NBA training camps are now clearly on the horizon and the off-season is drawing rapidly to an anti-climatic close. Now seems a good time to chime in with a few words about the state of our beloved Knickerbockers heading into the 2005-2006 campaign. For brevity?s sake I?ll try to focus my comments on a few key questions, leaving the rest for another day.
Question 1: What exactly is the plan?
To its credit the Knick?s front office finally began to use the word rebuilding this off-season, and many a die-hard fan has longed to hear it. Unfortunately the Knick brain trust, such that it is, has taken far too long to pass through its ?we?re-one-more-player-away? denial phase since the magical run of 1999 ended on Avery Johnson?s baseline jumper. The subsequent years of delusional decision making have taken their toll. The team has fallen down and lost its way. Though there?s not much reason for optimism Knick fans still have hope, especially now that the team has taken the first step; admitting that it needs to rebuild.
So what?s next, Zeke? The closest thing to a plan coming out of Madison Square Garden has been Isiah?s ?younger and more athletic? mantra; really more a slogan than a discernable strategy. Well the Knicks have?for the most part?managed to lower the age and boost the athleticism during Isiah?s tenure. The Knicks will break camp with at most three players above age 30 (Hardaway, Houston, and Malik Rose), none of whom will be counted on for major contributions.
Youth and athleticism are great to have, but not at the cost of fiscal sanity. That little detail has unfortunately continued to elude the Knick brain trust? such that it is. Fortunately, as John Hollinger notes in a recent N.Y. Sun (paid registration required) article, the 100% luxury tax bracket has forced many teams to go yea verily and overspend no more…
That spend-happy system was workable because, as Cuban put it, ?When I first got to the Mavs, there was no luxury tax, revenues from TV and the league went up every year, as did the salary cap.? [?] But once the previous collective bargaining agreement was passed five years ago, the landscape changed. Thanks to a lockout, a recession, and Michael Jordan’s retirement, the salary cap stopped rising every year. As a result, teams increasingly found themselves hemmed in by long-term contracts they thought would be eroded by the league’s history of salary-cap inflation. [?] One hopes the Knicks can learn a lesson from Dallas. With some help from the tax amnesty rule, the Mavs were able to stay competitive while lightening an onerous salary situation. Likewise, New York could greatly improve its payroll situation. If Houston retires and Isiah Thomas can resist the urge to trade Penny Hardaway or Tim Thomas for an even worse contract [emphasis mine], New York will sidestep the luxury tax in 2006-07.
Certainly, avoiding the tax or even being under the cap provides no guarantee that a franchise will suddenly become a hot free agent destination (Salt Lake City never has been, never will be). And at times, we fantasy GMs (I count myself among them) can be a more than a little unsympathetic to the realities of managing the cap in a market with real risk, where franchise players largely stay put and second tier talent is systematically overvalued. However, as any Knick fan can attest, salary cap hell is a uniquely unpleasant place in the NBA. Escaping it?or at least not extending one?s stay there?has to become a much bigger priority in the front office, or at least more apparent in its actions. When I hear credible rumors about New York?s interest in bloated contracts like Antoine Walker?s and Eric Snow?s I start breaking out in hives.
Question 2: What style will this team play under Brown?
Youth and athleticism is often a euphemism for ?inexperienced? and ?unskilled? unless it translates into scores, stops, boards, and ultimately wins. Conventional wisdom suggests that speeding up the pace can minimize the inexperience and lack of skill that comes hand-in-glove with youth. Certainly, one would expect Ariza, Crawford, Frye, and Robinson to excel in an uptempo game. Presumably, Thomas acquired these athletes precisely to play a running style. But is Larry Brown willing to coach an uptempo style? Well, before dismissing the possibility out of hand consider that Brown, in his plaid-jacketed Denver days, coached a pace far above league average. Of course he had David Thompson, Dan Issel, and Bobby Jones on the roster. But, he also quickened the Clipper?s pace in his second season in LA with Mark Jackson, Ron Harper, and Danny Manning. In fact, Brown?s teams by my count have played at or above league pace 11 times in his 28 NBA seasons. So it?s not inconceivable that Brown could speed this team up to suit its personnel. I certainly wouldn?t get my hopes up though. Only two Brown-coached teams since 1994 (his first season in Indiana) have played at or above league pace.
History suggests that Brown won?t have much of a discernable impact on the offense. Though much ink has been spilled over Stephon Marbury?s impending move to shooting guard the switch may have little or no impact on offensive efficiency if the Knicks don?t find a reliable post scorer that can to the FT line. (Or at least find more minutes for the best post player currently on the roster.) Last season?s Knicks were middle of the pack offensively at right about league average efficiency (103 vs. 103.1 league average). Not much that has happened this off-season suggests to me that the Knicks will exceed +2 or 3 of that output this season.
It is much easier to see where Brown will focus his efforts to improve the defense. And, as the KB points out, it?s a fairly safe bet that he will. Last season?s Knicks continued a pattern of wretched defense that has been the norm since JVG said no mas. They allowed opponents an efficiency score of 106.5 (4th worst in the league). But, this off-season key veterans (i.e., Marbury and Thomas) have at least given public lip service to Brown?s gospel of shutting down dribble penetration and helping on defense. They have made themselves accountable in a way that they have not up until now. In itself that won?t make them good defenders but a prerequisite to good team defense is a team culture that expects players to commit to it. I don?t think it?s unreasonable to project a 3-5 point improvement in defensive efficiency, which should lift the Knicks to the middle of the pack. If the Knicks can stay around league average offensively and improve to league average defensively they will challenge to win the Atlantic. (Why this is the sad but true state of the Atlantic Division is for another blog entry on another day.)
Question 3: Can Marbury and Brown survive?
I don?t anticipate as much trouble as many. The two have made their quid pro quo fairly public, and both are savvy enough not to have done that unless they really want things to work out. So a big part of me thinks both are committed to making the relationship work. Marbury will retain his freedom in the offense under Brown, perhaps by moving to the shooting guard. Irrespective of whether that happens officially Brown has been very clear that he wants Steph to score. For Steph?s part he has essentially promised to commit do what Brown asks of him by saying that Brown made him better during the Olympics. Whether this is mere lip service on Steph?s part remains to be seen but Larry Brown is probably the first coach in his career with the power to hold him accountable. There?s almost no way the public and the press will take Marbury?s side in a dispute about his defensive intensity. I suspect the rubber will meet the road early in the season on a night when Steph is playing with high effort defensively, getting lit up, but also not scoring because Brown wants him to set up his teammates. The Knicks lose by 3 points. How both react will go a long way toward determining what their relationship can be.
In truth, I predict a much rockier relationship between Brown and Jamal Crawford should Crawford remain in New York. Would it surprise anyone if Houston and Ariza split minutes at the SG ahead of Crawford? It will be difficult for Crawford if he finds himself out of the rotation. His game hasn?t matured much since he entered the league. He offers nothing defensively, and despite his obvious talent he?s not an especially good offensive player. I see Brown wanting to re-make Crawford?s game along the lines of Richard Hamilton; coming off picks, less ball-handling, fewer threes. I?ve read nothing at this point to suggest that Crawford isn?t already thinking about the next stop now that Nate Robinson has signed and Houston remains on the roster.