2009 Report Card: Donnie Walsh

It was with fanfare befitting a peaceful transfer of power from despotism to enlightenment that Donnie Walsh inherited Isiah Thomas’ job as New York Knicks president of basketball operations in the spring of 2008.  But as with so many European monarchs, African generals, and Spinal Tap drummers before him, the excitement surrounding Walsh’s arrival soon gave way, at least in part, to the grim realization that the pitfalls of previous years had not all departed with his predecessor.  An impossible cap situation, a meddling owner, and a frequently unmotivated core of players were all holdovers from the Isiah era which Walsh has been forced to address, with varying degrees of success.

Walsh’s first Knicks team finished with a record of 32-50, worse than three of the five Knicks squads that Isiah oversaw.  But Walsh’s job was never about 2009 and, unlike Isiah, he immediately proved willing to accept that short term failure was a necessary and acceptable side effect of true progress.  To this end, it is undeniable that the poker-faced Bronx native has moved a dysfunctional franchise in the right direction, but his advances have not come without missteps.  That these mistakes have come with little popular backlash is cause for gratitude to Isiah – critics of Walsh would be far more vocal had his hiring not come on the heels of such unmitigated failure.

If Walsh’s patience and indecipherability are his greatest qualities in negotiation, they may also be his best assets in avoiding the kind of criticism that is typicaly heaped upon New York pro sports executives by media and fans.  His stern demeanor and unshakable calm suggest to observers, even at moments of seeming misjudgment, that he knows more about the situation than they do and so deserves their trust.  A move-by-move analysis of Walsh’s Knicks tenure reveals a well-reasoned overall plan that has been tarnished by some truly baffling decisions.  With the belief that the moves a general manager doesn’t make are as important as the moves he does make, I offer this chronological assessment of Walsh’s first season-plus on the job:

May 10, 2008: In his first, and thus far best, major move as Knicks president, Walsh signed Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni to a 4-year, $24 million contract.  D’Antoni’s hiring has resonated with fans (seen in the sense of pride that came with a prized coaching commodity choosing the Knicks over a handful of other suitors, as well as the entertaining brand of basketball to which they are treated each night), Knicks players (seen in the career years put up by David Lee, Al Harrington, Nate Robinson, Wilson Chandler, and, for the first 50 games, Chris Duhon), and players around the league (D’Antoni’s relationship with soon-to-be-max-contract-signers LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Kobe Bryant may prove to be his most important asset as the Knicks’ coach).

Grade: A, and if LeBron’s affection for D’Antoni leads him to New York, it becomes an A-plus.

Draft Night, 2008: With the sixth pick, Walsh chose Danilo Gallinari, whose struggles with back trouble and flashes of promise have both been well-chronicled on this and other sites.  While the jury remains out on Gallo, we have a better idea about some of the guys Walsh could have taken.  Of the lottery picks remaining on the board at #6, Eric Gordon (chosen 7th, 14.98 rookie PER), Brook Lopez (chosen 10th, 17.94 rookie PER), and Anthony Randolph (chosen 14th, 16.94 rookie PER and an absolute monster of a summer league) have looked the most promising thus far.

However, simply lining Gallo up against these three doesn’t quite create a proper lens for evaluating Walsh’s choice.  Looking back through Chad Ford’s archives reminds us that Gordon and Joe Alexander (chosen  8th, 10.19 rookie PER) were the two most likely Knicks picks had they passed on Gallinari, and the early returns suggest that Walsh may have dodged a bullet by passing on Alexander’s unique, but extremely raw, skill set.

Grade: C-plus.  We all love Gallo and it’s tempting to give Walsh an incomplete here.  It’s also probably unfair to criticize Walsh for passing on Lopez and Randolph, as the former was universally regarded as low on upside and the latter as a potential bust.  Still, it’s impossible to ignore how well Gordon, Randolph, and Lopez would all fit into D’Antoni’s system, and one would be hard pressed to find a non-Knicks fan who would put an unproven 21-year-old who already has back problems on the same level as any of these three.  I think there are decent odds Gallinari will prove this grade wrong but at the moment this looks like an OK, but not great, pick.

July 4, 2008: Walsh signed former Bulls PG Chris Duhon to a 2 year contract at the full mid-level ($12 million).  The price tag here looks high now, given the lower salaries being handed out this offseason and the incredibly frustrating second half to Duhon’s 2008-09 season.  Still, the Knicks have never minded paying out  luxury tax dollars and Walsh brought in a point guard who generally stays out of his own way and makes his teammates better on the offensive end.  If Duhon’s ability to create easy baskets can turn Curry into a tradable commodity this season (it’s a long shot, but hey, a guy can hope), it becomes a great signing.  Until then, Duhon is a player who doesn’t set his team back on the court, creates reps for a young core in need of development, and doesn’t set the franchise back in its hunt for prime talent in 2010.  Pretty good move for the mid-level in a lackluster free agent summer.

Grade: B.

November 21, 2008: Walsh put on his Kevin Pritchard hat for a day and swung two trades that cleared up $27 million in 2010 cap room.  In sending Zach Randolph to the Clippers and Jamal Crawford to the Warriors in exchange for a useful forward in Al Harrington, a useless forward in Tim Thomas, and a soon-to-retire combo guard in Cuttino Mobley, Walsh dismantled the slim playoff hopes of what was then an above-.500 team.  More importantly, however, he overhauled the team’s long term cap position, picked up a trade chip in Mobley’s tax-free contract, and rid the team of two shoot-first players who were almost certainly stunting the development of their younger, more promising counterparts.   A complete no-brainer.

Grade: A-minus.  It’s a move any good GM would have made if it was available but, what can I say, it’s a good career move to succeed Isiah.

February 19, 2009: An unstoppable force (the Bulls’ desire to trade Larry Hughes) met an immovable object (Jerome James’ contract) and the unstoppable force won as the Knicks flipped James and Tim Thomas for Hughes.  Largely seen as a garbage for garbage deal, the move was supposed to make the Knicks slightly better in the short run without helping or hurting their long-term cap situation and, mainly, sparing their fans the nightly sight of James smiling and joking around on the end of the bench during 20-point losses.  A mostly useless move in the long run and maybe a net negative, as Hughes took some minute that would likely have gone to Nate and Chandler otherwise.  Hughes also brought back some of the poor shot selection and general grumpiness that had mostly departed with Crawford and Stephon Marbury, respectively.  In the end, the trade’s impact, positive or negative, was minimal and we stopped having to listen to Jerome James jokes.

Grade: C (in a one-credit class with little effect on overall GPA).

Trade Deadline, 2009: The Knicks engaged in a well-chronicled negotiation with the Sacramento Kings, who asked for Nate Robinson and Jared Jeffries in exchange for Kenny Thomas’ soon-to-expire contract.  With the Knicks still loosely in playoff contention, Walsh turned down the offer and chose not to rid himself of the nearly $7 million committed to Jeffries in 2010.  A puzzling, disturbingly Isiah-esque move whose questionability has been compounded by the complete disinterest that Walsh has displayed in re-signing Nate this offseason.  If Robinson is truly so expendable, and it’s likely he is, then why endanger the future for only a few months of his services?  This inaction made little sense at the time and makes even less sense now.

Grade: D-minus.

2009 Draft, Lead-up: Another instance in which Walsh seemed to contradict his general mission statement of financial flexibility, as he reportedly rejected an offer of the #5 pick and some expiring contracts for Wilson Chandler, Jeffries, and Hughes.  This rumor always seemed a bit sketchy from the Wizards’ side, but if this offer was truly on the table, I can’t imagine Walsh’s resistance to it.  Trading Jeffries is a desirable goal, Hughes has no long-term value, and Chandler, while a promising young player, is more likely than not to become an effective wing who is generally indistinguishable from any number of other small forwards in the league.  The negligible , if even existent, talent drop off from Chandler to the #5 pick in the draft (which turned out to be Ricky Rubio, though no one would have guessed it at the time) seemed a small price to pay for the disposal of a considerable financial obstacle.

Grade: D.  It’s worth noting that a few different versions of this trade were bouncing around during draft week, some of which would have been less of a windfall for the Knicks.  None of them, however, seemed particularly logical to reject as the Wizards displayed genuine interest in both Jeffries and Hughes.

Draft Night, 2009: Walsh played the hand he was dealt at #8, picking Jordan Hill after watching Rubio and Stephen Curry disappear in rapid succession.  An uninspiring, but far from disastrous, summer league performance has left Hill as a general mystery to Knicks fans at this point, but he’s big and athletic and he got enough numbers in college (although his FG% leaves something to be desired, considering his layup-and-dunk-heavy shot selection) to suggest that he’ll be a useful role player at the worst.  Walsh’s bigger coup on draft night was the effective purchase of Toney Douglas’s draft rights from the Lakers, just the kind of low-risk, solid-upside maneuver that the Knicks never seem to make.  If Douglas develops into a serviceable back-up point guard with a jump shot and an above average defensive skill set, which seems likely, this pick is a success.

In a final draft night move, Walsh acquired Darko Milicic from the Grizzlies by sending Quentin Richardson off on the first leg of his summer-long tour of NBA mediocrity.  Another low-risk move that might suit D’Antoni’s system well.  Given what he had to work with, a sound if unspectacular draft night for Walsh.

Grade: B-plus for draft night in a vacuum.  However, if you consider that Walsh could have had Rubio or Curry at five had he made the Wizards trade, it’s a C-minus.

Free Agency, 2009: I don’t know.  Do you?  I think Walsh was right not to pay for Iverson.  I would have loved a year or two of Nash at the mid-level, but I get the feeling that was never as close to a reality as we all were hoping.

If Walsh wins his ongoing staring contest with Ramon Sessions (17.65 PER, 23 years old) and signs him for two years at a low 2010 cap number, it will be a way better long-term move than signing Jason Kidd (16.95 PER, 36 years old) would have been, as the Knicks will acquire a young, affordable point guard who can defer to his teammates and can wait until after the Knicks make their big free agent splash to receive his long-term payout.

Additionally, Walsh has done well not to give in to unrealistic demands by either Lee or Robinson in a depressed market, but until their situations are resolved (ideally with Nate walking or taking a cheap one-year deal and Lee staying on for something near the mid-level), it’s hard to get a read on Walsh’s current plan or his level of confidence in the LeBron/Wade/Bosh sweepstakes next offseason.

Grade: Incomplete.

All told, Walsh’s tenure got off to a promising start but has suffered from several moments of seeming hesitance to take the final plunge and commit to any one comprehensive strategy.  Walsh has clearly leaned toward building for the future at the expense of the present, which is a welcome change from the Isiah era, but his unwillingness to part with anyone of value as a pot-sweetener in the unloading of bad contracts has stunted the Knicks progress toward an ideal 2010 cap situation.  As it stands, the team has a top-flight coach and more young talent and long-term financial flexibility than anyone could have realistically expected 16 months ago.  But one worries that Walsh has hedged his bets a bit too much and will fall short of a free agent jackpot next summer.

Overall Grade: B

Marcin Gortat Is Not Jerome James

Marc Berman of the Post says New York has an interest in signing Marcin Gortat with their Mid Level Exception. I would expect some Knick fans to have flashbacks to the summer of 2005, when the team signed Jerome James. But I think Gortat is miles away from James.

Player Year   G  FGA FTA  FT% ORB DRB  TRB AST STL BLK TOV  PF  PTS  TS% eFG%
Gortat 2009  69  8.8 2.1 .583 4.5 8.5 13.1 0.7 0.8 2.3 1.2 5.0 11.2 57.3 56.3
 James 2005 268 10.0 2.9 .617 2.9 5.3  8.3 0.9 0.7 3.0 2.9 7.2 11.6 51.7 49.3  	

On the surface they are both defensive minded 7 footers coming off extended playoff runs. Neither player was a main cog in their team’s success (James averaged 16.6 mpg, Gortat 12.6), and neither could hit their free throws. But Gortat distinguishes himself from James in a few key areas. Marcin snared 13.1 boards per 36 minutes to Jerome’s 8.3, a remarkable difference. And although he scores at about the same rate, he’s superior in regards to efficiency (TS%: 57.3 to 51.7%) and turns the ball over less than half the time (TO/36: 1.2 to 2.9). Gortat would also be 5 years younger than James was, and at 25 years of age is just entering his prime. And if you’re worried about his propensity to eat snacks, Gortat’s father was an Olympic boxer (two time bronze medalist) so he probably knows a thing about nutrition.

Even if you attribute Gortat’s numbers to low minute count (he has yet to play 1000 minutes in the league) and Orlando’s success (playing with Lewis, Turkoglu, etc open the floor) and adjust them downward, he still projects to an above average starting center. Trying to find similar players yields few results. One attempt picked up Tree Rollins, Tyson Chandler, and Andrew Bynum. Not bad company at all. Marcin could be a steal for the Knicks, but they have to be mindful of their cap. Unless they move Lee, Curry, Robinson, or Jeffries, the team can’t afford to sign the young center without ruining their free agent chances in 2010.

Changes in the CBA Could Help the Fans

Back in February the New York Times published an article on agent David Falk and the next NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement. In it, Falk said that the NBA owners will push for serious changes in the next CBA and since they are prepared to lock the players out for two seasons, they will likely get their changes approved. Two weeks ago the player’s union president, Billy Hunter, refuted the claims that the league will win on all fronts, saying the players would negotiate not surrender. As opposed to the overhaul Falk is suggesting, Hunter said the players will only agree to minor changes to the CBA. Some of the changes that Falk is proposing won’t affect the average fan, like the percentage split between players/owners or the age limit. However there are a few changes to the salary cap that could benefit the common follower.

Understanding the ramifications of the NBA’s salary cap can be difficult for the average viewer. The NBA has a soft cap, meaning all teams over the cap are unable to sign new free agents except for the mid-level exception (about $5/$6M per year) and the low level exception (about $1/$2M per year). Using the Bird exception a team over the cap can usually resign their own player. Additionally a team that is over the cap can only swap players whose annual salaries match. Although the rules are simple, their constraints make for strange results. For instance, last year the Blazers sent Zach Randolph to the Knicks for Steve Francis and Channing Frye. Randolph played nearly every game for the Knicks for a year and a half, while Portland instantly cut Francis, and Frye eventually fell out of the rotation. Yet the Blazers received the better end of the deal!

NBA trades aren’t evaluated at the talent level, but at the financial one. There’s a problem with the league when fans can’t analyze a trade without consulting an accountant. It’s hardly something you’d expect from a business in the entertainment field. The issue stems from guaranteed contracts, or more specifically bad contracts. Nearly all NBA contracts are guaranteed, which means that if a team cuts a player, his contract stays on the cap for its entire length. A player can be overpaid when a team misjudges his potential (Eddy Curry, Larry Hughes), the player regresses due to injury (Antonio McDyess, Darius Miles), or bad management (Jared Jeffries, Jerome James). Since NBA contracts can last 6 years, when a team hands an oversized contract to a player the effects last a long time. Once the contract is signed, the only option the team has to get out from its length is to trade for another player with a contract of similar size but shorter length. But from the league’s perspective, the unwanted contract isn’t removed. It is just redistributed to another team. Hence as these bloated contracts float from team to team until their final demise, the overpaid player becomes a burden on the entire league. It’s not a surprise that players with bad contracts are the ones that are frequently mentioned in trade rumors, since teams are always looking to move them.

While it’s easy to lay blame at the feet of the team presidents that hand out such ridiculous contracts, it’s ultimately the fans that end up suffering. One GM with a few bad moves can cripple a team for half a decade. It will take the Knicks two years post Isiah Thomas (on top of the four years with Zeke at the helm) to be able to get out from the salary cap landslide he created. But this isn’t isolated to the Knicks, because bad contracts are commonplace in the NBA. One misguided front office can hurt a team years after they have been removed.

Adding to the problem is the league’s tough stance on guaranteed contracts, which are seemingly written in stone. Darius Miles was given a contract extension by Portland back in 2004 that lasted until 2010. He played his last game for the Blazers back in the 2006 season. The team petitioned the league to remove his contract from their books due to injury, and the league capitulated. However this year Miles has resurfaced to play in a handful of games for Memphis, and the league has applied his salary back to Portland’s cap. Also this year the Knicks received Cuttino Mobley in a trade, who was forced to retire due to a heart condition. New York was denied a disabled player exception from the league, even though Mobley’s “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy had progressed to the point that playing professional basketball could be life-threatening.

The two other major American sports don’t have this problem. Major League Baseball’s lack of a salary cap means teams are able to sign any player regardless of how much the team has already spent. Unfortunately this model would be a disaster for the NBA because the league isn’t as stable and lucrative as baseball’s. However the NFL’s model would be a good fit. Football has a hard cap, which means teams are not allowed to exceed their cap number. And to allow teams to accomplish this goal, most contracts in the NFL are not guaranteed. According to wikipedia:

Because of this treatment, NFL contracts almost always include the right to cut a player before the beginning of a season. If a player is cut, his salary for the remainder of his contract is neither paid nor counted against the salary cap for that team. A highly sought-after player signing a long term contract will usually receive a signing bonus, thus providing him with financial security even if he is cut before the end of his contract.

Which leads us back to the NBA’s next CBA. Falk suggests the owners will push for a hard cap and shorter contracts. And I hope they win, because the soft cap/guaranteed contract is bad for the league and its fans. Imagine if player deals were only guaranteed for the first 3 years. Almost instantly the Knicks could have jettisoned any unwanted players and reshape their team in a single offseason. On his first day Donnie Walsh could have cut Stephon Marbury, Zach Randolph, Eddy Curry, Jerome James, Jamal Crawford, and Malik Rose. With the players cut from other teams, Walsh could have had a wider berth of players to chose from when building the 2009 roster. Unfortunately the current cap rules forced Walsh to stick with these undesirable players and allowed him to trade them only for matching salaries (and in Eddy Curry’s case – not at all). It’s easy to see why this would benefit teams and their fans. Bad franchises would be able to fix their mistakes quicker, which means fans wouldn’t have to wait years for the hometown squad to turn things around. And since winning correlates to ticket sales more than anything else, it means the owners would see more money in their pockets.

Switching to a hard cap would probably add one more added benefit to the league: parity. The NFL’s popularity can be partly attributed to the ability of teams to make single season turnarounds. This means that every franchise with competent management (everyone but the Oakland Raiders) has a chance to make the playoffs and go to the Super Bowl. Last year the Dolphins, Falcons, and Cardinals had years that surpassed their fans’ wildest dreams. Over the last three years, the NFC has seen a different winner in 3 out of 4 of their divisions. In that same time span the NBA has had only 1 of their 6 divisions with three different winners (the Southwest). With the current rules, rebuilding in the NBA is a slow and tedious effort. Allowing GMs to cut their players without long term harm means that more players would become free agents each year. This increased player movement would give teams more flexibility to address their needs.

Of course the biggest hurdle in this change would be the players. Overall shorter contracts probably wouldn’t fly with players, since that curbs the earning power of the sports’ best players. And many players would balk at non-guaranteed contracts, since that wouldn’t allow them get that lucrative 5 or 6 year deal for financial security. However by asking for non-guaranteed contracts instead of shorter ones, the league can keep their top earners happy (who would cut LeBron or Kobe?) while making a pitch to the underpaid. For instance if teams weren’t bound by large contracts to undeserving players, there would be more money to sign those who merit it. In other words, some of the younger Knicks might be splitting Stephon Marbury’s $19M per year. And Portland could take the nearly $40M they’re giving to Steve Francis, Raef LaFrentz, and Darius Miles and use that on some of the players that have actually played for the team this year.

Perhaps to even things out for the players, the league would have to make the concession to raise the salary cap. Currently the cap is at $57M, but since it’s a soft cap teams can exceed that number. Using the salary data from hoopshype, it seems that the league paid out an average of $72M this year. Although some players may object to such a concession, there seems to be room for negotiation. And it does redistribute the wealth to players that deserve it more. If there’s resentment in NBA locker rooms over disproportionate salaries, this would go a long way to remedy it. When some players are getting paid more than they are worth, it hurts both the league and the players that deserve more money. And last but not least, the fans.

Samb A Low Risk For New York

Yesterday the Knicks signed Cheik Samb to a 10 day contract. Samb has played for 3 other NBA teams (the Pistons, Nuggets, and Clippers) but has only amassed 106 minutes in that time. His per minute numbers show him to be a strong shot blocker with a very limited offensive game. In fact his shooting numbers are downright laughably bad (TS% 30.5, eFG 27.3%)

Although I’m a big of a supporter of per minute numbers, 106 minutes isn’t enough of a sample to make a good conclusion. This is especially true with regards to a players shooting percentages, which vary more from game to game than their other stats. Luckily Samb has logged 500+ minutes for the NBDL, and his 14.7 pts/36 on 52.8% TS% in the minor league is encouraging. If you combine his numbers from the two leagues, he projects well for a backup center.

Season   Tm  G  MP  FGA FTA  FT% ORB  TRB AST STL BLK TOV  PF   PTS  PER  TS% eFG%
2007-08 DET  4  31  4.6 2.3 .500 3.5  8.1 0.0 1.2 2.3 1.2 9.3  8.1 12.0 .717 .750
2008-09 TOT 16  75 13.9 2.4 .600 4.3 10.6 0.5 1.4 4.8 1.4 3.4  7.2  7.2 .240 .207
NBA Career  20 106 11.2 2.4 .571 4.1  9.8 0.3 1.4 4.1 1.4 5.1  7.5  8.6 .305 .273
NBDL Career 20 508 12.7 2.8 .744 2.6  9.6 0.9 0.9 5.3 2.1 4.6 14.7 17.9 .528 .497
NBA+NBDL    40 614 12.4 2.7 .714 2.9  9.6 0.8 1.0 5.1 2.0 4.7 13.5 16.3 .490 .458

Samb holds up well when compared to some other NBA centers at approximately the same age/number of years in the league. His rebounding isn’t as strong as Ben Wallace or Andris Biedrins, and Big Ben was chipping in with nearly 2 blocks per 36 minutes. Additionally Samb compares poorly to the lot from an offensive standpoint (if you value his NBA numbers over his NBDL). However his blocked shots are the best of the bunch. In fact there have only been 54 seasons in which a player averaged more than 4.0 blocks/36 in 1000 minutes or more.

        Player   To   G   MP   FGA  FG% FTA  FT% ORB  TRB AST STL BLK TOV  PF  PTS
     Cheik Samb 2009  20  106 11.2 .273 2.4 .571 4.1  9.8 0.3 1.4 4.1 1.4 5.1  7.5
Samb NBA+NBDL   2009  40  614 12.4 .458 2.7 .714 2.9  9.6 0.8 1.0 5.1 2.0 4.7 13.5
  Jackie Butler 2007  69  848 10.8 .539 3.8 .775 3.1  8.7 1.3 0.8 1.3 3.1 6.1 14.6
   Jerome James 2002  72  991 10.8 .481 2.6 .500 3.5  9.0 0.9 1.0 3.3 3.0 6.7 11.7
  Steven Hunter 2004 145 1752  8.3 .506 4.3 .464 2.7  7.4 0.5 0.4 3.1 1.2 4.9 10.4
   Dan Gadzuric 2004 124 2020  8.8 .512 3.1 .500 3.4  9.7 0.7 1.3 2.8 1.3 5.5 10.6
Andris Biedrins 2009 309 7469  9.1 .602 3.2 .535 4.3 12.2 1.5 1.1 1.9 1.7 5.0 12.6
    Ben Wallace 1998 101 1321  5.7 .481 3.2 .347 3.7 10.4 0.5 1.9 2.3 1.3 3.9  6.6

The big question is will Samb ever see that many minutes? It’s hard to tell with D’Antoni. He seemingly coveted Chris Wilcox when in Phoenix, but now that the team has acquired him, the center has yet to see any real minutes. Wilcox has played in only 5 games, and has yet to play more than 12 in any game for New York. My gut feeling is that D’Antoni might throw Samb a few minutes early to see if he’s useful, but that you won’t see him again until the Knicks are officially out of the place race. It’s very likely that Samb won’t see any minutes this year at all. New York may just hold him on their roster for the summer league and re-evaluate him at that time.

To put things in perspective the last time the Knicks picked up a shot blocking center in Jerome James, the deal was 182 times longer than Samb’s. The shot blocker they picked up prior to James, helped them reach the playoffs (Dikembe Mutombo) in 2004. This is a good low risk-medium reward deal for the Knicks. It’s something that the team has been weak at considering the Roberson/Von Wafer mistake over the summer. If Samb can join the legion of NBDLers who have become solid NBA players he will give New York another cheap player to help the team win now. Additionally players like Samb could help New York field a competitive roster for 2011 without hurting them fiscally.

Knicks Make Small Gains

New York pulled the trigger on two deals today before the NBA trade deadline. The bad news is that neither deal opens up any more cap space for 2010. The good news is that the moves will give the team a little more flexibility this year. In the bigger deal, New York acquired Larry Hughes for Jerome James, Tim Thomas, and Anthony Roberson. In a second deal, the Knicks sent Malik Rose to Oklahoma City for Chris Wilcox. Hughes will make $12.8M this year and $13.7M next year, while Wilcox’s $6.8M contract will expire this year. Hence from a salary cap perspective, this is a lateral move for the Knicks.

The most obvious improvement is in the Wilcox/Rose deal. Malik Rose saw playing time early on, but has been racking up DNP-CDs since. The veteran has played in only three games since Christmas. Wilcox is 8 years younger, and has been productive. Although his PER is down this year (13.4), he’s had an above PER the two years prior (16.3 in 2008 & 16.6 in 2007). He should provide the Knicks with much needed depth at the F/C spots, and that alone will help the team this year. I’m not sure why the Thunder made this deal, unless they’re eying Rose for a coaching position.

As for the Knicks other deal, it’s not necessarily who they got that makes them better. Larry Hughes is an aging slasher/defender who perhaps was never a great defender despite his reputation. Kevin Broom and I used to discuss Hughes’ defense, and Broom thought that Hughes’ gambles on the defensive end hurt the team. As for the slasher aspect, Hughes averaged 6.9 FT/36 in 2005 and that number has decreased in every full year since (5.4 in 2006, 4.3 in 2007, 3.4 in 2008). That means he’s either not able or not willing to get to the hole more, which would explain his tumbling shooting numbers. This year has been a small rebound year for Hughes, as his TS% has increased nearly 60 points from last year (TS% 52.5%) But at this point it’s possible due to the small sample size instead of a real improvement.

What’s more important about the Bulls trade is that the Knicks unloaded three players for one. Much like Malik Rose (160 minutes played), Jerome James (10 min) and Anthony Roberson (253 min) have seen few minutes this year. With New York wasting roster spots on these three plus Curry (3 min) and Stephon Marbury (0 min), the team has been playing shorthanded nearly the entire year. With two new roster spots freed, the Knicks can grab two players from the D-League to fit specific roles (shot blocker?, point guard?) that the team needs.

In both of these deals New York has given up only one player who was in their rotation: Tim Thomas. The Knicks will be able to replace his role on the team with two players. The first is Wilcox who will give New York a big body to defend the post. The second is Gallinari who will provide scoring from the perimeter. Giving the rookie more playing time is the icing on the cake for the Knicks.

2009 Game Preview/Thread: Knicks vs. Lakers

With apologies to Rakim, the greatest MC of his era…

It’s been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you
Without previews to step to
Think of how many games you shlept through
Time’s up, I’m sorry I kept you
Waiting on this, analytical blitz
The previews from the game thread soloist
As you sit by the CPU, hand on the keyboard
Click on the link, this is your reward
Read with the brother that is in the know,
I got the stats, so here they go
It’s a 4 factor world, ya heard? They control
when you got stats, you know you got soul.

Enough of that.   I’m just so happy to be back. 

New York (21-25) hosts Los Angeles (37-9) tonight.  New York dropped a tough one in Los Angeles 116-114 on December 16, 2008. 

Injury report: Andrew Bynum (knee) out 8-12 weeks with a tear to his MCL.  Second long term knee injury to Bynum in as many years.  Tough break for Bynum but good news for New York.  But don’t fret L.A. fans, New York lost Jerome James (knee, ankle, diet take your pick) for the season and New York found ways to adjust.

TEAM POSS EFF eFG TO OREB% FT/FG
New York Knicks-Offense 97.2 106.9 50.1 15.5 24 21
Rank 2 17 13 18 28 27
Los Angeles Lakers-Defense 94.4 105 49.2 16.3 27 20.6
Rank 5 6 10 10 16 5
New York Knicks-Defense 97.2 108.9 51.2 14.9 27.3 20.5
Rank 2 18 26 21 19 4
Los Angeles Lakers-Offense 94.4 114.2 52 14.5 29.7 25
Rank 5 1 5 6 3.5 7

What to watch for:  Attack L.A.’s defense.  L.A. is pretty fair team on defense ranking 6th in defensive efficiency (105), 10th in defensive eFG% (49.2), and 10th in defensive turnovers (16.3).  However, L.A.’s interior defense will be somewhat diminished with Bynum’s 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes unavailable.  Gasol is not a very strong interior defender so the Knicks should look to exploit this with the Lee/Duhon two man game.  Fisher is a strong defender but he will have trouble keeping up with either Robinson or Duhon.  New York needs to stay on the attack.

What to watch for 2: Gasol.  New York would do well to attack Gasol early.  Gasol picks up about 2 fouls per 36 minutes, so he is either a very smart defensive center or a center who sees a player coming and says “Ole”.  Given that Gasol blocks fewer than 1 block per 36 minutes (0.9), I’m going to say the Spaniard plays as they say in Spain, “la defensa del matador.”  New York really does not have a defensive player talented enough to stop Gasol, so getting him into foul trouble is a good approach.

What to watch for 3:  Kobe Bryant.  This is just my opinion, but I say Kobe Bryant is the best all around player in the NBA.  He can score at will and even on the rare night that his shots are not falling , he knows how to share the ball.  L.A. likes to let Kobe dictate on offense (USG-r 29.7) and make good decisions.  I think New York could distrupt that by showing Kobe different looks on defense.  I think you’ll see D’antoni throw Q, Wilson Chandler, and JJ at Kobe in an effort to keep him off balance-good luck.

Inquiring minds want to know: Whether New York’s second unit led by Robinson and Chandler can keep pushing the pace set by the first team.  For L.A., its whether Odom can step in and fill the rebounding and shot blocking void left by Bynum.

2009 Game Preview: Knicks at Rockets

Houston (23-15) hosts New York (13-21)

TEAM POSS EFF eFG TO OREB% FT/FG
New York Knicks-Offense 98.1 105.4 49.5 15.8 23.7 20.6
Rank 1 20 14 17 28 27
Houston Rockets-Defense 89.9 103.9 48.2 14.2 25.5 19.3
Rank 23 6 6 27 9 2
New York Knicks-Defense 98.1 108.7 51.8 15.2 26.9 20
Rank 1 19 28 18 17 5
Houston Rockets-Offense 89.9 106.8 48.4 15.7 26.1 25.6
Rank 23 16 19 16 19 7

Injury Report

Ron Artest will likely miss tonight’s contest while he rests a sprained ankle.  Tracy McGrady may be able to play though he has missed time of late  with a sore knee.  Shane Battier is questionable with a sore knee.  Brent Barry missed the previous game dealing with a personal matter.  It is unknown whether he will be available tonight.

Gallanari is not likely to see action due to his sore back.  Jerome James is out with swelling of the everything, and Roberson is unlikely to see action due to a sprained 3 point jump shot.

What to watch for: Defense.Houston is not an especially strong team on offense.  Houston’s pace is in the bottom third of the NBA (89.9, 23rd), Houston’s efficiency (106.8, 16th) and eFG% (48.4, 19th) are right near the league average.  This by no means excuses New York from playing defense.  Houston has talented offensive players in McGrady, Yao, Alston and New York training camp casualty Von Wafer.  So New York needs a strong defensive effort designed to keep Yao out of the paint.  New York also needs to stay near the Houston 3 point shooters.  Wafer is hitting 43.5% of his 3s (Donnie, Roberson is only hitting 33.8%- I’m just saying).

What to watch for 2: Pace.  Tonight Houston plays its sixth game in nine nights and the second of a back-to-back.  New York has to really get into its running game and attempt to wear Houston down.  If Artest cannot play, Houston will be without its strongest defender.  Yao should be somewhat neutralized on defense since New York relies on outside shooting rather than post scoring or drives to the paint. 

Furthermore, if the injury report holds up Houston will be pretty thin.  The recent schedule, thin roster, and fast pace may tired them down.  Run, run, run.

What to watch for 3: Yao.  Tall, good footwork, and a soft touch means trouble for New York’s front court.  While Jeffries is likely to draw this defensive assignment, I would like to see if Curry can entice Yao into picking up a few fouls in the post.  With proper spacing, Lee and Duhon could create trouble for Yao on the pick and roll.  If New York can get Yao on the bench, things should be easier for the team on defense.