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