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

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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.

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

  1. “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.”

    … and so could probably a dozen other people.

  2. Crockett:
    The question that I would pose is: Is Jim Dolan capable of setting forth a hard budget for Thomas or any other GM? Look at the Knicks or Rangers during his tenure as Garden chairman–huge payrolls with limited success as teams, yet they are still financially viable because of their huge market. If people will still pay to see the Knicks lose, and the Garden and the ubiquitous Cablevision remain extremely profittable–why change when you’re making money?

    If you look at Jim Dolan’s other enterprises away from running Cablevision and the Garden, the yacht competitions and his “JD and the Straight Shot” band, it reeks of a wealthy man living out his boyhood fantasies because he has the money to do so. His money enables him to be a rockstar, competitive sportsman, and socialize in the fraternity of professional athletes. As someone pointed out on this blog months ago, Dolan is enamored with having an NBA superstar like Isiah Thomas as his GM. And because the Garden isn’t exactly hurting financially (especially with their huge tax subsidies), Dolan will continue giving Thomas free reign with the payroll.

    Since the Layden era, free spending is what has really put the Knicks in the quagmire they find themselves in today. Yet it seems like anyone in the organization who disagrees with the Dolan’s methods is shown the door (like what happened with Marv Albert or alot of Dolan’s subordinates at MSG). While I agree with you when you say,

    “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 don’t think that it will fly with an owner like Dolan.

    But hopefully I’m wrong:)

  3. John-

    Funny; my highlighted word is “tumor.” That may be an apt description of Dolan.

    If Dolan is indeed on some fantasy trip I can’t imagine that his (basketball) fantasy ended with a 59 loss season. Fun is fun, but he can’t be *that* eager to continue throwing his money out the window. Most business people don’t have to be pushed that hard to stop spending when it has been so clearly counterproductive.

  4. Is a “hard budget” even necessary? The Knicks aren’t losing money and Dolan doesn’t seem to mind paying the luxury tax.

    What hurts the team is acquiring untradeable contracts. That’s why the Francis trade is so much worse than the Jalen Rose trade. Jalen’s contract expires this year so it’s either tradeable or even waivable. I can’t see how the Knicks can get rid of either or both of Marbury’s and Francis’ contracts. But if they were complementary players (a big if, I know), how would a hard budget that would prevent the team from having both players actually help the team?

    By the way, does the “Functional Model” ever work anywhere other than Detroit? I like the idea, but I can’t think of any other examples where it works. (San Antonio is not very functional without their superstar Tim Duncan.) Perhaps Portland in the late 90s or Indiana in the mid-90s. Any others?

  5. Excellent analysis. I think that’s right on target. I don’t think there is any choice but the “Functional” or “Style” models since we won’t be seeing a pick that gets us a “Superstar” anytime before 2008 at best. Rebuilding Atlanta style for three more years+ isn’t realistic.

    I would add that I think there is an additional corollary to the “Low Cost Model” — a parallel situation which can only exist in cities like NY and LA. Pay lots of money for big name stars. Then sit back and watch the seats fill up just to see those big name stars, whether they win or not.

    The Yankees are working on perfecting this model — note that they are filling more seats and selling more merchandise than ever, despite the title drought since 2000. Sheffield, A-Rod, Giambi, etc. sell tickets. Starbury, Francis, Rose are expected to do the same. But in order for this model to work, you have to be somewhat competitive — you don’t have to win it all, but you have to make the playoffs every year since that late revenue is crucial.

  6. Marc R-

    a hard budget (meaning zero growth) is intended precisely to avoid taking on untradeable contracts. I’ll make the argument in the conc. that having lots of money provides real flexibility in really only one area: erasing mistakes; primarily b/c that’s done off-the-cap. So, one or more of those onerous contracts may need to be bought out if they prove impossible to trade. What the Knicks should NOT be doing is adding money and/or years to the cap.

    I’d written more about Duncan and the Spurs but then deleted it b/c of length. One thing I want to get across is that the functional model has superstars. Its distinction from the superstar model is in how well-defined (or delimited) the superstar’s role is. Duncan, though clearly a superstar, is a traditional F/C. Each player on that team plays a pretty traditional role. That’s the functional model. By contrast, in Minnesota, Kevin Garnett’s role is far less strictly delimited. He does just about everything but sell popcorn.

    Admittedly, there is overlap but the categories are really meant to distinguish between pre- and post-Jordan appraoches to building teams. I’m no NBA historian but I strongly suspect that the Jordan Bulls were the first teams built around a player where traditional basketball positional roles were in essence ignored. Not only did their superstar defy convention, so did their role players (even to some extent before Tex brought the triangle). Pre-Jordan the functional model and the style model were really the only games in town.

    Whether the functional model works depends a lot on your definition of work. Winning a title may set the bar a bit high. The Jordan era kinda skews everything toward the superstar model but prior to those Bulls teams the functional model was THE way to build a basketball team.

  7. Dave-

    I certainly look forward to the conclusion, but I don’t think you need a hard budget to avoid taking on untradeable contracts. Rather, the Knicks should avoid taking on duplicative (or simply poor) players with large contracts. That’s what makes a contract untradeable. It would therefore be ok to pay Earl Watson what the team pays Jerome James even though the latter is untradeable but the former is not. (I’m also eager to see how erasing mistakes is done off the cap considering the Knicks’ cap is still charged with Shandon Anderson and Allan Houston.)

    As for the pre-Jordan era, I’m not sure that time frame was a golden era of the functional model (except, as now, for the lucky fans living around Detroit). The championship teams for the prior decade came from Boston, LA, and Philadelphia and each featured one of the ten greatest players ever.

    Perhaps the pre-Magic era was the real height of the functional concept, with championship teams bereft of transcendent stars such as Golden State, the Bullets, the SuperSonics, and the post-Russell and pre-Bird Celtics. I’m not sure that this historic example is really relevant nowadays though.

    Jordan aside, I think the real reason that the “superstar model” is so popular now is that teams can’t afford more than one or two max-salary players and are usually pressured to pay at least one of their players the max out of fear that he’ll leave. If it’s the right player (Shaq, Duncan), the team has a chance to win the championship. If it’s not (McGrady, Ray Allen), they’re only likely to go a round or two in the playoffs and they’re stuck with the same “superstar” for years.

    The Knicks have a fairly unusual situation in that they can afford many “superstar” salaries even if the players aren’t genuine superstars. They can then make them mesh into a functional squad. Of course, this requires the right mix of players and a coach who isn’t a primma donna.

  8. My rebuilding plan:
    To hell with Isiah, LB, Francis, Curry, both Roses, James, Steph, Q-Rich, Taylor, Qyntel, and Crawford. Fire the first two and wait for everyone else’s contract to expire, systematically expunging the roster of all dead weight even remotely associated with the Thomas (basically Layden II, but worse) regime. In the meantime, hire the least-heralded GM and most youth-oriented coaching staff available. Hoard draft picks, trading away any of today’s flotsam with any trade value for cheapo players and draft choices. Rebuild in earnest. Get under the luxury-tax threshold, then the cap. Be patient. Go the low-cost route, but have the comparative advantage of statistical analysis. Hire a Morey type, go all Moneyball for seven or so years. Focus on scouting and player development in the front office and the coaching staff. It’s pretty simple, really: much like a job-less, woman-less George Costanza, do everything the complete opposite of what you’ve been doing and it couldn’t possibly make things worse. Things can’t get any worse, can they?

    This is something the Knicks haven’t ever done, but it couldn’t possibly be worse than today’s binge-spending unmitigated disaster. Dolan needs to stop letting the New York media run the damn team, stop hiring moron “established” GM’s who wouldn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground, stop signing middle-class and/or past their prime free agents to multi-year, cap-murdering deals, and treat this like a freaking NBA franchise for once… A team of NBDL castoffs would be better than 2006’s trainwreck; at least they’d be under the cap! It’s time to stop letting the inmates run the asylum, and give the fans their money’s worth, dammit.

  9. The issue in choosing a plan to rebuild the Knicks is that Isiah and LB’s visions for th e team are fundamentally different. If this issue is resolved the rebuilding can begin in earnest. The Knicks are unlikley to be under the cap for teh remainder of teh decade so a classic rebuild appears quite unlikely. A Larry Brown style rebuild appears most realistic at this stage. It is suprising to hear the level of angst re about the Knicks financial largesse because once focussed towards a clear vision- the Knicks $ should accelerate the rebuilding process.

  10. Isiah has a vision?

    But really…Goo I feel your frustration…I have felt it myself. But there’s simply no way we see ourselves under the cap before 2010. Given that inescapable fact, we would have to wait at least three years before we could even start to implement your plan and it would be 2012 before we could see any hope of success.

    We might as well try something else in the interim — something that doesn’t keep pushing that salary cap date further and further into the future — but something more along the lines of what Dave is talking about.

  11. Goo – the teams that use the Moneyball approach are usually the ones that need to do so due to economics (Oakland A’s, Seattle Sonics) or because they are a very well run organization (BoSox under Theo or the Spurs). It doesn’t happen in circus atmospheres, because since Moneyball is such an outside approach it needs everyone to buy in from the top down.

  12. I totally agree with the “find a vision/plan” and stick to it. Whether it includes firing I. Thomas and/or Larry Brown doesn’t really matter…as long as we have a plan in place to move forward. Honestly, I think this is the SOLE reason for our team being 2nd worst in the league. I mean, its not like our roster is comparable to a Charlotte, Atlanta, Toronto, or even Portland. We actually have talent…almost TOO MUCH talent.

    Having said that, I think this is the evidence of Thomas’ “vision”. Virtually, every move Thomas made before this year (besides the Jerome James signing) was done to “get younger and more athletic” or to add draft picks. He basically accomplished his goal but had no other plan beyond that it seems.

    Now with the addition of Larry Brown, his style of coaching/ego is almost contradictory to what Thomas has done. With LB trashing all of these young and athletic players in the press and not having any sort of playing rotation, we made 2 pretty asinine deals this year for Jalen Rose and Steve Francis trying to get Brown players he wants and basically going against what Thomas has stated his “plan” is. Now we are stuck in limbo with a team full of pretty good “young and athletic” players, a few overpaid malcontents, and a coach who pretty much did one of the worst coaching jobs in NBA history (starting players based on their college or hometown affiliation??).

    Anyway, one thing I think can’t be compared is this team, while very bad record wise, to the Layden era teams. Those teams were filled with marginal role players who were WAY over paid and not fun to watch at all. At least these overpaid players are young and exciting (or at least show flashes of excitement) and have the infamous “upside” label.

    One thing’s for sure: the Knicks have stayed in the media since IT took over. I mean with the 15 trades, and now coaching circus/soap opera, we are guaranteed to have at least 12 headlines a day. We had to be the most publicized last place team in the history of the NBA. Maybe this was Dolan’s goal all along?? Just to stay in the media and bring attention to himself…it sure doesn’t hurt his ticket sales at MSG.

    Once someone gets a TRUE plan/vision and sticks to it we will forever toil in the NBA cellar with the highest payroll.

    One side note to mention: I think that ex-players make the WORST GMs in the NBA. With the exception of Jerry West, all of the ex-players have done a horrible job of running their respective teams. Here’s my list of ex-players “playing” GM and have no clue what the hell they are doing.

    Danny Ainge
    Kevin McHale
    Paxon brothers
    Kiki Vandeweghe
    Chris Mullin
    Elgin Baylor (not really his fault)

    Larry Bird doesn’t really count since Donnie Walsh makes all the moves and Joe Dumars is the only exception.

    Here is a rundown of all GMs:

  13. I know Steph is from Coney Island and all, but he can’t hang his hat on that
    “I’m a homeboy” bit and expect it to pay dividends. He’s a L7 loser, and Larry Brown
    is at the very least a winning coach with a proven track record. Isaiah was a helluva PG.
    In the front office of every organization he’s been a part of he’s wreaked havoc
    (Toronto/Indiana/NYK. These Knick have an uphill battle in front of ’em and the Dolan clan doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in rssurrecting a once proud franchise.

    Trade Steph, can Isaiah and keep Brown. Rose and Francis come of the books fairly soon, other albatross contracts do too. A couple of pieces have trade value still (Nate and Crawford, Frye) if the Knicks can get something (anything) for they, they should try. They need to blow this thing up and start over. Ewing, Oakley, Starks, Mason, they ain’t coming back. This current crop has nowhere near the juice to make a run as any Knicks incarnation since Patrick got the boot. Send ’em all back.

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