An Open Letter to James Dolan

One of our longtime posters, Frank, asked if I could share this open letter he wrote to James Dolan. So here ya go! – BC

Dear Mr. Dolan,

I have been a Knicks fan for as long as I can remember. I remember scanning the box scores in the paper as a kid, looking for Bill Cartwright’s and Bernard King’s line after every game. I lived and died with the Knicks of the 90s, cheering their lunchbox mentality and how much they seemed to embody the grittiness and toughness of New York City. I was even a season ticket holder during the late 2000s, until I had to give them up after my family moved out of the city.

People who know me would agree that I am perhaps the least likely person to write an email to the owner of a professional sports team on the distant hope that he might read the plea of one fan out of the many thousands. Even so, I feel like the Knicks are at a crossroads right now, and that perhaps you are the only one that can turn the fortunes of this foundering franchise.

Like many Knick fans, I cheered the hiring of Phil Jackson two years ago, feeling that bringing aboard a basketball legend and former Knick great could reinvigorate the franchise. However, since then it has become clear to me that Mr. Jackson did not return solely to bring the franchise back to its previous glory – rather, he came back with an agenda to solidify his own legend by proving that his system and its teachings were primarily responsible for his 11 championships, not the combination of spectacular roster talent, his skillful coaching, and yes, the Triangle system.

I’d like to present to you one fan’s view of Mr. Jackson’s tenure and what I think it means for the present and future of our beloved franchise.

First – what has already happened from a “Results” perspective:

His return has been an unmitigated disaster. Despite his public prediction that the team would compete for the playoffs in 2014, they recorded the worst season in the history of this proud franchise. Then, despite his vaunted recruiting powers, he was unable to even land a meeting with most of the sought-after free agents, settling for a backup plan at center (Robin Lopez, who has been excellent), and afterthoughts in Arron Afflalo (who has been quite bad), and Derrick Williams. The result of these signings was yet another 50 loss season and the midseason firing of his own hand-picked coach. And while this 32 win season was a 15 win improvement from last year, it was still 5 wins fewer than the “disaster” of the 2013-14 season that led to Mr. Jackson’s hiring in the first place.

Worse, however, is that the team regressed after a strong start this season, which belies the notion that the players just needed time to learn the Triangle. Despite his assertions that the team ran the offense with more conviction after Mr. Rambis became coach, the won-loss record and other statistics show that the team actually performed worse on both offense and defense under Mr. Rambis as opposed to under Mr. Fisher. While there may be some “small sample size” confounders partially underlying this difference, it’s very difficult to suggest with any objective evidence that anything was actually better under Mr. Rambis.

Second – regarding his performance as a talent evaluator AND negotiator (I group these skills together since they are irrevocably tied to each other), I present these with hindsight, since the job of a talented executive is not just to react to the present, but to anticipate.

The good:

Certainly the drafting of Kristaps Porzingis – the most promising Knicks draft pick since Patrick Ewing
Finding Langston Galloway from the undrafted pool (more on this later)
Signing Lance Thomas (more on this later)
Trading Tim Hardaway Jr. for a first round pick (Jerian Grant)
Signing Robin Lopez to an excellent 4 year contract.

The bad:

1) The trade of Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton for Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, and Cleanthony Early. On its face this was not the worst trade in the world, since Larkin was a mid-1st round pick just one draft earlier, and the second round picks could be considered as lottery tickets for a team that needed young talent. However, trading for Jose Calderon and his contract that runs through 2016-17 has been extremely crippling for the franchise. There is not one GM in the league that would look at Calderon as anything but a liability on the court and on the payroll at this point. Larkin has talent, but has always best performed as a pick and roll player – a skill that is deprecated in the Triangle. He was such a misfit in the system that he was let go for nothing the next summer. The second round draft picks have not proven that they are NBA players despite 2 full years in the Knicks system.

And while Mr. Chandler has not played well this season (seemingly justifying his trade “a year too early rather than a year too late”), he could easily just have been let go without any cap ramifications this past offseason, or more likely, traded at the deadline last season – a deadline that saw a far inferior player (Timofey Mozgov) garner two first round picks in trade. Ultimately, this was a criminal misreading of Calderon’s remaining skillset and of Chandler’s potential market. One might defend Mr. Jackson by saying that Chandler did not have the proper skillset to play in the Triangle, so he was trading him while he still had some value, but this is contradicted by the fact that Mr. Jackson tried to sign Deandre Jordan – a player with a very similar skillset to Chandler – in free agency.

2) Finding and then not locking up Langston Galloway – Galloway is, in my mind, the exact type of player I would want on the Knicks. He is self-made, humble, and obviously works very hard. Kudos to Mr. Jackson and his staff on finding him and giving him an opportunity. However, if he had signed him to a multi-year contract (likely even at the minimum, or even just above the minimum as we did Lance Thomas and Lou Amundson), we would not have to worry about either overpaying him (via a Gilbert Arenas provision) or losing him to another team this summer.

3) Signing Lance Thomas to a 1 year contract – Thomas is, like Galloway, someone who could be an integral part of a championship team. His improvement under this regime has been undeniable, and his professionalism and other intangibles have been much lauded. However, it would be disingenuous of Mr. Jackson and his team to take much credit for his signing. First, he was actually released after the trade with Oklahoma City, exposing him to any team out there that wanted his services. Second, if Mr. Jackson had any inkling that he would make this kind of improvement, he would have signed him to a multi-year deal, just like he should have done with Mr. Galloway. It seems possible and likely that we will lose Mr. Thomas in free agency this offseason because of this mistake. As it is, Lance Thomas’s improvement has the look of good and unexpected fortune, not good management.

4) The signings of Derrick Williams and Arron Afflalo – These have not been “bad” signings in that they have played up to or close to their market value this season. However, signing them to a two year contract with a 2nd year player option removed any possibility of significant upside for the franchise. Even under the best of circumstances, the players would play very well for one year and then we would still have to compete against a market flush with cap space to retain their services at or above market value. The worst case scenario has come to pass with Mr. Afflalo – he has not played particularly well, and yet we are still at his mercy regarding whether he will stay or go.

5) The signing of Carmelo Anthony with a no trade clause – I am a huge Carmelo nthony fan and think he has been unjustifiably criticized both as a player and a person. I am NOT one of the fans who think he is overpaid. However, giving a player a no-trade clause absolutely hamstrings an organization if, as in this case, a reset button is being contemplated.

Each of these mistakes could be justified in isolation, but in total, they paint a picture of an executive who perhaps has good instincts but does not have foresight – the type of foresight that, for example, allowed the Warriors and Grizzlies to sign Stephen Curry and Mike Conley Jr., respectively, to what have been proven to be vastly undermarket contracts. There are many examples of this kind of foresight around the league, but none here in New York under Mr. Jackson’s leadership. In addition, he does not seem to have the requisite strong negotiation skills that would allow the team to incrementally improve (without needing to make dramatic and usually high-risk/expensive moves) by making shrewd, team-friendly deals in both trade and contract negotiations.

Third – what does this mean for the future?

One of the major selling points of Mr. Jackson’s hire was that he would bring stability to an organization that has had far too much turmoil. Yet, the only thing that has been “stable” since his arrival is his devotion to his beloved offensive system (more on this in a moment). The roster has turned over multiple times, with many changes certain to come this offseason also – a very common occurrence in today’s NBA. He has already fired his own handpicked coach not 4 months into his 2nd season.

Even in this (most recent) lost season, there was a wild inconsistency in what the goals should be. For instance – after the goal of making the playoffs was clearly unrealistic, why would Mr. Rambis (and by extension, Mr. Jackson), not give young players more minutes until he was actually taken aside by veterans and asked to do so (which must be an unprecedented event NBA history)? If the goal was to “sustain a winning culture” and not player development, why did Mr. Rambis insist that Kristaps Porzingis do things on the court that the current administration has already said he is not yet physically ready to do (post-up, play inside, etc.) but that Mr. Rambis perceived would be in his best interest for future seasons?

For the future:

The one thing that Mr. Jackson clearly did right was drafting Kristaps Porzingis. As such, there is literally no more important job for the franchise over the next few years than the careful development of KP while he still has the cover of playing with a star like Carmelo Anthony in his prime — much like Kawhi Leonard was nurtured slowly into superstardom while playing with the Spurs’ veteran stars.

And this is why we are at a crossroads right now. This next coaching staff will determine how and in what ways KP expands and improves his game. By extension, this next coaching staff may very well determine whether KP decides to stay a New York Knick when his rookie contract expires. Can this be left to Phil Jackson, who may be gone within a year or two, whether by his choice or yours? Can this be left to Kurt Rambis, who has no record at all for player development as a head coach and has the 5th worst winning percentage of any coach with 200+ games coached in NBA history?

The New York Knicks are one of the flagship franchises in all of professional sports. They have a bona fide superstar in Carmelo Anthony, one of the brightest young prospects in the game in Kristaps Porzingis, and significant cap money to spend. This head coaching job should be one of the most sought after positions in the NBA. And yet, the most likely head coaching candidate’s major (and only) qualifications are that he is “simpatico” with Phil Jackson and that his wife is
good friends with Lakers executive Jeannie Buss. While having a close relationship between front office and head coach seems a noble goal, it’s fair to point out that Mr. Jackson’s own strained relationship with Jerry Krause seemed to work out well to the tune of 6 championships.

It’s also fair to ask whether Kurt Rambis would garner any consideration for head coach for any other franchise in the league. As Steve Jobs, perhaps the most famous and successful CEO of recent American history has said:

A players hire A players; B players hire C players; and C players hire D players. It doesn’t take long to get to Z players. This trickle-down effect causes bozo explosions in companies.

This is not an indictment of Kurt Rambis, who I’m sure is a fine man and is probably a somewhat competent basketball coach. This is an indictment of what Mr. Jackson has admitted will be the process of choosing the next coach. What does it mean when a supposed “A player” wants to hire someone who is at best a “C player”? And what kind of assistant coaching talent will a “C player” be able to recruit, and what are the downstream implications of that in terms of player development?

Fans are not asking that Mr. Jackson abandon his principles. In fact, I would only ask that he heed his own words:

Always keep an open mind and a compassionate heart.

Approach the game with no preset agendas and you’ll probably come away surprised at your overall efforts.

While it is possible that he is just trolling the media (and fans), his defiant words over the last 2 years indicate a man who is so sure that his way is right that he refuses to listen to anyone outside his echo chamber. He has said that he will not even consider coaches that are not within his ever-dwindling tree of former players and coaches. The problem is – even if he is right, even if the Triangle is a higher level of basketball – the players in the league don’t believe it. Most of his own players from his championship teams don’t believe it. Michael Jordan isn’t running the Triangle in Charlotte. Shaquille O’Neal has said the Triangle is great only if you have the best players. Steve Kerr has incorporated aspects of the Triangle in Golden State (as have many teams), but is running his own system otherwise with great success.

Championships in all team sports come down to talent AND coaching AND system. The most talented players in the league are not seriously looking at the Knicks as a desired destination. This is not because of the media, as was suggested by Mr. Jackson in last week’s press conference – it’s because by Rambis’s own admission, the Triangle is difficult to learn (“it takes a year”), which is extremely undesirable in a league that now has so much roster turnover each season (not to mention practice time devoted to learning an unfamiliar system can’t be spent on defense, which has been the real problem over the last few years). It’s because the Triangle has the perception of being an overly technical and outdated system that has failed everywhere it didn’t have the best talent in the league. Despite Mr. Jackson’s 11 rings, players don’t perceive the Knicks as their best chance to win as a team and succeed as individuals, and so they go elsewhere. Without talent, no system has a chance of succeeding. Perception becomes reality.

In closing (and my humble solution):

As a lifelong Knicks fan, and with all due respect, my hope is that you will consider releasing Mr. Jackson from his position, and give serious consideration to bringing back Jeff Van Gundy.

Like Phil Jackson, he is connected to a cherished period in New York Knicks history. He has rought a lot of joy to Knicks fans, to New York City, and I would guess to you as well.

Like Phil Jackson, he inspired unquestioned devotion from his players. He is a man that has literally gone to the deck in
defense of his players.

He will clearly work day and night, through the season and offseason, to bring glory back to this franchise.

He already has a record of success with this franchise in this market with this level of media scrutiny.

He will not embarrass the organization and the fan base on social media or justify late night tweets by saying, in an actual interview, that “goink” is an urban sexual term, not just a typo.

He has no devotion to any sacred theory of basketball and no agenda to prove other than that aggressive lock-down defense, good habits, and hard work will bring good results. These are values that New Yorkers feel deep in their collective souls. This would be a hiring that would bring excitement, and most importantly, success back to New York Knicks basketball.

I would understand if you are wary of bringing Mr. Van Gundy back because of the circumstances under which he left – however, I would consider his heartfelt words about his regrets over that decision and give him and your long-suffering, hopelessly loyal Knicks fans a chance at a new beginning.

Sincerely yours,

Frank L.
Lifelong Knicks fan

UPDATE: This letter was written (and sent to James Dolan) before the recent news about the interview with David Blatt. I would be fully in support of his hire.

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