Mark Warkentien: The Next Knicks GM?

Last weekend the Knicks announced that they were hiring Mark Warkentien as “director, pro player personnel” where he “will consult Walsh on preparation for the NBA Draft, have scouting assignments and will advise on personnel moves.” Warkentien was previously the general manager of the Denver Nuggets from 2006 until the team let him go last summer.

This move is significant for New York, because it’s possible that Warkentien is being groomed to succeed Donnie Walsh. Even though the Knicks current president has said he would like to remain with the franchise a little longer, his 70th birthday is less than two weeks away. And the team hasn’t even picked up his contract for next year. With that in mind, I’m going to look over some of Warkentien’s moves as Denver GM, in order to better understand what kind of GM he has been.

Draft 2006
Selected forward Leon Powe (49th overall pick).
Traded the draft rights to forward Leon Powe to the Boston Celtics for a future second-round pick.

Talk about starting off on the wrong foot. Powe looked to be a real gem coming out of the second round, for Boston that is. However knee injuries seem to have derailed what appeared to be a promising career. On the other hand, trading a second rounder is minor on the list of GM failures. Players available in the second round have been turned down by nearly every team in the league, and aren’t likely to turn out to be rotation players, nevertheless All Stars. It’s a low risk move shipping one to another team.

July 28 2006
Signed forward Jamal Sampson.

Unless you’re a long term reader of KnickerBlogger or a big Cal fan, you might e asking who is Jamal Sampson? Yours truly advocated for him back in 2005. A 6-11 center, Sampson was a second round teenage pick for Utah and bounced around the league for 5 years. He only accumulated 631 minutes but showed promise from a statistical perspective. Sampson averaged 13.8 reb/40 and 1.8 blk/36 which at worst would make him a decent rotation player. With that average, he would be the third best rebounder in the league this year. Unfortunately Sampson never made it in the NBA, and currently is in China where he dominated one season. When given minutes he’s produced, although it didn’t work out for Denver.

July 20 2006
Re-signed forward NenĂª; re-signed guard Howard Eisley and traded him with two 2007 second-round picks to the Chicago Bulls for guard JR Smith.

First, re-signing Nene was a gutsy move at the time. Hilario played only one game in 2006 before injuring his knee. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament, sprained his medial collateral ligament and had a torn meniscus. Also consider that at the time Nene wasn’t a high volume scorer (14.4 pts/36 in 2006), strong rebounder (8.9 reb/36) or shot blocker (1.3 blk/36). Despite another year lost (to cancer) the Hillario signing has worked for Denver. Since his new contract, Nene led the league in TS% twice, and this year he is first in eFG%.

As for his other move that summer, getting J.R. Smith for Howard Eisley and a couple of second round picks was a steal. It was another risky move for Warkentien. Smith had gotten benched by Hornets coach Byron Scott just months prior to the trade, because Smith clashed with his head coach on numerous occasions. Despite his past, Smith has produced well for Denver. In his first three seasons he posted a TS% of 57.5% or higher, with 19.8 pts/36 or more. Luckily for Chicago fans, Howard Eisley never suited up.

September 8 2006
Re-signed forward Reggie Evans.

Reggie Evans, rebounder extraordinaire, had his highest TS% (55.0%) after signing a one year deal with Denver. Despite his journeyman status, Evans is valued by statisticians for his tremendous rebounding prowess. It’s rumored that Dave Berri is lobbying for a statue of Evans pulling down a rebound in front of the economics building on the campus of Southern Utah.

December 19 2006
Traded guard Andre Miller, forward Joe Smith and two 2007 first-round picks to the Philadelphia 76ers for guard Allen Iverson and forward Ivan McFarlin.

Not a trade, I would have made. But look at it this way. Allen Iverson’s most efficient full season was in 2007 for Denver. The diminutive guard had a TS% of 55.0%, while averaging 22.8 pts/36. Considering he finished his career with a TS% of 50.1%, that’s quite an accomplishment. In Dave Berri’s statue of Reggie Evans, Iverson is in the background talking on his cell phone staring away from the play.

April 13 2007
Signed guards Anthony Carter and Von Wafer for the remainder of the season.

Perhaps Carter was overused by George Karl, but Von Wafer was a decent risk. Like Sampson he shows statistical promise, but has been inconsistent in the NBA. Wafer’s D-League career three point percentage is 42.9%, but he’s been an inconsistent shooter in the NBA. In Wafer’s only season with more than 1000 minutes (Houston 2009), he managed a PER of 14.7.

June 25 2008
Traded the 20th overall draft pick to the Charlotte Bobcats for a future protected first-round pick.

Probably done for cost savings, or perhaps the Bobcats were just salivating to get a player of Alexis Ajinca’s caliber. The next international center taken was Sergeballu LaMu Sayonga Loom Walahas Jonas Hugo Ibaka by the Sonics, four picks later. Anytime I get sad recalling the pain Michael Jordan has caused Knick fans in the past, I think about the tremendous job he’s done as a general manager to sooth my soul.

July 15 2008
Traded center Marcus Camby to the Los Angeles Clippers for the option to exchange second-round picks in 2010.

July 24 2008
Signed forward Chris Andersen.

July 28 2008
Traded guard Taurean Green, forward Bobby Jones and a 2010 second-round draft pick to the New York Knicks for forward Renaldo Balkman and cash considerations.

Marcus Camby was a salary dump for Denver, as the Nuggets looked for a team with the cap space to absorb Camby’s contract so they really couldn’t expect much in return. On one hand you’d like to exonerate Warkentien for this move since it was deemed necessary by ownership. But on the other hand it was the move for Iverson, who would be owed nearly $20.8M in 2009, that forced Denver to make this move.

The Nuggets attempted to minimize the loss by grabbing Chris Andersen and Renaldo Balkman. Both players had strong per-minute stats but neither made a splash in the NBA. Additionally Andersen was suspended in 2006 for drug abuse. The Birdman would immediately become one of the NBA’s most valuable glue guys. Although he only averages 20-24 minutes per game, he’s quite productive. His first year in Denver, Andersen managed 10.9 reb/36, 4.3 blk/36, 60.8 TS%, and a PER of 18.1. Meanwhile, Balkman hasn’t made much of an impact, failing to make the rotation for any significant stretch. In two and a half seasons he has yet to see 1000 total minutes.

September 30 2008
Signed guards Smush Parker and Mateen Cleaves and forwards Ruben Patterson, Nick Fazekas and James Mays.

Most people recognize the names Ruben Patterson, Smush Parker, and Mateen Cleaves. However it’s Nick Fazekas, a 6-11 center, that I’m most interested in. Fazekas averaged a double-double in the D-League for Tulsa (22.5 pts/36 and 11.6 reb/36). Recently he was taken first in this year’s NBDL draft, but was subsequently released in December. Clearly Fazekas has potential.

November 3 2008
Traded guard Allen Iverson to the Detroit Pistons for guard Chauncey Billups, forward Antonio McDyess and center Cheikh Samb; waived forward Juwan Howard.

There are two ways to look at this move. The first is to wonder if Chauncey Billups was worth the cost of rolling the dice on Iverson and losing Camby. The other way is to see that Warkentien turned a soon to be worthless player into a talented point guard. Billups has career averages of 58.1% TS% and 19.1 PER. Clearly another steal for Warkentien. Additionally in 2007-2008, the 7-1 Cheikh Samb averaged 5.3 blk/36 in the D-League, to the tune of a 17.9 PER.

Draft 2009
Selected guard Sergio Llull (34th overall pick). Traded the draft rights to guard Sergio Llull to the Houston Rockets for cash. Traded a 2010 conditional first-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the draft rights to guard Ty Lawson.

Remember that point guard a whole bunch of KnickerBlogger fans were clamoring for in the 2009 draft? The one where the Knicks selected Jordan Hill with the 8th pick instead, and said point guard went 10 picks later. Well it was Warkentien that took Lawson wit the 18th pick. Although the point guard is stuck behind Billups, Lawson has been productive (16.7 PER, 59.2% TS%) as the team’s backup.

July 15 2010
Signed forward Al Harrington and center Shelden Williams and re-signed guard Anthony Carter.

Warkentien’s career in Denver was bookmarked with dubious moves. Although Harrington was only signed to a $34M contract over 5 years, given his uni-dimensional play and age even this relatively small amount seems excessive.

Ultimately Warkentien’s career in Denver is quite promising. His worst moves were the acquisition of Allen Iverson and it’s related dumping of Marcus Camby. After that I would say signing Harrington is his next most obvious mistake. However grading a GM’s moves over a short span may not mean that going forward the person would be as good. Take for instance Joe Dumars. His moves that led to Detroit’s championship seemed ingenious. Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace were per-minute darlings prior to being given a starting role in Detroit. However his signings since have lacked the same intuition. Ben Gordon? Tracy McGrady?

What’s more important is why a GM does an action. For example one person might win at blackjack hitting on a 19 and getting a deuce. It doesn’t mean that’s the ideal strategy, or that using that method will lead to future success. When looking over Warkentien’s moves as Denver GM, I see a pattern of grabbing good per-minute players like Sampson, Wafer, Evans, Balkman, Andersen, and Fazekas. Not all of them worked out, much like staying on a 19 won’t always produce a winning hand, but they were good low-risk/high-reward moves.

Warkentien shows a knack for targeting players with potential from a statistical viewpoint. He seems to value rebounding for his big men, and overall scoring efficiency. Additionally he had a good eye for trades, nabbing J.R. Smith and Chauncey Billups for what amounted to nothing speaks volume of his ability to create the right deal.

Most important, Denver’s results under Warkentien speak for themselves. He took over a Denver team that won only 44 games the year before his arrival, and in three of his four seasons they won 50 or more games. That included a Western Conference Finals appearance, something the franchise hadn’t managed in 21 years. From my analysis it appears that the Knicks have a more than capable successor to Donnie Walsh. That is, if they choose Warkentien to replace him.