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
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.