Donnie Walsh Press Conference: Highlights & Thoughts

The Knicks just introduced Donnie Walsh as the new President of Basketball Operations, reporting directly to MSG Chairman, James Dolan.

I’ll throw out some initial thoughts about the presser in bullet style.

* James Dolan did a brief introduction. In it he sounded the right notes. Of course we’ve heard this before, but what left me hopeful were two things: 1) Dolan was on only long enough to introduce Walsh and step aside, and 2) he emphasized Walsh’s autonomy over all things basketball. I was pleased to see that Dolan relented on MSG’s draconian media relations policy, and was public about doing so. Perhaps these are mere words, apropos of nothing. Perhaps, but in a press conference all you have are words. It’s a low hurdle, but it’s not like he hasn’t failed to clear it in the past.

* Whither Isiah?. Walsh, to his credit, didn’t take the bait and denounce Isiah or signal his plans for Isiah’s future. He did go so far as to say that he felt Isiah “has the skills to help this franchise,” and reiterated his respect for Zeke’s “basketball mind” though he offered no more detail than that. When pressed, he basically said that firing Thomas in Indiana was Larry Bird’s decision, but that he ultimately signed off on it–basically what he’s been saying all along. Walsh demonstrating his passing grade in Professional Public Behavior 101 by refraining from doing to Isiah Thomas what he did to Don Chaney. Walsh stated and restated “twenty times in eight different languages” (to use his words) that he’d make no decisions about Isiah’s future without having met with him to discuss the season and the direction of the franchise. When asked in so many words, “given Isiah’s track record, why even bother?” he responded that “it’s simply the right thing to do.” Honestly, that kind of basic competence has been missing for so long I felt my eyes getting a little moist at the sight of it. The way Thomas is dealt with in what are likely his few remaining days with the Knicks will be a meaningful step in the future of the franchise. At some point all the detentes and the revenge plots and whatnot have to stop and you have to start doing business the right way. Walsh, at least at his presser, seems committed to doing business the right way.

* Blueprint: Protecting Cap Flexibility. Walsh didn’t say much about his plans for the franchise other than to suggest firmly that his short-term interest (the next three seasons) is to put the team in position to be a player in the free agent market. He noted that it’d be nice to put a team together that is immediately more competitive, but that was not his main goal. He noted that the team is in a better position with respect to the cap than 3-5 years ago, and he was not planning to threaten that by adding a long-term contract. To quote: “New York has to be flexible enough to be able to reach into the free agent market, and we haven’t been able to do that over the past several years.” Hopefully that means no more mid-level signings like Jeffries and Big Snacks that kill cap flexibility. [Sniffle. I’m forclempt.] So much of good management is simply avoiding the obviously stupid.

* Dolan. Walsh denied the notion that Dolan was reluctant to loosen his vice-like grip on media policy, forcing him to make that a deal-breaker. Who knows how that negotiations actually went, but Walsh said he started hearing that the media policy was a problem from others. Prior to that, he assumed that the policy existed because of the size of the NY media. He said that he wanted more media and fan access, despite recognizing that it results in bad stories sometimes. Lupica asked him what would have made him refuse to come to NY. Walsh answered that he would not have come had Dolan not been different than what he had heard, which if true certainly lends credence to the notion that he gives people a fair shake.

* The Current Roster. When asked, “who on the roster do you like?” his answer was intriguing. He never mentioned David Lee, but mentioned several others by name (Curry, Crawford, Jeffries, Balkman, Robinson). I think it’s a safe assumption that no one on the roster is untouchable, but it’s reading tea leaves to assign any meaning to his failure to mention Lee. It could have been, and was most probably, a perfectly innocent oversight. Or, Walsh could have simply been dropping names of players he’d move for a rack of balls. Or, Walsh may not value David Lee as highly as many of us do.

Overall, it’s not always clear how much you can really learn at a press conference. (Bill Belichick’s introductory presser in New England had to be one of the all-time worst public utterances of any kind anywhere, and that hasn’t turned out too bad.) Nevertheless, I’d say Walsh did what he needed to do at his presser, which was demonstrate basic competence and give us an idea about what he values and how he operates. A low hurdle to be sure, but he signaled that his regime, if nothing else, will be competent, fair, and won’t be afraid to go get the information necessary to make informed decisions.

As the start to a new regime, I’ll take that.

If True, Walsh Move a Step Forward

Although there has been no official word, a few different sources have reported that the Knicks have hired Donnie Walsh to oversee their franchise. Walsh isn’t the sexy move that Colangelo or West would have been, and his tenure in Indiana isn’t without it’s flaws. However for the Knicks in the Dolan era, playing it safe shows a marked improvement.

Since Dolan took sole possession, many of the the Knicks moves have been risky get rich quick schemes. Some of the hallmark transactions include trading for Glenn Rice, Antonio Mcdyess, Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Eddy Curry, and Zach Randolph. If these deals have one thing in common, it’s that each one failed to account for the Knicks long term future. Rice was exchanged in favor of Patrick Ewing’s massively expiring contract. McDyess was gotten in lieu of the #8 pick (Nene). Meanwhile the rest took away the Knicks financial flexibility, not to mention four first round picks and a few young players. But despite surrendering all this, New York finds itself at the bottom of the league hoping to lose games in order to get a better draft pick.

During Walsh’s tenure, the Pacers rarely went for the big move. The early ’90s Pacers were built primarily through the draft. Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, Antonio Davis, and Dale Davis were taken in successive years. Meanwhile the early ’00s Pacers were constructed through shrew trades. Walsh paid pennies on the dollar for Jermaine O’Neal (Dale Davis) and Ron Artest (Jalen Rose & Travis Best). These deals are the antithesis of the recent New York acquisitions.

Compared to Walsh, Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas were inexperienced, impatient, and incompetent GMs. Fans were happy at the trade deadline this year when New York didn’t make any deals. Not because the team didn’t need to move players, but because Isiah Thomas didn’t have a chance to further damage the team. With Walsh at the helm, New Yorkers won’t hold their collective breaths anytime the ESPN ticker announces a Knick trade. If Donnie Walsh assumes the helm, he will be the first capable GM in the James Dolan era. And that’s a small step forward for a franchise wrapping up its 8th straight losing season.

The Worst Article Of 2007

Folks it’s about that time of year again, to announce the worst article of 2007. While there were many fine candidates throughout the year there’s one article that was published just 2 days ago that has surpassed all others. I’m proud to say that this work is right up there with previous winners such as Charlie Rosen’s most overrated list, and Frank Hughes 2004 piece. The winner for KnickerBlogger’s worst article of 2007 is brought to us by Lou V. of paperbacknovel titled “Why the Knicks Don’t Suck.. Anymore, But the NY Post and NY Daily News Do (Suck).”

I don’t know what the internet comparable version of “don’t judge a book by it’s color”, but maybe it should be “judge an article by it’s title.” It certainly applies to this year’s worst article winner. Notice the improper use of the ellipsis (two dots instead of three), and how the author has to add the final “(Suck)” in parenthesis because he decided to throw in the word “Anymore”. If the author wanted a better title, he could have dropped both words for a simpler title: “Why the Knicks Don’t Suck, But the NY Post and NY Daily News Do.” But why go for clarity when you’re aiming for much lower?

While I have to admit I thought at first that this would be an Onion-esque satirical piece, I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t. The author, Lou V., starts off by bashing the local media for “getting their [readers’] attentions off real economic and political issues by parading sports and the lottery in front of them.” A reasonable start to an article, as I’ve certainly taken my shots at the mainstream news. Unfortunately he follows it with this monstrocity:

… the Knicks are fine. They remain as they were to start the season — a young, athletic team with guys who can score; they have great chemistry, believe in their coach, and are progressively playing better defense… They’re not a championship team yet, but they’re a good team; a playoff-caliber team.

I guess if you’re going to define “good” as being one of the worst teams in the league, then the 5-11 Knicks are good. By those standards, the 6-10 Clippers are great, the 7-8 Bucks are awesome and the 8-9 Nets are unbeatable. Just about the only thing true in these sentences is that the Knicks are a young athletic team with guys who can score. They do not have good chemistry, and they certainly don’t believe in their coach. Their defense hasn’t progressively improved, in fact it’s been about the same for the last 2 years. No the Knicks aren’t a championship team. No the Knicks aren’t a good team. No the Knicks aren’t a playoff-caliber team. Of course the author throws in this nugget in the same paragraph: “… James Dolan, owner, who has proven to be a stand-up, moral guy …” More on that later.

In his next section Lou V is a bit more sensible. Lou talks about how Isiah was “castigated” by the Renaldo Balkman selection, and states that Larry Brown was viewed favorably due to racism. There’s definitely a valid point to be made with Balkman. Many in the mainstream media criticized Thomas relentlessly for the selection, one that is looking better and better by the day. And yes claiming Larry Brown was liked not because he is one of the better coaches of his generation, flaws and all, because of the color of his skin is one of the more reasonable claims of this column. Read on.

The next section titled “Why Isiah Thomas Doesn’t Suck” is laughable. The author claims that “Isiah has turned the Knicks around in 3 years at the helm as GM.” and “Most GM’s in the NBA would exchange their best three big men for [Curry-Randolph-Lee]in a heartbeat.” I guess you could debate that Isiah has only been around for 3 years, since he is 19 days short of his fourth season. However what’s not debatable is that he’s turned the team around. The Knicks have only bested their ’03 record of 37 wins once in Isiah’s tenure, and are on track for only 25 wins this season.

But it’s the author’s second assertion that has me thinking. How many teams would trade their top 3 big men for the Knicks? Well I think I can safely omit Boston, Orlando, Toronto, San Antonio, Phoenix, Utah, Dallas, and Houston due to their star power at those positions. I might add Miami (Shaq), Chicago (Ben, Thomas, Noah + didn’t want Curry in the first place), Denver (Camby, Nene, K-Mart), Clippers (Brand), Portland (Oden), and Memphis (Gasol). Then there are teams where these three wouldn’t fit in like Golden State (Nellie-ball), and Detroit (‘Sheed/McDyess). Not counting teams that wouldn’t do it for reasons of fiscal irresponsibility, I count 16 teams that wouldn’t trade for our trio tower. Of course I guess a team like the Nets or Lakers might (Bynum?), so Knick fans might want to put in an order for that Kwame Brown or Nenad Krstic jersey they’ve been pining for.

What puts this article at the top of my list is the sidebar containing “Isiah Thomas’s Knicks’ Resume.” Some of the gems:

“Zach Randolph and Fred Jones for Channing Frye? This may go down as one of the great Knick trades ever.”

“Acquired Tim Thomas from Milwaukee and center Nazr Mohammed from Atlanta in a three-team trade…. Mohammed played some good ball in NY, but then helped Isiah rebuild with the trade listed below this one. Tim Thomas played some ball in NY, but then helped Isiah get Eddy Curry from Chicago. This Feb 2004 trade was a fantastic setup trade for the Knicks.”

“Despite the criticisms, Marbury has played a lot of all-star basketball in NY. The final word is still out on this trade as there is still that conditional 1st-round pick hanging out there in 2009 or 2010 that Phoenix gets from NY, but so far, NY got Stephon Marbury for a bunch of crap — including Knick-franchise-of-the-future-according-to-Stu-Laden, Michel Lampe. Penny Hardaway was used by Knicks to help get Stevie Francis, who was used to help get Zach Randolph. Phoenix used this trade to get $7-million under the cap, enabling them to sign free agent Steve Nash, and catapulting them to an elite team. This trade looks good for both teams right now, for different reasons.”

The Knicks best trades of all time: Dave DeBusschere for Bellamy; Riordan and Stallworth for Monroe; Oakley for Camby; and Zach for Frye? Um yeah… The author also credits Isiah for drafting Trevor Ariza and Demitrius Nichols, ignoring the fact that the first was traded and the second’s expulsion from the club was a classic blunder.

Not to be outdone, the author concludes with “Why James Dolan Doesn’t Suck.” He states that “Dolan’s handling of the Anucka Browne Sanders case is prototypical of his high moral fiber.” I guess I couldn’t have said that better myself.

Knicks 2007 Report Card (A to Z): Coach Isiah Thomas

KnickerBlogger: Isiah Thomas started off the 2007 with a lot of pressure on his shoulders. New York had just come of a disastrous 23 win season under Larry Brown. Thomas was widely criticized for taking Renaldo Balkman in the draft. The Knicks’ owner James Dolan gave Thomas an order to improve the team or pack his bags. Thomas was forced to take over as coach of the Knicks, something he promised he wouldn’t do. His reputation as a coach and a general manager were both on the line. In mid-March the Knicks were 29-34 and held the 8th and final playoff spot. Isiah Thomas was given a contract extension as was safe for another year.

However, the team floundered down the stretch. After re-signing Thomas, the Knicks would win only 4 of it’s last 15 games and ended up in 11th place in the East. All in all were 33 wins disappointing? It depends on your expectations. Of the 79 teams in NBA history that had a winning percentage equal to or worse than the 2006 Knicks 23 win team, only 19 of them won 33 or more games the next season. The average improvement of those 79 teams was 8.7 wins, something the 2007 Knicks exceeded. Given those expectations, it’s hard to say Isiah Thomas did a bad job as coach of the Knicks.

However it’s hard to argue that he did a superlative job. Isiah’s main flaws:

  • Allocation of minutes. I’m sure just about every fan quibbles with the substitutions of a coach. In fact I’d be shocked to hear that for each non-playoff team there exists one fan that agrees 100% with the minutes doled out. Nonetheless Isiah Thomas made a few poor decisions along the way. I’ll start by saying that perhaps David Lee’s playing time wasn’t the worst of them. Sure he was the best player on the team, but Thomas still found 30 minutes a night for him. Instead of quibbling over 5 minutes a night for a second year player that came from nowhere, I’d rather concentrate on more heinous crimes.

    Like giving 1307 minutes to Jared Jeffries. Isiah acquired Jeffries with the mid-level exception, and to say Thomas has made bad decisions with the mid-level is like saying Barry Bonds has hit a few home runs. Jeffries followed Vin Baker and Jerome James as free agent strike outs by Isiah. Despite Jeffries’ total ineptitude, Isiah called his number for 23.8 minutes a game. Sitting on the bench behind Jeffries was a superior player in Renaldo Balkman. And Isiah Thomas could have, for lack of a better term, bitch-slapped his draft day detractors by letting Balkman shine in extended minutes.

    But Jeffries wasn’t the only crime. Thomas gave 11 starts to last year’s mid-level exemption Jerome James in order to kickstart the Knicks defense. This was maybe the oddest decision of Isiah’s coaching tenure. Thomas allowed James to play a handful of minutes, only to banish him to the bench for the rest of the game, never to return. Although some of this was done with Lee injured, Thomas had better options to improve the New York defense (Cato, Balkman, Collins, etc.) Hopefully the fine summer league play of Balkman and Morris will mean the end of meaningful minutes to both Jeffries and James.

  • Player development. The only Knick to improve in 2006 under Larry Brown was Jamal Crawford. Brown contained Crawford’s untamed offensive game, and got him to play smarter basketball. With Brown’s tutelage, Crawford attempted fewer wild shots from the perimeter, and drove to the hoop more often. Unfortunately it seems that Isiah Thomas undid most if not all of Brown’s good work. Last year Crawford reverted to his old self: unnecessarily heaving up off low percentage shots. Jamal’s shooting percentage plummeted (47.4 to 45.8 eFG%, 54.4 to 51.7 TS%) as Thomas gave him carte blanche to shoot at will.

    Crawford wasn’t the only player to regress under Thomas. Channing Frye had a sparkling rookie campaign, but floundered miserably as a sophomore. It’s hard to believe that Thomas couldn’t find any way to increase the forward’s confidence. Frye was psychologically shaky, often passing up on outside shots that found the bottom of the net just a year ago. It’s hard to say what caused Frye’s slump, but it’s the coach’s job to motivate his players. And in this case Isiah failed.

  • The defense. We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog dissecting the Knicks offense. However the Knicks’ offense was ranked 10th on March 12th (when Thomas’ contract was extended) before a rash of injuries helped to sink the team. On the other hand, the New York defense was ranked a pitiful 27th at that time and they finished 24th by the season’s end. While part of the problem is due to the construction of the team (which is the fault of Isiah Thomas the president), a share of the blame goes to the coach.

    Thomas failed to make the defense better on any level. He failed to make his players defend better. Take for instance Eddy Curry. Instead of teaching him proper defensive fundamentals, Thomas instructed Curry to avoid fouls. Curry’s foul rate was the lowest of his career, and consequently his block rate was halved. On the other end of the roster, the perimeter was still porous. Knick guards had problems keeping opponents from penetrating, exacerbating Curry’s problems.

    Even if Thomas isn’t to blame for the player’s inability to defend, you could fault him for not using better defenders or schemes. Balkman, who shined as a defender his rookie year, saw only 15.6 minutes per game. Cato, who was certainly no worse defensively than any of the other Knicks centers, played less than a hundred minutes on the season. Additionally Isiah fell in love with a small lineup. Just look at Nate Robinson’s top floor units. The second most frequent unit is a three guard alignment, and two others have Jamal Crawford as the small forward. Crawford played 8% of the team’s total minutes at SF, Mardy Collins played 6%. Meanwhile David Lee only spent 5% at SF. Putting out an undersized unit isn’t done to bolster the defense.

Despite these flaws, Thomas did a commendable job last year. With how much of a crapshoot getting a coach is, it’s hard to think that a random coach could have done better. In the NBA the great coaches are few & far in between, and at the bottom there is a rotating door of assistants and college coaches who fail miserably. That the Knicks improved more than the average team in their situation, shows that Thomas did a fair job.

KnickerBlogger?s Grade: C+

2008 Outlook: The Knicks added some bigger players to the roster, so it’s possible that we’ve seen the end of the small lineup. Instead, we could see lots of big lineups. David Lee could see serious playing time at small forward. Renaldo Balkman (6-8), Demetris Nichols (6-8), and Quentin Richardson (6-6) could see time at shooting guard. Isiah could improve the team by playing the Knicks’ better defenders more often. Balkman should see an extra 10 minutes this year. Collins could see some situational duty. With a poor defensive front court in Curry and Randolph, the Knicks might zone it up more next year. On offense, Isiah Thomas will have to work Zach Randolph into the playbook.

Although last year Thomas received an ultimatum to improve, he’s probably under the same sword of Damocles this year. Certainly the bar is raised again, because 33 wins isn’t going to cut it in 2008. Thomas has a lot of questions to answer this upcoming season. How will Zach Randolph fit in with this team? How many minutes will he find for David Lee? Who will play small forward? Will top summer league performers Renaldo Balkman and Nate Robinson get more playing time? How will the rookies fit in to this team? But no matter what the answers to these questions are, Thomas will be forced to improve. It’d be hard to see the Knicks not make the playoffs and Isiah keep his job.

“Evident Progress,” Evidently

Several media outlets are reporting that would-be bluesman and team owner James Dolan is set to announce that Isiah Thomas will return as coach and all around Grand Poobah of the New York Knickerbockers. The announcement is expected to include a multi-year contract extension.

Dolan had previously said that he would not discuss Thomas’ fate until after the season, giving the impression that his fate was tied to whether the Knicks make the playoffs. However, with the team currently holding the eighth-and-final playoff spot in the East, Dolan apparently feels that the the team has achieved the “evident progress” he specified (without actually specifying it) as a pre-condition for Thomas’ return.

Without getting into the question of whether the team’s current improvement is merely regression to the mean–let’s hold onto that question for after the season–it is clear that Dolan was predisposed to re-confirm his own decision to hire Thomas. Thus he never intended to fully specify the meaning of “evident progress,” certain that these Knicks couldn’t be worse than last year’s bunch. Nevertheless, I suspect that he must have also considered the sorry state of coaching (and executive) talent in the league. Certainly, Knicks fans needn’t be reminded that pursuing the superstar coach and/or executive is not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. At the same time, the veteran coaches who might take the New York job without demanding the same prima donna treatment as Larry Brown, like Rick Carlisle, Doc Rivers, Terry Stotts, Mike Dunleavy, Byron Scott, etc. are themselves mostly piloting ships at various stages of submersion. Any of those coaches might improve the Knicks at the margins but none would be considered even money bets to fundamentally alter what this franchise can aspire to.

So as a fan I am not singularly happy, sad, or neutral about the prospect of Thomas returning. I am ambivalent; all of the above. On one hand, I am not jumping with glee. On the other hand, Thomas is the devil we know. Plus considering that he is now operating under a kind of fiscal austerity plan, effectively tethering him to the draft, his worst impulse–to get the most talent out of every deal regardless of fit or fiscal implication–is less openly self-destructive. Perhaps just as importantly, given the shallow pool of coaching and executive talent, the odds of Dolan being able to ferret out potential greatness or potentially fatal flaws in a pool of similar candidates are frighteningly low.

Alas, there is no great moral to the end of the Thomas tale. It’s just an ending. Sometimes that’s all you get.