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

Sun’s Deep Hole Due To Lack Of Depth

I watched the game just like everyone else, and yes I would agree that the Suns lost because they couldn’t stop anyone in the final minutes. However that’s just scratching the surface of their problem. I’ve been told time and time again that comparing bench scoring is overrated because it’s usually the starters that do most of the damage. Nonetheless it’s hard to ignore that the Spurs’ reserves have outscored their counterparts 50-21 in this series. The reason the Suns are down 2-0 is their lack of depth.

There are 3 reasons that the teams in the NBA don’t consist of just the best 5 guys. The first is that human beings fatigue. While being a computer technician makes it possible for me to work for a few hours straight with little stoppage, having a profession where I’d have to do something active (like running, jumping or even standing) might make me want to take five every so often. In the first two games of the series the Spurs reserves have given the starters 142 minutes of rest. In contrast, Phoenix’s starting 5 has only been able to recuperate for 76, or nearly half the time. While I don’t have any equations or charts that show what the break-even fatigue point for minutes played, I think it’s safe to say that the Suns have been hurt by not finding enough down-time for their starters. Whether or not it’s cost them a game (or two) is an exercise I leave to the reader.

The second reason NBA rosters expand to 12 is so that the teams can mix and match depending on their opponent. For example, Phoenix is bad at defensive rebounding (ranked 29th out of 30). Now they’re playing the Spurs who have a good offensive rebounder in Nazr Mohammed. When Mohammed is on the court, wouldn’t it be a good idea to put some guys in that could minimize Nazr’s ability to give his team a few extra possessions in which to score? Unfortunately the Suns don’t have those extra guys, and Nazr’s given his team 9 extra chances in two games.

While Phoenix doesn’t have anyone to bring in to address their defensive rebounding woes, this is just one example of a multitude. There’s no big guard on the bench that can come in and shut down Parker or Ginobili. If Mike D’Antoni needs a stop late in the game (yesterday’s for example) there’s no fresh body he can bring off the bench that can man up & force a bad shot. The Suns are locked into one style of play, run up the court to score and pray their opponent misses. So far the Spurs have been able to match them in scoring, and Phoenix has no recourse. In other words the Suns only have a Plan A.

The final reason no team puts out only 5 guys is injuries. The Suns predicament without Johnson reminds me of Superman the Movie. Lois Lane falls out of a helicopter, and Superman makes his first appearance flying up to save her mid-air. The Man of Steal says “I’ve got you”, to which Lois panic-stricken replied “You’ve got me, but who’s got you?!” The Suns did have a (barely adequate replacement) for Johnson with Jackson, but who’s got Jackson? The Suns 2 guards go 2 deep. Sure Q-Rich can switch over to the 2, but then who’s got Q-Rich?

This might be a different series if Joe Johnson didn’t have that facial against the Mavs, but it’s hard to feel bad for Phoenix in this circumstance. Johnson is at best their 5th best player, at a position where it’s not exactly hard in finding talent. Back in December I wrote:

The Suns main weakness is their bench. The Suns 5 starters are averaging 37 minutes a game, because they don’t have good options coming off the bench. If one of their starters hits the IR, the team will loose a good amount of production… Before the trade deadline is over, Bryan Colangelo might have to make that tough decision to sacrifice some of that youth for a better bench for a championship run, because the Suns are in a good position to win one this year.
Although they acquired two players Jackson and the usedless Walter McCarty, they didn’t address the bench enough. For the most part they are wasting 4 spots with McCarty, Bo Outlaw, Jake Voskuhl, and Paul Shirley. You could easily throw Barbosa into that list as well. Bench players are relatively easy to find, as the Knicks have a team full of them (drum-roll). Phoenix had the choice to improve their bench, at the cost of a few draft picks or maybe some salary. By opting not to, they might have cost themselves a championship this year.

NBA Action Is Fantastic!

Last Tuesday I bemoaned the lack of excitement in the second round of the NBA playoffs. Since then, the playoffs has been everything I could have asked for. The second game of the Suns-Mavs series went down to the wire, and the third was one of the fastest paced games I’ve seen since Paul Westhead roamed the sidelines in Denver. A blink might have made you miss a possession, a sneeze could have cost you a 6 point swing. Phoenix has become the new Dallas, complete with the Mavs’ old point guard. Their offense is so efficient, they just run the ball up the court trying to make the game as many possessions as possible because they know they can outscore anybody. Meanwhile the Mavs have tried to distance themselves from the run & gun club they were just a few years ago. They’ve gone so far with that mentality that they chose Dampier over Nash, convinced that they couldn’t go any further without balancing the scale a little.

The philosophy clash. Nash vs. Dirk. Joe Johnson crashing face first to the floor. Uptempo scoring in a defensive league. What else could you want in a series?

Indiana made it a series when Jeff Foster had a not-really-a-triple-double in game 2 with 14 points, 10 offensive rebounds, and 10 defensive rebounds. Not only did the Pacers win game 2, but they took #3 as well. Although Sunday night Detroit fans could sleep better knowing the contest was tied at 2 games apiece, the volatile nature of the first 4 games has shown this series could go in any direction.

In the Pacific north, the Sonics have lost Radmanovic for the series, Ray Allen for half a game, and Rashard Lewis for game 4, but they’ve managed to tie the series at 2-2. In Game 4, Seattle gave 150 minutes to 4 guards: Allen, Ridnour, Daniels and Wilkins. In turn they received 86 points on a very efficient 66% eFG. Any coach that is without two key players, who decides to go small against the strangling defense of the Spurs and wins a pivotal game 4 should have won coach of the year. No disrespect to Mike D’Antoni, but Nate McMillan has had much tougher choices to make this year than when to play Bo Outlaw, Paul Shirley, and Jake Voskuhl. (The answer to that question is when the crowd starts making its way to the parking lot).

As bad as the first few days were, the last few days has been as good. Except for the Heat which swept the Wizards without Shaq, every series has had something to offer for every fan.