Preseason

Although the season is still a month away, the Knicks preseason is almost upon us. Here are some thoughts to keep in mind until the season begins.

The Bubble Boys

With 18 players on the roster, there are definitely some players on the bubble. Let’s assume that Chandler, Crawford, Curry, Duhon, Gallinari, Jeffries, Lee, Marbury, Randolph, Richardson, and Robinson make the team. Jeffries will start the season on the injured list, and let’s assume Gallinari joins him (or ends up in the D-League). That leaves 3 spots on the 12 man roster, and 1 spot on the innactive roster for Collins, Ewing Jr., Grunfeld, Houston, James, Roberson, and Rose. If my math is correct, three of those players are going to be cut.

Of the veterans Rose is likely to make the team outright, and reports have Jerome James playing a lot in practice. With Walsh’s comments about his dislike of buying out players, it’s likely the team will play James or force him to retire due to injury. Mardy Collins’ can defend but do little else, and with Duhon on the roster the Knicks already have a perimeter defender. Meanwhile Allan Houston is pretending he’s 34 years old again, but unfortunately he was out of the league at that point of his career.

Of the youngsters, Roberson’s preseason play earned himself a guaranteed contract. With the trade of Balkman and the injuries to Jeffries and Gallinari, the Knicks are thin at small forward. This could be good news for Ewing Jr. However both players are far from a guaranteed spot, and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if both were cut. Dan Grunfeld could probably beat his dad in a one on one game, but probably not anyone else on the roster.

With a new regime, it’s hard to guess what the Knicks will do. My guess is that Rose, James, Roberson, and Ewing Jr. make the cut. They can stash Roberson or Ewing Jr. in the D-League or leave them inactive. But if the Knicks wanted to go young, they might jettison James/Rose for Collins. Or maybe they see the team too offensively heavy at guard (Crawford, Marbury, Robinson) and not enough defense (Duhon) and keep Collins instead of Roberson. Or they might want a smaller lineup and leave Ewing off in lieu of one of the guards. Definitely something Knick fans want to keep track of during the preseason.

The Starting Lineup

It’s obvious that Jamal Crawford will be the starting SG, and you have to think that Quentin Richardson’s familiarity with D’Antoni’s system gives him the edge at SF over the inexperienced Wilson Chandler. At point guard, the team has signed Chris Duhon and coach D’Antoni has been playing him exclusively as the first team point guard. However the Knicks have refused to buy out Stephon Marbury, and the Knicks starting PG of the last four and a half years is still on the roster. For Marbury to get his starting job he just needs to impress his new coach and win over his teammates that he’s alienated over the last few seasons. And President Ahmadinejad might join B’nai B’rith International.

As for the frontcourt, most likely the Knicks will start Zach Randolph, even if only to keep his trade value high. D’Antoni was experimenting with Jared Jeffries at center before Jeffries’ broke his leg, so it looks as if that spot is open for competition.

Ever since Mike D’Antoni was announced as the Knicks’ head coach, pundits have wondered out loud how Eddy Curry would handle the physicality of an up-tempo offense. Curry has been unable to practice due to an illness so you wonder if he’ll get enough practice to be ready by the start of the season. Most likely the Knicks will turn to David Lee to play alongside Randolph.

The Offense

There’s no question that D’Antoni’s offense was successful in Phoenix. The Suns finished either first or second in offensive efficiency in the years he was coach. But the question remains how the 7 second offense will work in New York. D’Antoni won’t have a single All Star to work with, where he had three with the Suns (including a two time MVP). Additionally the Knicks’ offense hasn’t been very good. They’ve only been above average on offense twice since 2000. This makes sense because the Knick offense has been stuck in the 90s with isolations and post scoring emphasis. It’ll be particularly interesting to see how Randolph, Crawford, Curry, and even Marbury responds. The preseason might shed some light on how D’Antoni’s offense will work with average players.

The Youngsters

It seems that during Isiah’s tenure the Knicks youngsters has been stuck behind veterans. Just about every draftee over the last 5 years has had to struggle to earn playing time: David Lee, Wilson Chandler, Renaldo Balkman, Nate Robinson, Randolph Morris, Mardy Collins, Trevor Ariza, Mike Sweetney, and Frank Williams. And it’s not as if New York has had a winning team in that time span.

If the Knicks are rebuilding then it makes sense for the kids to get a lot of run, especially in preseason. Most likely David Lee will win a starting spot, so he should be getting plenty of playing time. I’ll be curious how much playing time Robinson, Chandler, and Collins get, and how they perform inside the Knick offense. It’ll also be nice to get a look at Roberson, Ewing, and Gallinari to gauge their strengths against stronger NBA competition. That is if all these players are on the roster (and in Gallinari’s case healthy).

The Schedule

Oct. 8 Toronto Air Canada Centre, Toronto, ONT 7:00 p.m.
Oct. 10 Philadelphia Wachovia Center, Philadelphia, PA 7:00 p.m.
Oct. 14 Philadelphia Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 17 Boston TD Banknorth Garden, Boston, MA 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 20 New Jersey IZOD Center, East Rutherford, NJ 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 21 Boston Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 24 New Jersey Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 7:30 p.m.

Euro Trip

What’s the best course of action for America’s best 18 year old basketball player? The answer depends on what year it is. Decades ago a player probably would have gone to college for 4 years to refine their game, possibly get an education, and prepare themselves for the NBA. Although Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins skipped college and went straight to the pros in the mid 70s, this wasn’t a common decision. In fact for 20 years no other player took this direct route. Even Shawn Kemp and Lloyd Daniels went to college, although neither played in an NCAA game due to off the court issues.

But as time passed, the options for an 18 year old baller increased. Due to some combination of the NCAA increasing its eligibility standards for incoming athletes, the popularization of high school athletics, the increasing amount of underclassman opting out of college, and rising NBA salaries, many players opted to go straight to the pros. When Kevin Garnett decided in 1995 to forgo college and apply for the NBA draft it was a controversial decision. But over the next few years as Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and Jermaine O’Neal made the same jump (and with a good degree of success) it became more common for players to skip college.

Consider the options at this time for a high school senior that was likely to be drafted in the first round. They could go to college where competing against Division I players could expose a player’s flaws. Waiting an extra year could result in a deeper draft class, and the player would get drafted later. Or the player could suffer an injury, and they would never get drafted at all. Each of these could cause a player to potentially lose millions of dollars. On the other hand a player’s NCAA play could enhance his draft standing, sending him to the top of the draft. Because most first rounders earn at least $1M a year, the difference between $4M and $1M in terms of life changing opportunities isn’t worth the risk of losing it all. For most athletes, the smart choice meant going to the NBA as soon as possible.

This progression continued for about 10 years until the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement set the age limit to 19 for a player to join the NBA. Hence players could no longer make the jump directly from high school to the NBA. Basketball pundits thought this move was to force players to go to college, and the term “one and done” (a prospect who went to college for one year only because they weren’t eligible to apply for the NBA draft) gained popularity. However it may not have been NBA Commissioner David Stern’s intention to send prospective employees to college. In fact when asked about the “one and done” phenomenon recently on Pardon the Interruption, Stern remarked something to the effect of “this is not an NBA problem it’s an NCAA problem.”

And indeed it is. Not only have college players shortened their amateur career, but many have skipped it entirely. Take for example the most famous underclass team: Michigan’s Fab Five. The three most talented players (Webber, Howard, and Rose) all left before their senior year. It’s no longer news when a player applies for the draft. These days it’s news when a player stays around for another year (e.g. 2006 Gators). In this last NBA draft, 4 of the top 5 players were underclassmen on Final Four teams. This attrition must hurt the pool of talent available to NCAA schools.

However there may be another option in the future for young basketball players. Earlier this week the New York Times said that top point guard prospect Brandon Jennings was considering playing in Europe, and yesterday ESPN has confirmed that Jennings has made his decision to go overseas. There are three factors which have opened up this possibility for Jennings. The first is the increased NCAA academic standards. (“Jennings has committed to play at Arizona and his adviser, Kelly Williams, has said that he will find out if Jennings qualified on Friday.”) The second is the age limit to the NBA. (“Even if he enrolls at Arizona, Jennings is expected to spend only one year with the Wildcats.”) The third is that the NCAA doesn’t pay its student athletes, while European teams do. According to the New York Times, “[Jennings] would most likely get a minimum of $300,000, including salary and endorsements”. Although Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress says he can’t see a top European club offering Jennings more than $100,000.

Naturally college coaches are against such a move. (“[Memphis Coach John Calipari] cited the language barrier, games against more physically dominant competition, and the cultural adjustment for a teenager.”) But for a single year in Europe, a player could make enough money to pay for four years of college (one year at Rutgers University costs $20,096). Playing against more skilled players would make them more NBA ready. Teenagers frequently compete in European professional leagues. Knicks draft pick Danilo Gallinari was playing in Italian Serie B1 League at the age of 15. Spain’s Ricky Rubio debuted in the Euroleague at 16. And of course living in another country is a great life experience. Consider that college students typically consider studying abroad as an opportunity.

Ultimately the NCAA is largely responsible for creating these conditions. They make billions off of student athletes while paying them relatively next to nothing. For years they’ve been able to exploit athletes whose desire is to play professionally by controlling a monopoly to the doorsteps of the NBA. The relationship between the NCAA & young athletes have been a one sided affair. According to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban

Every student who goes to school, post high school is given every opportunity and encouraged to maximize their effort and optimize their resources to achieve their goals. Unless of course they happen to attend a school that is a member of the NCAA and their goal is to be a professional athlete.

Jennings could become his generation’s Kevin Garnett and high school players might consider going overseas the better choice to a year of college. Should he return to the NBA, it will become a viable option, especially for those worried about meeting academic standards. What happens next is unclear. It’s highly unlikely that the NCAA makes a major change, since they won’t pay their athletes. One possibility is the emergence of a basketball minor league, but this interview with the former GM of the Utah Flash shows that the NBDL isn’t ready to fill the void.

An example, we had Brandon Wallace on assignment from the Celtics, he was a draft pick and they sent him to us. He was on our roster, he played for us. And in January, late December, the Celtics cut him and we had no rights to him. And that didn’t make any sense to us. We tried to make it work, we talked to his agent, but we just couldn’t get it worked out. And I think that was a source of embarrassment for the league.

With European leagues breaking up the NCAA’s monopoly on young basketball players, don’t expect things to stay the same. Depending on the contract, European teams can receive up to $500,000 from NBA teams for a drafted player. With Jennings opening the door, foreign teams will have incentive to recruit America’s best underage basketball prospects. Eventually some organization is going to want to keep these players from going oversees. The NBA would have a motive since they would be paying an extra half million dollars for some of their draft picks. The NCAA might want to make a change before their basketball empire crumbles. And the NBDL could take advantage of this opportunity to make themselves a proper minor league. One thing is for certain, future 18 year old basketball prodigies will have more than one option to consider.

Cross-Conference Deals: Did the East Get Stronger?

Looking back on a frenzied trade season in the NBA I thought I’d take a conference-level approach rather than a team-by-team one, just for kicks and giggles. The dominant perspective among all of us NBA blowhards—bloggers, fans, and press alike—is that the West not only has better teams but also the better top-to-bottom talent. Then the Celtics landed KG and Ray Allen, and some of us thought the deal might reverse the flow of talent back to the East as teams responded to it. After a busy trade season where a lot of players actually did switch conferences I wondered how much those deals have narrowed the on-paper talent gap.

Overall, I think the Eastern Conference certainly managed to stop the bleeding, and perhaps even close the gap a bit. Perhaps most significantly, focusing solely on in-season deals, the second tier eastern teams made moves to restore credibility. That’s important because that’s where I think eastern teams can compete. For instance, New Jersey positioned itself to rebuild reasonably quickly with a solid off-season. Atlanta put itself in a position to get its feet wet in the playoffs and continue to develop its core.

I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at the talent that has flowed across conference lines since the season began. Again, my interest is in overall improvement in talent for each conference—not each team. I use two quick-and-dirty indicators of talent: career player efficiency rating (PER) to indicate productivity, and age as a loose indicator of what we should expect from a player in the future. (Due to my interest in the conference, I ignore deals involving teams in the same conference.) This is more of a broad look–not an in-depth statistical profile.

Players Moving East (Age, Career PER)
Gordan Giricek (30, 11.8)
Wally Szczerbiak (30, 16.5)
Mike Bibby (29, 17.1)
Maurice Evans (29, 12.8)
Shawn Marion (29, 20.9)
Trenton Hassell (28, 8.8)
Stromile Swift (28, 16.4)
Brian Cook (27, 14.4)
Marcus Banks (26, 12.1)
DeSagana Diop (26, 10.3)
Devin Harris (24, 16.6)
Delonte West (24, 13.8)
Maurice Ager (23, 1.0)

Average age: 25.2, Average PER: 12.33
(Note: I did not include Keith Van Horn, who is not likely to play for the Nets)

Of the 14 players moving to the East the “prize” acquisitions are either entering their primes (e.g., Harris) or likely have another 2-3 seasons left in it (e.g., Bibby, Marion). Five of the 14 have career PERs at or above league average (15). All but two are under 30. Granted, none have a ceiling comparable to Shaq or Jason Kidd but the list includes a number of useful role players including West, Diop, Swift, and Cook who are still fairly young.

Players Moving West
Shaquille O’Neal (35, 27.4)
Jason Kidd (34, 18.7)
Donyell Marshall (34, 16.8)
Adrian Griffin (33, 11.9)
Anthony Johnson (33, 11.3)
Ira Newble (33, 9.6)
Lorenzen Wright (32, 13.4)
Tyronn Lue (30, 13.1)
Malik Allen (29, 10.8)
Jason Collins (29, 7.6)
Kyle Korver (26, 12.7)
Shelden Williams (24, 11.8)
Antoine Wright (23, 7.2)
Trevor Ariza (22, 14.2)

Average age: 29.8, Average PER: 13.2

When looking at the in-season deals involving players moving to the West, it’s one season after this—maybe two—where Shaq and Kidd can be centerpieces of a championship caliber team. There isn’t much else to consider beyond them, save a few expiring contracts. More than half (8) of the players are 30 or more. Some are useful role players (e.g., Trevor Ariza, Kyle Korver) but none has even Devin Harris-level upside.

The other component to the in-season deals is the draft picks. The Nets own two firsts from the Mavs deal. Seattle owns a second round pick from their three-way with the Cavs and Bulls. Sacramento owns a second round pick from Atlanta. Also, Utah owns a protected first round pick from Philly. To quote Knickerblogger, “looks like a win for the East there too.”

Isiah’s Comments a Relief

It’s 5:30am, and I can’t sleep a wink.

According to the New York Post, Isiah Thomas has stated that he won’t make any trades this year as the deadline approaches. Although the Knick season has been a debacle this year, Thomas’ words come across as a belated Christmas gift to the team’s fans.

Thomas’ first trade as the Knick president was to acquire Stephon Marbury in a trade with the Phoenix Suns. At the time New York was a floundering franchise. Coming off a near championship run, the Knicks were overloaded with awful contracts given to Allan Houston, Howard Eisley, and Shandon Anderson among others. In the Suns deal, Isiah picked up not one but two outrageously bad contracts, Stephon Marbury’s and Anfernee Hardaway’s. Instead of attempting to reduce the Knicks salary cap woes, Thomas added to it.

And as Thomas’ tenure in New York progressed, he continued in that manner. He acquired highly paid players like Marbury, Hardaway, Jalen Rose, Steve Francis, and Zach Randolph. And he overpaid for mediocre players like Eddy Curry, Jared Jeffries, Jerome James, Jamal Crawford, Malik Rose, Jerome Williams, and Quentin Richardson. In essence what Isiah Thomas has done is collect a team of untouchables; players that other teams wouldn’t trade for due to the salary cap implications. No one could afford an aging (among other things) Stephon Marbury for $20M. Zach Randolph is owed at least $60M over the next 4 years. Eddy Curry has a player option for $10M in 2009, one he’ll certainly take given that no other team would pay him that much. The Knicks would have to offer incentive for another team to take Quentin Richardson, Jamal Crawford, Jerome James, or Jared Jeffries off their hands.

Much like the team he assembled, Thomas is over matched when competing against the rest of the league. The proof can be seen in Isiah’s trading partners. Phoenix nearly became overnight winners after Thomas freed them of Marbury and Hardaway. Orlando is now an Eastern powerhouse since Steve Francis left. Chicago had success once Isiah took Crawford and Curry off their hands. Toronto is up and coming since Jalen Rose was shipped south. And the newest member of the “Thank You Isiah” club is Portland. The Trailblazers could improve by 10 wins without Zach Randolph.

While Isiah has crushed any optimism for the 2008 season, the only positive thing New Yorkers have at this moment is that their younger players can turn into solid pros. The Knicks only hope is that David Lee, Renaldo Balkman, Nate Robinson, Wilson Chandler, and Randolph Morris will turn into solid pros. But that hope is meaningless if Isiah chooses to trade one of these players, something he has done in the past. Thomas sent 20 year old Trevor Ariza to Orlando in the Steve Francis deal, and he shipped Channing Frye to Portland after just his second NBA season. Ironically both players are doing well this year for a pittance.

So Isiah’s statement “I don’t see us being active at the trade deadline” is a big relief to Knick fans. This season has been a comedy of errors for the Knicks, and if Thomas’ words ring true, there is one less thing to keep Knick fans up at night.

The Worst Article Of 2007

Folks it’s about that time of year again, to announce the worst article of 2007. While there were many fine candidates throughout the year there’s one article that was published just 2 days ago that has surpassed all others. I’m proud to say that this work is right up there with previous winners such as Charlie Rosen’s most overrated list, and Frank Hughes 2004 piece. The winner for KnickerBlogger’s worst article of 2007 is brought to us by Lou V. of paperbacknovel titled “Why the Knicks Don’t Suck.. Anymore, But the NY Post and NY Daily News Do (Suck).”

I don’t know what the internet comparable version of “don’t judge a book by it’s color”, but maybe it should be “judge an article by it’s title.” It certainly applies to this year’s worst article winner. Notice the improper use of the ellipsis (two dots instead of three), and how the author has to add the final “(Suck)” in parenthesis because he decided to throw in the word “Anymore”. If the author wanted a better title, he could have dropped both words for a simpler title: “Why the Knicks Don’t Suck, But the NY Post and NY Daily News Do.” But why go for clarity when you’re aiming for much lower?

While I have to admit I thought at first that this would be an Onion-esque satirical piece, I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t. The author, Lou V., starts off by bashing the local media for “getting their [readers’] attentions off real economic and political issues by parading sports and the lottery in front of them.” A reasonable start to an article, as I’ve certainly taken my shots at the mainstream news. Unfortunately he follows it with this monstrocity:

… the Knicks are fine. They remain as they were to start the season — a young, athletic team with guys who can score; they have great chemistry, believe in their coach, and are progressively playing better defense… They’re not a championship team yet, but they’re a good team; a playoff-caliber team.

I guess if you’re going to define “good” as being one of the worst teams in the league, then the 5-11 Knicks are good. By those standards, the 6-10 Clippers are great, the 7-8 Bucks are awesome and the 8-9 Nets are unbeatable. Just about the only thing true in these sentences is that the Knicks are a young athletic team with guys who can score. They do not have good chemistry, and they certainly don’t believe in their coach. Their defense hasn’t progressively improved, in fact it’s been about the same for the last 2 years. No the Knicks aren’t a championship team. No the Knicks aren’t a good team. No the Knicks aren’t a playoff-caliber team. Of course the author throws in this nugget in the same paragraph: “… James Dolan, owner, who has proven to be a stand-up, moral guy …” More on that later.

In his next section Lou V is a bit more sensible. Lou talks about how Isiah was “castigated” by the Renaldo Balkman selection, and states that Larry Brown was viewed favorably due to racism. There’s definitely a valid point to be made with Balkman. Many in the mainstream media criticized Thomas relentlessly for the selection, one that is looking better and better by the day. And yes claiming Larry Brown was liked not because he is one of the better coaches of his generation, flaws and all, because of the color of his skin is one of the more reasonable claims of this column. Read on.

The next section titled “Why Isiah Thomas Doesn’t Suck” is laughable. The author claims that “Isiah has turned the Knicks around in 3 years at the helm as GM.” and “Most GM’s in the NBA would exchange their best three big men for [Curry-Randolph-Lee]in a heartbeat.” I guess you could debate that Isiah has only been around for 3 years, since he is 19 days short of his fourth season. However what’s not debatable is that he’s turned the team around. The Knicks have only bested their ’03 record of 37 wins once in Isiah’s tenure, and are on track for only 25 wins this season.

But it’s the author’s second assertion that has me thinking. How many teams would trade their top 3 big men for the Knicks? Well I think I can safely omit Boston, Orlando, Toronto, San Antonio, Phoenix, Utah, Dallas, and Houston due to their star power at those positions. I might add Miami (Shaq), Chicago (Ben, Thomas, Noah + didn’t want Curry in the first place), Denver (Camby, Nene, K-Mart), Clippers (Brand), Portland (Oden), and Memphis (Gasol). Then there are teams where these three wouldn’t fit in like Golden State (Nellie-ball), and Detroit (‘Sheed/McDyess). Not counting teams that wouldn’t do it for reasons of fiscal irresponsibility, I count 16 teams that wouldn’t trade for our trio tower. Of course I guess a team like the Nets or Lakers might (Bynum?), so Knick fans might want to put in an order for that Kwame Brown or Nenad Krstic jersey they’ve been pining for.

What puts this article at the top of my list is the sidebar containing “Isiah Thomas’s Knicks’ Resume.” Some of the gems:

“Zach Randolph and Fred Jones for Channing Frye? This may go down as one of the great Knick trades ever.”

“Acquired Tim Thomas from Milwaukee and center Nazr Mohammed from Atlanta in a three-team trade…. Mohammed played some good ball in NY, but then helped Isiah rebuild with the trade listed below this one. Tim Thomas played some ball in NY, but then helped Isiah get Eddy Curry from Chicago. This Feb 2004 trade was a fantastic setup trade for the Knicks.”

“Despite the criticisms, Marbury has played a lot of all-star basketball in NY. The final word is still out on this trade as there is still that conditional 1st-round pick hanging out there in 2009 or 2010 that Phoenix gets from NY, but so far, NY got Stephon Marbury for a bunch of crap — including Knick-franchise-of-the-future-according-to-Stu-Laden, Michel Lampe. Penny Hardaway was used by Knicks to help get Stevie Francis, who was used to help get Zach Randolph. Phoenix used this trade to get $7-million under the cap, enabling them to sign free agent Steve Nash, and catapulting them to an elite team. This trade looks good for both teams right now, for different reasons.”

The Knicks best trades of all time: Dave DeBusschere for Bellamy; Riordan and Stallworth for Monroe; Oakley for Camby; and Zach for Frye? Um yeah… The author also credits Isiah for drafting Trevor Ariza and Demitrius Nichols, ignoring the fact that the first was traded and the second’s expulsion from the club was a classic blunder.

Not to be outdone, the author concludes with “Why James Dolan Doesn’t Suck.” He states that “Dolan’s handling of the Anucka Browne Sanders case is prototypical of his high moral fiber.” I guess I couldn’t have said that better myself.

Now Is The Time

Isiah Thomas should be fired. Now. I know it’s only 9 games into the season. And I know that this road trip was brutal. I also know that the next few games are against tough opponents: Golden State, Detroit, Chicago, and Utah. All these teams were in the second round last year. And I know the East has gotten better.

I know that Isiah is a wonderful drafter. I might even dare say he’s possibly the best drafter of all time. Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby, Tracy McGrady, David Lee, Nate Robinson, Mardy Collins, Trevor Ariza, and Wilson Chandler. That’s a fantastic team – and off the top of my head I can’t think of any GM that has done better with less in terms of drafting.

I know that the Knick team he inherited was a mess. The NBA’s worst salary cap, with little talent, and no young prospects. Scott Layden’s tenure was awful in New York. He took a near-championship level team, and turned them into a void. And I know this team is better than the one Isiah inherited nearly 4 years ago. I know Isiah wanted a younger and more athletic team. I can’t argue that this team isn’t younger and more athletic. That’s without a doubt.

I know that Isiah has been hit with a string of bad luck. Even Hollinger thought Marbury was a near-All Star around the time the Knicks acquired him. And who thought that a pair of Hall of Fame caliber coaches in Lenny Wilkens and Larry Brown would end up the way they did. OK I might have thought Wilkens would have ended that way, but Larry Brown?

I know all these things. Yet the bottom line remains: this team isn’t a winner. Under Isiah’s tenure, the Knicks have finished with 39, 33, 23, and 33 wins. This year they’ve started off 2-7. And things don’t look to get better. Not with their upcoming schedule.

Dolan gave Isiah his extension early on an impulse. Just when the team was doing the opposite they are now – looking really good. At the time, their win streak put them into the playoffs and seemingly showed that the team had turned the corner. However things are as bleak as they can be. The season has barely begun, and it’s nearly over for New Yorkers. Coming off the heels of an embarrassing summer, and as nearly embarrassing controversy with their point guard. Coming off a road trip where they dropped 4 straight games, the last one by 32. Coming off of 6 straight losses.

Everything is in place for an Isiah exit. Grunwald can take over as GM. Herb Williams is still around to coach. The team is better off than they were 4 years ago. There are some good young players and assets to build on. The only thing left is finding the time to do it. And the time is now.

$11.6M Part II: What This Means for the Franchise

As you no doubt are aware, a jury has sided with former Knicks executive Anucha Brown Saunders and found the New York Knickerbockers and the Madison Square Garden organization guilty of sexual harassment (perpetrated primarily by Knicks team president Isiah Thomas). The Knicks and MSG were also held liable for creating a hostile work environment and for retaliating against Mrs. Brown Saunders when she protested her treatment. The jury of four women and three men awarded Mrs. Brown Saunders $11.6 million in damages, with a further award for back and present pay (for wrongful termination) pending. The jury declared a mistrial on Thomas’ personal culpability and thus did not subject him to punitive damages. Also, early indications are that Thomas will face no further discipline from the league. Though the case uncovers aspects of the MSG environment that are utterly distasteful, which include repeated reprimands of Thomas’ behavior by MSG officials, the judgment is unlikely by itself to directly impact the team’s on court performance this upcoming season.

In discussing the case I want to pick up where Knickerblogger left off yesterday. Like him, I also couldn’t bear to watch. I went out of my way to ignore details of the case as best I could until a verdict was reached. Now that a verdict has been reached I want to show how the case is directly relevant to everyday die-hard Knicks fans. So, even while acknowledging that this is unlikely to have any direct impact on team performance in 07-08 it is still quite meaningful. This case, along with the Don Chaney’s firing, illustrate with crystal clarity the fundamental problem that plagues the Dolan/Thomas regime. I will limit my comments mostly to Thomas but you could practically substitute Dolan’s name into every sentence.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it is worth stating a basic premise. Isiah Thomas has a problem making good decisions. His worst decisions, which I won’t take the time to recount, have become the stuff of legend. And even his better decisions come with a string of “yeah, but” clauses attached (e.g., “Thomas stole Trevor Ariza in the draft. Yeah, but then he traded him–a young, cheap, solid wing defender–in order to pair Steve Francis with Stephon Marbury.”). Isiah, sometimes in spite of himself, is an intelligent guy. So, what gives? Why such poor decisions. I won’t make you guess. I’ll cut to the chase. In a nutshell, Isiah Thomas’ poor decisions are a natural consequence of his remarkable contempt for other people. (Contempt in this context means an acute lack of respect for others and a callous disregard for their perspective.) In a leader, this is a character flaw so grave it renders good decision making practically impossible.

Now to be clear, I have little interest in doing any sort of long distance psychoanalysis of Isiah Thomas. I do not profess to know why Thomas is contemptuous of others. That’s not the point of this entry. Rather, I am interested in showing how Isiah’s words and actions indicate his contempt for others–and how that contempt hinders his ability to lead. To do that, I first need to briefly describe the two cases.

Firing Chaney on Letterman. At the time Don Chaney was dismissed it is safe to say he had it coming. The NBA is a tough, results-oriented business and the results were awful. Additionally, Chaney had few supporters among the media or the Knick faithful, and it certainly appeared that the players had tuned him out. The “FI-YER CHAY-NEE!” chants had become an unfortunate nightly serenade for a man universally regarded as one of the game’s true gentleman. Of course, the “Chaney watch” began in earnest once Thomas rode into town on his trusty white steed with promises to make the Knicks younger, more athletic, and more importantly, relevant again. Thomas appeared on David Letterman’s Late Show and made his now infamous pregnant pause following Letterman’s speculation that Chaney would be fired. Chaney was of course fired soon thereafter.

The true measure of contempt is, how do you treat others when they have nothing you want or when you think they cannot effectively retaliate? Do you treat them with respect or callous disregard? Do you change how you treat others depending on whether you think people who really matter are watching? I have no reason to believe Thomas especially disliked Chaney or had any particular ax to grind with him. I just don’t think Thomas cared enough to pass on a chance to laugh at Chaney’s expense. After all, what could Chaney–who was for all practical purposes dead man walking–do? It was painfully obvious he was going to be fired. So, given a chance to be magnanimous–with the cameras rolling no less–Thomas chose callous disregard. He had nothing to gain apart from a few chuckles on the Late Show. I recall saying to a friend the next day, “I don’t know how Isiah’s going to work out in New York but I can tell you that it’s going to end ugly for him. He really is an asshole. Guys like that can never stay out of their own way.”

Who You Callin’ A Bitch!? The Brown Sauders Case. The case time line published in the Daily News hits many of the low-lights of the case, so I won’t recount them all. Despite his protestations of innocence, Thomas had been reprimanded by Steve Mills for his behavior towards Brown Saunders (and for related behavior as far back as 2004). At root, Thomas showed the same callous disregard towards Brown Sauders he exhibited towards the outgoing Chaney; just in a different context stretched out over a longer period of time. His claims about who can call black women “bitches” without being offensive is a prime example of this disregard. Aside from expressing the most idiotic racial and gender politics since X-Clan, Isiah clearly ignored or forgot these words from the Queen.

Maybe none of this talk of contempt explains Thomas’ inability to manage a salary cap or make a trade that isn’t redundant. Perhaps. But I don’t think so. I think the behavior in the MSG offices makes its way onto the bench and into management decisions. In the last part I’ll try to make a case for how this happens. I’ll talk about precisely how contempt for others can often lead to particular types of poor decisions.