If you’re in the habit of discussing the New York Knicks with a friend, family member, coworker or even the occasional stray cat, like sports-centric subset of Godwin’s Law, eventually the conversation will turn to James Dolan.
Typically, if casual fans know who a team owner is by name that’s probably not a good sign. Quick, without Googling, who owns the San Antonio Spurs? We can wait. Yeah, I couldn’t pick Peter Holt out of a lineup, either. There are many ways to classify failure in basketball, but by any measure, Dolan checks off all of them. So, when the ESPN Forecast panel ranked current NBA front offices this week it wasn’t stupefying to find Dolan ranked dead last.
It’s a crowdsourced list, and there’s no objective measure (aside from wins and losses, of course) to rank ownership. It’s a subjective mainly emotional evaluation, and the fact that Dolan’s a punching bag/punch line throughout the league means that even the smart NBA writers at ESPN are going to rank him badly. I could go back through all the basketball-related decisions Dolan has made since taking over the Knicks, but that’s no longer necessary after this
To be fair, most owners probably aren’t experts in the sport they’re involved in because their area of expertise is in an entirely different realm. And that’s okay, but only if they acknowledge that and leave the basketball personal to somebody who actually is an expert in basketball, football, soccer, etc. There will always be hands-on owners in sports, and some will find success, while others will not. Dolan is on the latter end of this. But hey, he’s making progress. Maybe.
When you’re ranked behind Donald Sterling in any aspect of life, that’s a major concern. However, if this listicle returns next year around this time Dolan could be significantly higher if things stay the course, and more importantly, Dolan sticks to his word. Owners often get credit for the work their general manager’s do. Sure, they deserve credit for hiring successful GM’s, but that’s typically where the credit should cease.
Clay Bennett being ranked 11th on the list is a perfect example of this odd phenomenon. You could make the case Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder’s GM, is the best general manager in the NBA today. Not definitively of course, but he’s in the conversation. The Thunder have become a model organization, but how much of that is really due to Bennett’s oversight? There isn’t an easy answer because we don’t really know the inner-workings of the organization. The fact remains, ranking owners is an onerous task because who really deserves the most credit for a team’s success; the owner or the general manager? Or even the head coach?
It’s a difficult and complicated task to accurately and fairly rank the owners. Mikhail Prokhorov and Jerry Reinsdorf both found themselves in the top-10 on the list when you could make the case that neither are truly deserving of that spot. Prokhorov has what appears to be an unlimited bank account, along with having no regard for the salary cap, and it’s led to back-to-back playoff runs. Reinsdorf operates in a more conservative approach, but thanks to his hire of Tom Thibodeau the team has over-achieved. Prokhorov and Reinsdorf are bizarre individuals, like Dolan, but the team franchise hasn’t been the circus the Knicks have been under Dolan through the years. Sure, things have been rocky at times in Brooklyn and Chicago, but they can continue to get away with it because the bottom hasn’t fallen out. To prevent that, you have to hire the right people.
Phil Jackson reportedly has complete control of basketball-related decisions for the Knicks. Dolan relinquishing that power is manifestly a good thing, but we already established that. What hasn’t been established is the assumption that if Phil turns things around for the Knicks sooner rather than later. Dolan’s public image will probably start to shift into a much more positive light. If things go poorly, at least early, the easy target will be Dolan.
If Phil isn’t able to right the ship he most likely won’t get blamed for it because the narrative will be something to the tune of, “things were just too far gone to be appropriately fixed.” It’s a win-win situation for Phil because he’s seen as the hero Gotham has needed (Donnie Walsh anyone?) for years to save the citizens from Dolan’s wrath. It would take Phil trade four first-round picks for JaVale McGee or something of that sort for the fans to really turn on Phil. And even then most would probably expect it was Dolan meddling or something of that nature. If Phil succeeds Dolan looks a little better to the fans because he finally got out of his own way. If Phil fails, Dolan is the fall guy and falls right back into that villain role. If he still doesn’t occupy that role for most fan’s, of course.
What the 2013-14 Knicks’ season looks to have shown Dolan is that the only way for him climb out of being ranked dead last in these types of rankings is by simply doing less. Less is more is a tired cliche, but it’s one that holds true for owning a sports franchise. Employ great basketball minds beneath you, stay out of their way, and good things will come. Just ask Clay Bennett, Peter Holt, Micky Arison, Wyc Grousbeck and Herb Simon. If Dolan sticks to his word and lets Phil work his magic (or is it Zen), maybe he can join this list of successful NBA franchise owners.