$11.6M Part III: Why this Means the Knicks Will Continue to Stink

If you haven’t check out Part I and Part II.

In Part II I made a case for how the Anucha Brown Sauders verdict (as well as the handling of Don Chaney’s dismissal) illustrates a fatal flaw–contempt–in Thomas’ decision making style. My point is simply that contempt (a callous disregard for others) is not simply unethical behavior; rather, it is also strongly associated with specific types of poor decisions that continue to haunt this team.

Contempt diminishes the ability to recognize mistakes and learn from them. In moments of complete and total privacy I often wonder if Isiah Thomas recognizes his role in the various messes he’s made. I am not convinced he does, though I suppose only he knows for sure. When Don Chaney said he felt disrespected by the way his situation was handled, Isiah responded that he didn’t think it was appropriate to give Chaney “a 24-hour status update on what was going on.” Of Anucha Brown Saunders, he says, “She made the whole thing up. The jury didn’t listen to the evidence.” Of upper management/ownership in his prior NBA stops in Indiana and Toronto, and in his brief stint with the CBA, Thomas claims they were all just out to get him. Apparently, the international conspiracy dedicated to his downfall continues on unabated to this very day.

The great thing about being contemptuous is always being able to believe that your failures are someone else’s doing–leaving you free to repeat the mistakes you made. So, in Thomas’ mind’s eye the problem is that the players haven’t gelled or that they have underperformed. It’s never that his strategy of stockpiling redundant talent is a limited strategy. Winning the East is a simple matter of landing the right star player. Enter Marbury. Tim Thomas. Crawford. Curry. Steve Francis. Now, Zach Randolph. Without knocking Zebo, who I like, his deal was just more of what Thomas has always done. There’s been no real introspection about the overall approach. He simply doesn’t see a downside.

Contempt breeds an exaggerated need for secrecy and loyalty. If you believed your failures were never of your own making imagine the twisted logic you would need to sustain that kind of fantasy. Real world common sense and people who just won’t play along would constantly threaten this fantasy world with collapsing under its own weight. The Thomases and Dolans of the world, who are contemptuous of others, don’t leave their fantasy world vulnerable to common sense or to people who don’t play along. Instead they prefer to surround themselves with loyalists who enable their fantasies, closing themselves off to “outsiders” as much as possible. Not surprisingly, this behavior suggests intolerance for self-examination, competing approaches, fresh ideas, or honest criticism.

Nowhere has this intolerance been more perfectly exemplified than through the organization’s relationship with Stephon Marbury. If the Brown Saunders verdict has done nothing else it has established beyond any reasonable doubt Thomas’ coddling and enabling of Marbury. Thomas has demanded nothing of Marbury since his arrival, despite making him the face of the franchise. Further, Isiah has sought to punish anyone in the organization or move any player or coach who would dare challenge Marbury to lead. Larry Brown’s no saint. He has his own dysfunctions, which not coincidentally include an exaggerated need for loyalty. But that whole drama is far uglier now in retrospect than it was even at the time.

Where to from here? One reader in the comments on Part II wrote:

How about the fact that the NBA will discipline you for punching someone, but not for sexual harassment?

That’s sticky, because the NBA is a collection of businesses that agree to cooperate on certain aspects of business but leave others to each individual franchise. Since sexual harassment is a civil legal matter I could certainly see the league not wishing to wade in such murky water. If Stern punishes the Knicks it means the league is claiming jurisdiction in that area. That potentially makes the NBA liable to be named a party in the next lawsuit alongside any team. Further, it’s not clear to me that any league punishment (a fine in all likelihood) would be any more of a deterrent than a civil trial. However, the question remains, what will the Knicks do in the aftermath of this case? Given that Dolan and Thomas didn’t have sense enough to keep this case out of court in the first place, and apparently have enough money to throw at appeals, it’s safe to speculate that they probably haven’t learned much.

I imagine that the best the Knicks fans–and I continue to count myself among them–can hope for in the immediate future is a rift between Dolan and Thomas that leads to his dismissal. The problem of course is that Dolan has all the same problems Thomas has. There is little reason to believe he wouldn’t hire another Thomas.

$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.

Knicks 2007 Report Card (A to Z): Coach Isiah Thomas

KnickerBlogger: Isiah Thomas started off the 2007 with a lot of pressure on his shoulders. New York had just come of a disastrous 23 win season under Larry Brown. Thomas was widely criticized for taking Renaldo Balkman in the draft. The Knicks’ owner James Dolan gave Thomas an order to improve the team or pack his bags. Thomas was forced to take over as coach of the Knicks, something he promised he wouldn’t do. His reputation as a coach and a general manager were both on the line. In mid-March the Knicks were 29-34 and held the 8th and final playoff spot. Isiah Thomas was given a contract extension as was safe for another year.

However, the team floundered down the stretch. After re-signing Thomas, the Knicks would win only 4 of it’s last 15 games and ended up in 11th place in the East. All in all were 33 wins disappointing? It depends on your expectations. Of the 79 teams in NBA history that had a winning percentage equal to or worse than the 2006 Knicks 23 win team, only 19 of them won 33 or more games the next season. The average improvement of those 79 teams was 8.7 wins, something the 2007 Knicks exceeded. Given those expectations, it’s hard to say Isiah Thomas did a bad job as coach of the Knicks.

However it’s hard to argue that he did a superlative job. Isiah’s main flaws:

  • Allocation of minutes. I’m sure just about every fan quibbles with the substitutions of a coach. In fact I’d be shocked to hear that for each non-playoff team there exists one fan that agrees 100% with the minutes doled out. Nonetheless Isiah Thomas made a few poor decisions along the way. I’ll start by saying that perhaps David Lee’s playing time wasn’t the worst of them. Sure he was the best player on the team, but Thomas still found 30 minutes a night for him. Instead of quibbling over 5 minutes a night for a second year player that came from nowhere, I’d rather concentrate on more heinous crimes.

    Like giving 1307 minutes to Jared Jeffries. Isiah acquired Jeffries with the mid-level exception, and to say Thomas has made bad decisions with the mid-level is like saying Barry Bonds has hit a few home runs. Jeffries followed Vin Baker and Jerome James as free agent strike outs by Isiah. Despite Jeffries’ total ineptitude, Isiah called his number for 23.8 minutes a game. Sitting on the bench behind Jeffries was a superior player in Renaldo Balkman. And Isiah Thomas could have, for lack of a better term, bitch-slapped his draft day detractors by letting Balkman shine in extended minutes.

    But Jeffries wasn’t the only crime. Thomas gave 11 starts to last year’s mid-level exemption Jerome James in order to kickstart the Knicks defense. This was maybe the oddest decision of Isiah’s coaching tenure. Thomas allowed James to play a handful of minutes, only to banish him to the bench for the rest of the game, never to return. Although some of this was done with Lee injured, Thomas had better options to improve the New York defense (Cato, Balkman, Collins, etc.) Hopefully the fine summer league play of Balkman and Morris will mean the end of meaningful minutes to both Jeffries and James.

  • Player development. The only Knick to improve in 2006 under Larry Brown was Jamal Crawford. Brown contained Crawford’s untamed offensive game, and got him to play smarter basketball. With Brown’s tutelage, Crawford attempted fewer wild shots from the perimeter, and drove to the hoop more often. Unfortunately it seems that Isiah Thomas undid most if not all of Brown’s good work. Last year Crawford reverted to his old self: unnecessarily heaving up off low percentage shots. Jamal’s shooting percentage plummeted (47.4 to 45.8 eFG%, 54.4 to 51.7 TS%) as Thomas gave him carte blanche to shoot at will.

    Crawford wasn’t the only player to regress under Thomas. Channing Frye had a sparkling rookie campaign, but floundered miserably as a sophomore. It’s hard to believe that Thomas couldn’t find any way to increase the forward’s confidence. Frye was psychologically shaky, often passing up on outside shots that found the bottom of the net just a year ago. It’s hard to say what caused Frye’s slump, but it’s the coach’s job to motivate his players. And in this case Isiah failed.

  • The defense. We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog dissecting the Knicks offense. However the Knicks’ offense was ranked 10th on March 12th (when Thomas’ contract was extended) before a rash of injuries helped to sink the team. On the other hand, the New York defense was ranked a pitiful 27th at that time and they finished 24th by the season’s end. While part of the problem is due to the construction of the team (which is the fault of Isiah Thomas the president), a share of the blame goes to the coach.

    Thomas failed to make the defense better on any level. He failed to make his players defend better. Take for instance Eddy Curry. Instead of teaching him proper defensive fundamentals, Thomas instructed Curry to avoid fouls. Curry’s foul rate was the lowest of his career, and consequently his block rate was halved. On the other end of the roster, the perimeter was still porous. Knick guards had problems keeping opponents from penetrating, exacerbating Curry’s problems.

    Even if Thomas isn’t to blame for the player’s inability to defend, you could fault him for not using better defenders or schemes. Balkman, who shined as a defender his rookie year, saw only 15.6 minutes per game. Cato, who was certainly no worse defensively than any of the other Knicks centers, played less than a hundred minutes on the season. Additionally Isiah fell in love with a small lineup. Just look at Nate Robinson’s top floor units. The second most frequent unit is a three guard alignment, and two others have Jamal Crawford as the small forward. Crawford played 8% of the team’s total minutes at SF, Mardy Collins played 6%. Meanwhile David Lee only spent 5% at SF. Putting out an undersized unit isn’t done to bolster the defense.

Despite these flaws, Thomas did a commendable job last year. With how much of a crapshoot getting a coach is, it’s hard to think that a random coach could have done better. In the NBA the great coaches are few & far in between, and at the bottom there is a rotating door of assistants and college coaches who fail miserably. That the Knicks improved more than the average team in their situation, shows that Thomas did a fair job.

KnickerBlogger?s Grade: C+

2008 Outlook: The Knicks added some bigger players to the roster, so it’s possible that we’ve seen the end of the small lineup. Instead, we could see lots of big lineups. David Lee could see serious playing time at small forward. Renaldo Balkman (6-8), Demetris Nichols (6-8), and Quentin Richardson (6-6) could see time at shooting guard. Isiah could improve the team by playing the Knicks’ better defenders more often. Balkman should see an extra 10 minutes this year. Collins could see some situational duty. With a poor defensive front court in Curry and Randolph, the Knicks might zone it up more next year. On offense, Isiah Thomas will have to work Zach Randolph into the playbook.

Although last year Thomas received an ultimatum to improve, he’s probably under the same sword of Damocles this year. Certainly the bar is raised again, because 33 wins isn’t going to cut it in 2008. Thomas has a lot of questions to answer this upcoming season. How will Zach Randolph fit in with this team? How many minutes will he find for David Lee? Who will play small forward? Will top summer league performers Renaldo Balkman and Nate Robinson get more playing time? How will the rookies fit in to this team? But no matter what the answers to these questions are, Thomas will be forced to improve. It’d be hard to see the Knicks not make the playoffs and Isiah keep his job.

“Evident Progress,” Evidently

Several media outlets are reporting that would-be bluesman and team owner James Dolan is set to announce that Isiah Thomas will return as coach and all around Grand Poobah of the New York Knickerbockers. The announcement is expected to include a multi-year contract extension.

Dolan had previously said that he would not discuss Thomas’ fate until after the season, giving the impression that his fate was tied to whether the Knicks make the playoffs. However, with the team currently holding the eighth-and-final playoff spot in the East, Dolan apparently feels that the the team has achieved the “evident progress” he specified (without actually specifying it) as a pre-condition for Thomas’ return.

Without getting into the question of whether the team’s current improvement is merely regression to the mean–let’s hold onto that question for after the season–it is clear that Dolan was predisposed to re-confirm his own decision to hire Thomas. Thus he never intended to fully specify the meaning of “evident progress,” certain that these Knicks couldn’t be worse than last year’s bunch. Nevertheless, I suspect that he must have also considered the sorry state of coaching (and executive) talent in the league. Certainly, Knicks fans needn’t be reminded that pursuing the superstar coach and/or executive is not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. At the same time, the veteran coaches who might take the New York job without demanding the same prima donna treatment as Larry Brown, like Rick Carlisle, Doc Rivers, Terry Stotts, Mike Dunleavy, Byron Scott, etc. are themselves mostly piloting ships at various stages of submersion. Any of those coaches might improve the Knicks at the margins but none would be considered even money bets to fundamentally alter what this franchise can aspire to.

So as a fan I am not singularly happy, sad, or neutral about the prospect of Thomas returning. I am ambivalent; all of the above. On one hand, I am not jumping with glee. On the other hand, Thomas is the devil we know. Plus considering that he is now operating under a kind of fiscal austerity plan, effectively tethering him to the draft, his worst impulse–to get the most talent out of every deal regardless of fit or fiscal implication–is less openly self-destructive. Perhaps just as importantly, given the shallow pool of coaching and executive talent, the odds of Dolan being able to ferret out potential greatness or potentially fatal flaws in a pool of similar candidates are frighteningly low.

Alas, there is no great moral to the end of the Thomas tale. It’s just an ending. Sometimes that’s all you get.

Hollinger: Trade Frye… But for Whom?

In Hollinger’s latest piece at the NY Sun he lays out New York’s four major needs for at the deadline. They are (in order of appearance): 1. a true point guard (rather than four short wing players), 2. a decent long range shooter, 3. a (man-to-man) defensive stopper on the wing, and 4. a defensive-oriented power forward. To be fair, Hollinger is up front about the fact that he’s ignoring, for the sake of argument, some practical realities; namely that Dolan’s checkbook may now be locked in an Isiah-proof vault, and that Isiah himself may be unwilling to part with some of the big-$ players he’s acquired.

Disclosure: I should admit right away that, although I have great respect for his work, I often find myself on opposing sides of issues with Hollinger; having to do more with his rhetoric than his stats. I’m one who believes strongly that the data NEVER speak for themselves; someone must speak for them. Consequently, the spokesperson’s interpretation of the data can be debatable even when the data are, technically speaking, correct.

In his latest piece, Hollinger commits an interesting (bordering on bizarre) act of rhetoric. My purpose in writing is less to criticize Hollinger than to register my head-scratching bewilderment with the way he argues his conclusion. At the end of the article he writes that the Knicks need to pair Curry with a more defense-oriented PF–a point I agree with in principle. He goes on to suggest that Isiah should look to move Channing Frye for such a player. Hollinger does not suggest this lightly. It’s clear from this and previous writings that Hollinger is a fan of Frye’s. I too am a fan, having followed Frye since his freshman season at Arizona. Nonetheless, I generally accept Hollinger’s conclusion that if the Knicks are serious about making Curry the centerpiece they must seriously contemplate moving Frye to obtain players that better fit a low-post offense.

Here’s where I thought Hollinger displays a rhetorical sleight of hand that is quizzical, for lack of a better word. Throughout the article, he makes insightful suggestions for low-cost moves the Knicks might make to address each of the first three needs. He suggests that deals for imminently acquirable players, like Tyron Lue, Travis Deiner, or Keith Bogans, could be an inexpensive means to address the needs for a stop-gap point guard, deep shooter, or man-to-man wing defender. These are all players who could replace someone in the rotation without throwing everything out of whack. Yet Hollinger is oddly silent on suggestions for a defense-first power forward, which he identifies as “clearly the greatest” team need. He offers only that a package of Rose (essentially Rose’s contract) and Frye could bring back “something good.”

I beg your pardon, but, something good like what?

I am not adamantly opposed to moving Frye. David Lee’s own defensive shortcomings notwithstanding, Frye doesn’t defend well and he may never. He also seems better suited to a screen-roll oriented offense like Utah’s. So a reasonable, even compelling case could be made to move Frye for a defensive PF that helps long-term. So why not make that case, especially if it is the team’s greatest need by far? Good defensive power-forwards, let alone those who can also hit a 15-18 foot jumper, are the NBA’s version of lefty starting pitchers that can throw 200+ innings. Everybody needs one; there simply aren’t enough to go around; and nobody’s giving them away. So if he had something in mind about how to get one I’d have loved to have read about it. Instead he spends a good chunk of the column making a reasonable argument for acquiring Tyron Lue.

How to Fix the Knicks

I’ve watched every minute of every game this year, and I can state for the record that the Knicks have not been a good team thus far. New York is 2-5 and their 2 wins have come at a grand total of 3 points. While only the most rabid Knick fans expected New York to compete in the East this year, most prognosticators (save for the most rabid Knick hater) expected them to make some kind of improvement on their abysmal 2006 campaign. So far, their expected win% is close to their actual win percentage last year. As of this writing, the Knicks are ranked 22nd on offense and 28th on defense and haven’t shown much improvement overall as a team. While the year hasn’t gone as optimists would hope, there have been some bright spots on the early season. With a couple of adjustments, New York can improve on this horrid start.

The first step is to take a long look at the starting unit, because in every game this year New York has been down by double digits in the first half. Since the Knick bench has come in and sparked the team, usually making up the difference and then some, it makes sense that Isiah should apply the red pen to his starting roster. The first player I would remove would be Channing Frye. I don’t think anyone predicted such a downhill collapse for the Knicks’ best rookie last year. Frye’s sophomore slide is so huge, Disney has contacted his agent for a Splash Mountain commercial tie-in. Although Channing’s defense has been acceptable (per 40 minutes he’s averaging 1.4BLK & 1.7STL), he’s absolutely lost on offense. Frye’s 22% shooting percentage is well below the Tskitishvili-line (currently at 33.8%), and is the only stat I need to communicate how poor he’s been on offense.

But Channing Frye isn’t the only culprit. His frontcourt-mate Eddy Curry has been equally feeble. Although Frye is giving the Knicks some production on defense, Curry has given the Knicks nothing back on the defensive end. The 6-11 Curry has averaged 0.6 blocks per 40 minutes, which is an embarrassment for a player his size. Jamal Crawford, a 6-6 guard not known for his defense, is nearly at the same rate (0.5 BLK/40). Meanwhile, Curry’s 0.4 STL/40 is last on the team among the regular players. While defensive stats don’t tell the whole story, Eddy’s defense has been even worse to the eye. The Knicks’ center is just as bad defending his own man as he is helping contain penetrators into the lane. As a child, Curry was given the nickname “Lurch” for being the quiet giant, but I think the name “David” is more fitting. It’s not because Eddy Curry reminds me of David Robinson, a fantastic defensive center in his own right. It’s because Curry stands around like a giant statue on defense, ala Michelangelo’s famous sculpture.

Usually Curry’s defenders (not the NBA players that actually defend Curry, but guys like Knick’s owner James Dolan who thinks Curry “will develop into a league-leading center”) point to his offensive numbers in an effort to cast him in a productive light. Unfortunately for them, Eddy Curry’s points, turnovers, assists, and fouls are below his career average. In any case, Curry’s defense is so bad at this point he shouldn’t be on the court without a strong defensive player next to him.

If Isiah wants to turn his team around in the first quarter, starting the game off with Curry & Frye on the bench would be a good start. While it’s simple to identify them as the culprits (82games.com has the pair as the two worst Knicks in regards to +/-), finding two suitable replacements isn’t as easy. David Lee is the obvious choice, as he leads the Knicks with a 21.95 PER. Lee’s strength has been his work on the glass, and he’s third in the league in rebounding rate. The ambidextrous forward has a nice touch around the hoop, and he doesn’t demand the ball to score. “Buddy” Lee is able to put points on the board either cleaning up his teammates misses or being the beneficiary of a well placed pass. But after Lee, the choices are slim.

The popular choice might be Malik Rose, who has earned a name for himself by playing fantastic defense the last few games. But Rose’s poor shooting skills and high demand for the ball make him a poor mix with the offensive starters. If the Knick guards can ignore his repeated demands for the ball in the post, it could work, but that’s not likely to work. My choice would be to give Kelvin Cato a try.

Adding Cato & Lee to the starting 5 makes sense on a few levels. First off the starting group already has enough offensive minded players in as Marbury, Crawford/Francis, and Richardson. Let the offense center around these three, augmented by Lee’s strong rebounding. The loss of Curry and Frye’s post skills can be replaced partly with David Lee and partly with Quentin Richardson who can take smaller players on the blocks. Meanwhile on defense, Cato will provide more resistance to quicker guards that get past the Knick perimeter. If the loss of potential offense bothers you remember the Knicks will be able to run more often if they make more stops on defense. And with Cato’s defense and Lee’s rebounding, they should be able to get more stops on defense.

In the meantime I’ve given a pass to the rest of the Knick not because all is well with the guards, but rather because the frontcourt has been disastrous. Additionally Francis’ injury has given him a pass for the early season, and his return will muddle the situation anyway. In the next few games, I imagine that Channing Frye will be benched for David Lee because Frye’s season has been so obviously bad and Lee’s so good. However Eddy Curry shouldn’t receive a free pass due to the amount the franchise has invested into him. While Cato doesn’t have Curry’s potential nor does his numbers on paper make him a logical starter, the Knicks are desperate for defense and it wouldn’t be so bad to see how he affects New York’s on the court chemistry.

Draft Night Postscript

1. Renaldo Balkman, F, 6?6.5?, S. Carolina (Rd. 1, #20)

Analysis. When David Stern uttered, ?With the 20th selection of the 2006 NBA Draft the New York Knicks select Renaldo Balkman of the University of South Carolina,? my jaw dropped and my mouth hung wide open. As many of you regular readers may know I happen to be an employee of that fine university. So I have seen much of Renaldo Balkman?more in 2004-05 than this past season?and it?s hard not to like what he brings, but strictly as a role player.

Though he officially measures only 6?5.5? in shoes he has quick feet and exceptionally long arms (7?1? wingspan, 8?8.5? standing reach). His standing reach, incidentally, is longer than many taller players like Shelden Williams, Shawne Williams, and James Augustine. Balkman?s physical attributes allow him to legitimately defend shooting guards, larger point guards, small forwards, and some power forwards. I thought Balkman, Hassan Adams from Arizona (#54, Nets), and Bobby Jones from Washington (#37, Sixers) were the best defensive specialist small forwards available. Balkman is a surprisingly good passer, though turnover prone because of carelessness.

His calling card is his Nate Robinson-esque manic energy, focused almost exclusively on defense. Those incurable college hoops junkies who tuned in to the NIT final four saw it on display, as Balkman dominated the Madison Square Garden portion of the tournament in a manner consistent with his college career. Watching the games it looked like three of him were on the floor, yet his numbers for the tournament were even less impressive than in the regular season. (He was shut out in two of the games.) This season at South Carolina, as widely reported, he scored 9.6 points in just under 26 mpg (14.9 per 40). Taking only 6.6 shots per game, he averaged 61.5% (TS%) from the floor; precisely what you want and expect from a high energy player who doesn?t take 3s. Nothing jumps out at you on paper.

However, Balkman?s value becomes more apparent when you look at the entire stat sheet. He puts something in every column, chipping in per game averages of 6 boards (9.8 total/3.3 offensive per 40), 2 assists (3 per 40), 1.7 steals (2.7 per 40), and 1.3 blocks (2 per 40). He also generally stays out of foul trouble despite being a well-regarded defender. He committed only 2.2 per game (3.4 per 40) this season. Unfortunately, Isiah has already demonstrating that he does not understand Balkman’s value by throwing out the Phoenix red herring and then saddling him with impossible Rodman comparisons. In truth, the best NBA comparison is Utah?s Andrei Kirilenko. Like Kirilenko, Balkman lacks a singular prowess but does a bit of everything other than score. Kirilenko?s similar per 40 NBA career averages (17.2 points, 8.1 boards, 3.2 assists, 2 steals, 3.2 blocks, and 2.8 fouls) certainly do not imply that Balkman will be as good. But they are a far betterpoint of comparison than Rodman’s career numbers. Balkman would need to almost double his rebounding to match Rodman?s.

On the downside, I question whether Balkman’s limited offense will translate to the NBA though I strongly suspect his other numbers will. In three seasons at S. Carolina Balkman?s offensive game has not progressed beyond transition baskets and offensive rebounds. On a team that struggled to break 70 points most nights Balkman made next to no offensive contribution in almost a quarter of the games. This season he was shut out four times, including twice in his coming out party at the NIT, and scored fewer than five points in four other games. He brings little to a halfcourt offense, which is why he was thought by most to be a second round pick at best.

Outlook. Undoubtedly, Isiah?s strength as an executive?such that it is?has been his NFL-style approach to the draft, favoring ?best player available? over ?need.? He went away from the value-based approach with this pick. Of course, having your job threatened provides all the incentive most people need to abandon long-term thinking if they were ever capable of it. In addition, since what?s left of his tattered reputation is super-glued to Stephon Marbury it?s not surprising that he passed on the glut of point guards available at #20. Almost all the value was concentrated at that position. So he rolled the dice on a player that fills a need for a defense-oriented small forward that fits his bias toward athleticism to a tee. Balkman is in many crucial respects precisely what the Knicks need: someone who defends, who doesn?t need the ball to perform well, and who does the little things off the ball like set screens, pass, and cut.

Unfortunately Balkman is a textbook reach for need at #20 overall. Given the talent available, he will almost certainly be unable to justify his selection without near-miraculous offensive improvement. At this point Knick fans might save themselves the agony Mets fans have endured after future all-star Scott Kazmir was traded for the disappointing Victor Zambrano. Many chronicled and compared every pitch, simply adding painful detail to the obvious truth: the Mets got hosed. Balkman doesn?t have much upside but may well develop to fill precisely the role for which he was drafted, especially if he can develop a mid-range jump shot a l? Udonis Haslem. On a personal note, I hope the beat writers and fans allow this kid to just be the role player he is without throwing the Rodman comparisons back at him. He may model his play after Rodman’s and Isiah may be deluded into thinking he’s Rodman but Senator, he’s no Dennis Rodman. Isiah really oughta know better.

2. Mardy Collins ? 6?5.5? G/F, Temple (Rd. 1, #29)

Analysis. Collins is solid value at #29. Keeping with an emphasis on defense Collins is a big guard with long arms and can guard multiple positions. At Temple he never averaged fewer than 1.8 steals in four seasons and averaged 2.8 steals in each of the last two. He?s very good at jumping the passing lanes (and recovering when he doesn?t get the steal). Like many Temple players Collins will come to the league well prepared to defend but will struggle offensively.

To his credit, on offense Collins was asked to carry the load in college, playing big minutes all four seasons. In his most impressive stretch this season at the end of January against Maryland, Xavier, and UMass, Collins averaged 25 points, 3 boards, and 7.3 assists. In an earlier stretch against Auburn, Alabama, and S. Carolina he averaged 13, 3, and 5. This season he accounted for 27% of offense-starved Temple?s points and 40% of its assists. He is not a super efficient offensive player; neither a good 3 point or free throw shooter. In fairness Temple?s offense often requires guards to take poor shots against the clock. I still would have liked to see a higher percentage, especially at the line, but Collins is not quite as bad as he?s been portrayed. He shot 50.1% (TS) this season. He is very effective in the post and in the mid-range. He does a good job of using his size to get himself to the foul line extended area where he can hit the mid-range pull up jumper and hit cutters. He has “an old man’s game” and I mean that in a good way. He’s smart enough to play within his limitations.

Outlook. It?s hard to criticize Thomas for taking Collins at #29. Collins is a nice chip; a talented player with point guard skills but who could play minutes at any of three positions in a pinch or who could be included as part of a deal. But where he plays, if at all, will depend entirely on what happens with the roster this off-season. Thomas is indicating right now that he?s ready to head into the season with the current group. However, that sounds like an attempt at damage control after James Dolan undermined his bargaining power by publicly announcing his lame duck status. ?

The odds are that picks numbered 20 and 29 in any draft will likely end up being at best serviceable NBA players, with the rare exception moving on to stardom. Neither Balkman nor Collins projects as a future star, though both could and should be useful players. Of the two Collins projects to have the best career because he is the more complete player. What we can say a few days after the draft is that once again New York Knick management found a way to overpay a guy with limited marketability to put it kindly. Without question Balkman would have been available at #29. Now we can only hope that he can actually fill the role for which he was selected. Mardy Collins is a player I have long liked and had targeted for the Knicks, but a draft with one of Marcus Williams, Jordan Farmar, Rajon Rondo, Shannon Brown, or Josh Boone, along with Balkman or Collins at 29 would have preferable. [End]

Hope everyone out their has a Happy Independence Day!!!