    As shitty as this Knicks team was, it wasn’t even the shittiest team in the league, and the Knicks shouldn’t have BEEN this shitty.

    So I think that the Knicks should be able to improve next year, enough so that they are not giving up the #1 pick in the draft to the Bulls.

  16. “…do any of you really believe that Kiki won?t trade for Marbury? Marbury will be the easy ditch- Rose will get some interest for a 3rd rounder. Jerome James may like to re-unite with McMillian in Portland, and Co?langelo may make a move with Toronto to get back QRich. You just watch.”

    Thomas, I mean no harm whatsoever in this, but…

    I doubt the Denver Nuggets would want to acquire Marbury’s services since they have a solid 4 gaurd rotation (Miller-Boykins-DeMarr Johnson-Howard Eisley) and are psuedo-contenders in the West already, so acquiring a player like Stephon would only needlessly break things up.

    Also, for Rose, if by third rounder you mean a third round draft pick, that’s impossible because the draft only has two rounds. And no one wants Jerome James. Only Isaiah and his mother could love him at this point, and his mother’s been impatient with him lately.

    Also, the reason we can’t just trade away the bad players and wash our hands of them is because being over the cap, all of the trades we could attempt must be within 10% of a salary match between the players offered and recieved. So, if we trade QR’s $7 million a year, we need to recieve at least over $6 million back in return for the trade to go through. That’s the problem we face right now with all of our bad contracts. The only trades not involving the “rookie 3” possible are large scale, large salary proposals.

    As for the anymosity for Dolan and Isaiah, not enough has been shown because, relatively speaking, enough not is possible, so it’s impossible to give anything more than not enough. It makes sense to me anyways.

  17. Bruno-

    Let’s make that stat even more scary with the stat I’ve been throwing around lately. The last 19 championships have been won by 5, yes 5 teams. 6 by the Bulls, 5 by the Lakers, 3 by Detroit, 2 by Houston, and 3 by SA. If you add the Celtics 2 and Sixers 1 in the 80’s you can say that the last 26 have been won by only 7 teams. In fact going all the way back to 1959 only adds 7 more teams. So only 14 teams in 47 years (and this year probably won’t change that stat since Detroit or SA will win).

    Just wanted to add some facts to support your post. Bottom line is that the history of the NBA championship is the history of the Bulls (Jordan Era), the Celtics and the Lakers. 15 championships for the Celtics and 9 for the Lakers since 1959. That’s half the championships for two teams!

    Facing the reality might help the Knicks fans and management realize building a competitive team should be the goal, and then try to get lucky to turn that team into a contender. Trying to just build a championship team is impossible.

  18. I hope eventually the Knicks will stop all these trades that they have been doing for the last two years, it is evident that the front office and LB have a conflict about the style of basketball they want to play. It seems to me that Isiah wanted to play an uptempo style originnally before LB came and now LB prefer to play a slow down grind it out style with players that do not suit that style. Maybe it’s time to change the coach or he should coach to suit the type of player he has.

  19. Isiah Thomas has made so many stupid mistakes when it comes to the make-up of the Knicks, Acquiring Kenyon Marting and his bad knees would just be the icing on the cake. Everyone uses Marbury as the scape-goat for the Knicks disastrous season, but he is not to blame. LB is a hall of fame coach but he is not the right fit for the knicks. They played better with Herb Williams coaching last year.

  20. Is there any way a serious boycott could be started that could ever push Jim Dolan out the door?

    Somebody needs to get Spike Lee on board. The masses would follow.

    I have Time Warner cable and frankly have no need for MSG or FSNY. Getting those off extended basic could be a start.

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