Isiah Might Serve Up Another Gem In Butler

Last March I wrote an article titled Zeke?s Eye For The Draftee Guy which praised the Knicks GM on his ability to find talent in the draft. At the time it was based on his his only selection in New York where he stole Trevor Ariza in the second round, combined with his stellar record in Toronto where he drafted Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby, and Tracy McGrady. Since then he’s had three more picks with the Knicks. While the final verdict is still out on these rookies, they have been well received so far.

A few days before writing that article, Isiah Thomas had picked up two CBA players to fill out the Knicks roster. Again, I had an opinion to share about it.

Of the two, Butler is more likely to be a CBA success story ala John Starks or Anthony Mason… To think either of them is going to be part of the Knicks future in 2007 would be optimistic. However it?s the perfect type of low risk/high reward move where a GM can?t lose, but can win if he gets a serviceable player out of the deal.

Butler’s stats in the CBA showed that he excelled at scoring, rebounding, and blocking shots. After he signed with New York, he played sparingly in the NBA regular season seeing only 5 minutes of garbage time. So far this preseason, Butler has put up some interesting numbers. He’s averaged 17 points, 12 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks per 40 minutes. Those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Butler has only appeared in 5 games, he’s barely averaged 14 minutes a game, and preseason games don’t have the same level of competition as the regular season. But by combining his stats from preseason, the summer league and the CBA, a pattern emerges.

LEAGUE       OREB/40           TREB/40           BLK/40           PTS/40
'06 PRE       3.8              12.1              3.3              17.0
'05 SUM       4.0              11.8              1.6              11.8
'05 CBA       4.2              12.4              1.7              20.8

Although competition level and the minutes played have varied, Butler has been remarkably consistent in regards to his rebounding. He’s averaged close to 12 rebounds per 40 minutes, with about 4 of those coming on the offensive glass. Those numbers are almost identical to former Knick center Nazr Mohammed. In fact, between the three stops, Butler’s blocked shots, turnovers, and rebounds are comparable to Nazr’s. As I said in March, it would be a “win” if Isiah was able to get anything in return from picking up Butler from the CBA. But if Jackie turns into a player of Nazr’s caliber, Thomas will have accomplished a major feat and cemented his status as a young talent evaluator.

Right now, Butler is probably 4th on New York’s center depth chart behind Curry, James, and Frye, although his prospects of playing might not be as bleak. Jerome James has had only one season where he has missed less than 17 games. Meanwhile Frye might see most of his time at power forward, and Curry’s health will be an eternal question mark. It’s possible that Larry Brown might have to rely on Jackie Butler if the Knicks big men gets bitten by the injury bug. While it’s unsure if Brown will turn to Butler other than out of emergency, one thing is clear. When Jackie Butler steps onto the court, he will be a force under the boards.

2006 Preseason – Mavs 104 Knicks 102

Although the Knicks played the Nets in Connecticut on Saturday night, yesterday’s game against the Mavs in the Garden was their first televised preseason game of 2006. I could do a statistical analysis of the Net game, but as preseason games go it’s hard to determine what was accomplished against the starters and what was done against New Jersey’s end of the bench. So I’ll give my impressions of some of the Knicks from Sunday’s game instead.

David Lee
With all the hoopla over Frye and Robinson, Lee has been the lost Knicks rookie. Sunday evening he was the most impressive of the bunch. The initial reports of Lee are a blue collar type, and I really didn’t see it. The Knicks power forward seemed more polished than scrappy. Lee didn’t impress me with either his rebounding or his defense. Although on defense his assignment for most of the night was Nowitzki.

Where Lee did impress was with his ability around the hoop especially driving inside. He has a nice handle for a big man, and seems to be able to finish with either hand. Although he didn’t finish as often as I would have liked (5-12), he led all players with 11 free throw attempts. In the early fourth quarter, Lee was nimble enough to keep up with Robinson on the break & finish with a resounding dunk.

Nate Robinson
I saw a handful of Nate’s games both in the Final Four and in Summer League, and that player was absent tonight. It might have just been an off night for Robinson, but the Mavericks were able to neutralize Nate in the paint. Most of Robinson’s forays to the hoop ended up with a shot block or a turnover. In the first half he looked totally outmatched, but he did pick it up in the second half. Nate used his speed to earn a few steals and push the ball upcourt for some transition buckets. One thing to watch for will be if he will be able to use his leaping ability at this level.

Channing Frye
On one play Frye did a Marcus Camby impersonation trying to put back a missed shot, but he’s not as athletic as the former Knicks’ center. Channing only played for 19 minutes, and the only other thing that I recall is that he had a nice stroke from outside.

Eddy Curry
At times Curry looked impressive on the offensive end, but other times he seemed to be sleepwalking. He scored on a nice pass from Penny Hardaway, and looks to have extremely soft hands. On the other hand he turned the ball over 4 times, and a few were offensive fouls. It would have been nice to see a full effort from Curry, but it’s still only preseason.

Jamal Crawford
Crawford looked good very early in the game as the Knicks point guard. Unfortunately a few of his bad habits crept back as he jacked up a few shots that the chucker who plays at your neighborhood park would have passed up on. Forcing Jamal to run the point and distribute the ball may curb his wild shooting habits.

Larry Brown
How intense is this guy? He got T’d up on a non-shooting defensive foul against David Lee.

Jackie Butler
Butler had a quiet first half. He didn’t do anything to overly impress, but he didn’t do anything stupid that you would expect from a 20 year old out of high school with 5 minutes of NBA experience. That in it of itself is a big accomplishment. I remember Butler blocking a shot, and looking at the stat sheet it was the only one the Knicks had all night.

Penny Hardaway
When Penny started the game, my jaw almost hit the floor. Could it be that last year’s prodigal son will find a role as Brown’s perimeter defender?

Jerome James, Good & Bad

Earlier today, the Knicks announced the signing of Jerome James, and I’m not exactly sure how I feel about the deal. It’s like watching a dramatic movie. If the ending is happy, you rail against it because they took the easy way out. If the movie ends tragically, you’re upset that things didn’t end up the way you optimistically hoped.

The first thing Knicks fans are going to wonder is what James will bring to New York this year? He’ll give the Knicks their first defensive minded center under the age of 50 since Marcus Camby. Opposing guards who get past Crawford and Marbury will have to watch themselves in the paint, because Jerome blocks a shot just about every full quarter he plays. In fact over the last 4 years, James is 6th in blocks per minute. When he decides to shoot the ball, he’s a decent offensive player. His career FG% is 49%, and his free throw percentage has improved every year of his career to a passable 72% last year. James’ rebounding has slipped, but that could be due to playing next to Dangie Fortvans.

However there is a dark side to Jerome James’ game. The FAMU alumnus has three huge weaknesses that will drive Metropolitans nuts. First is that he’s turnover prone. Since James’ never played in high school, his basketball IQ is somewhere around Forrest Gump’s. Second is James’ propensity to foul. Again looking over the last 4 years, James has led the league in fouls per minutes. The last thing that will turn the fans against James is his weak work ethic. The laziness tag is something that has followed him since college.

You don’t need a crystal ball to see what’s going to happen. One cold day in New York, Jerome James is going to turn the ball over, and then head to the bench with two quick fouls. The opposing team is going to have a double digit lead by the time the Knicks center checks back in. James is going to turn the ball over twice more, on the last one he’ll loaf back on defense getting there in time only to inbound the ball after another score. And that’s going to be the end of the love affair between Jerome James and the New York fans. You have to remember that this is the city that openly booed Patrick Ewing near the end of his career (something I’ll never understand).

New York will see the duality of Jerome James. Some days will be like the fantastic playoff series he had last year & others will be like the scenario above. On one hand New York desperately needs a center, but on the other James is more apt to be a backup than a starter. While $6M a year is reasonable for a player of his caliber, 5 years at the age of 30 doesn’t exactly fit in with Isiah’s rebuilding creed. Although signing James will allow Sweetney to move back to PF and flourish at his natural position, did we pay too much for such a flawed player?

As I said before I?m not sure what to think about this deal. I?m not crazy about James, but there are some things about his game that I like. Of course with his foul problems, I?m not even sure that James can average more than 25 minutes a night. But I feel more comfortable going into this season with him, than have to rely only on an unproven Frye every night. Finally I have to wonder, if Jerome James couldn?t get significant minutes on the Sonics, a defensively starved team, how much can he help the Knicks? We’ll have to wait until the season starts to see how this turns out.

Looking at the 2005 NBA Draft (Part I)

[This entry comes from Knickerblogger.net?s Director of College Scouting, Dave Crockett. As always I can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com]

Rather than doing the typical ?winners? and ?losers? column I want to try something a bit different in the aftermath of last Tuesday?s NBA draft. As a bona fide NFL and NBA draftnik I?m fascinated by how differently teams in the two leagues approach the draft. In the NFL the ?best player available? approach is heavily favored over drafting based on ?need or fit.? However, all things being equal, the NBA seems to be almost the complete opposite. Although the two strategies overlap, each theoretically has an advantage over the other. In the NBA the disadvantage of drafting the best player available regardless of position is that talent duplication is quite costly. A logjam at a given position can be quite difficult to clear because of the salary cap and the dynamics of the labor market in a given year. On the other hand, drafting to fill specific needs is rarely the best way to accumulate talent and improve a roster. If done wisely drafting the best player available can put a team in a position to meet its other needs via trades or free agent signings by providing greater roster flexibility. It allows the team to make deals where getting back equivalent talent is not the only objective; it may be opening up playing time for a young player already on the roster.

In the days following the NBA draft I?ve noticed that many writers seem to implicitly favor either a ?best player available? strategy or a ?need? strategy, and this certainly colors their perspective on who won and who lost on draft night.

So in this three part entry I?ll try to offer some post-hoc thoughts on Isiah Thomas?s draft night (Part I), as well as the other teams? (Parts II and III). I?ll list each team, the players they acquired, their Chicago pre-draft camp measurements (height in shoes, wingspan, and weight) if available, position, and school along with a few comments based on the teams’ apparent strategy.

Knicks

8. Channing Frye (6-10-1/2, 7-2-1/2, 243.6#), C/PF, Arizona
21. Nate Robinson (5-9, NA, 180#), PG, Washington (f/ Phoenix)?
30. David Lee (6-9, 7.0, 229.5#), F, Florida

?New York acquired guards Quentin Richardson and Nate Robinson (the 21st overall selection) from the Phoenix Suns for F Kurt Thomas and G/F Dijon Thompson (the 54th overall selection)

Overall, Thomas managed to blend best player available with need in this draft consistent with his ?younger and more athletic? mantra. Frye and Robinson are athletic talents at positions of need. In one respect I share the Knickerblogger?s recent pessimism about these picks (and the trade). Alone they do not adequately address defense and rebounding, the team?s biggest weaknesses. However, at least in theory these players help create enough flexibility to address those needs in free agency or via sign-and-trade deals. David Lee, for instance, seems to be precisely the kind of player that could put a pretty bow on an ugly contract (e.g., Malik Rose, Penny, Mo Taylor, or Tim Thomas) in a sign-and-trade deal.

As for the particular players drafted, I thought the Knicks did a pretty decent job. The only other players I could see the Knicks regretting passing on at #8 are Danny Granger and Antoine Wright. I have been intrigued by Granger?s scoring ability, defense, and passing, and said so back in March. Granger apparently excelled in his workouts. Since I was traveling in New Mexico last week I got to read a lot about him personally and he?s definitely a quality kid whose career I?ll be watching. Between those three players I just don?t think the Knicks could have gone terribly wrong at #8. None appear to me to be superstars on the horizon yet each appears too skilled and too smart to be a bust (barring injury). Although prep star Gerald Green was also a possibility my bias about high schoolers, particularly wing players, is that I want an NBA ready body if you?re asking me to gamble on game experience and basketball IQ. Green may yet become a great player but it most assuredly will not happen until he fills out physically. He?s quite likely to be a Dorrell Wright type player where you?ll have to wait until he matures physically to see what you have. By then he?ll be on his second contract.

Channing Frye. He?s a player whose career I have followed very closely. At his best he?s a poor man?s Rasheed Wallace, a long-armed talent who can score in the post, on the break, or out on the floor. At his absolute worst he?s an athletic version of Michael Doleac, a 6-11 screen-roll jump shooter. What I love about Frye, setting aside for the moment that he runs the floor very well, is that he added something to his half-court game every year at Arizona. First he added a little jump hook, then a lefty hook, and finally the 15-18 foot jump shot off the screen-roll. His numbers improved every year despite having never played with an NBA caliber point guard. His harshest critics claim that he?s soft. Though he?s had troubles with strong widebodies (e.g., Eric Williams of Wake Forest ate him up early this past season) ?soft? is a major exaggeration. Channing Frye is no bruiser but neither is Marcus Camby, Samuel Dalembert, Chris Bosh, Rasheed Wallace, or even Tim Duncan for that matter. Lots of guys play center in the NBA who aren?t physically dominant in the mold of Shaquille O?Neal or Ben Wallace. At 6-10-1/2 with a 7-2-1/2 wingspan Frye is plenty tough to be an NBA center. In the 250# range without the frame to get a lot bigger, he?ll never push the bigger centers around. But then, only a fool would ask him to. Like most young post players he needs to learn to better use his athleticism and length to deny post position to stronger guys rather than play behind for the shot block. On the other end though, he?s going to beat the Nazr Mohammeds of the league down the floor by 3 full strides. He?s murder on the screen roll in the 15-18 foot area. He?s a very good passer from the high post. And, he?s going to get you 1-2 blocks (mostly from the weakside) if he plays 20 minutes per night. This season he put up 18 and 16 with 2 blocks and 2 steals against the presumably more physical Lawrence Roberts. He more than held his own against Andrew Bogut (19 and 9 with 3 blocks). He went for 15 and 10 in the Regional Semifinal against Oklahoma State?s physical front line and 24 and 12 with 6 blocks against Illinois in the Regional Final (in one of the 5 best NCAA tournament games ever).

Nate Robinson. This season Nate the Great scored 16.4 points with 3.9 boards and 4.5 assists (better than 2 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio). He shot 53.9% efg this season and got more efficient offensively each year. (His three season points-per-shot totals were 1.15, 1.32, and 1.41.) So Robinson is probably good enough offensively to stay on the floor as a backup guard despite his stature. But, what I really want to talk about is his defense. Robinson is disruptive. He averaged 1.7 steals, but that really doesn?t quite do justice to his defensive impact. He?s the kind of player that can take the opposing point guard out of the game by not allowing him to bring the ball up the floor or set the offense. Unlike other diminutive guards Robinson is Tim Hardaway strong; strong enough to make it difficult for taller guards to back him down. He?s absolutely?not just pound for pound?stronger than most point guards he saw in college. He?s an energizer. When Robinson signed his contract he became the team?s best perimeter defender since Latrell Sprewell departed. The Knicks have not seen an athlete of his caliber since Anthony Bonner in the early-to-mid 1990s.

David Lee. I missed the end of the first round on television so I didn?t get to hear David Lee get booed by the Garden faithful. Huh? I don?t get it. Who was left on the board that was a significantly better choice with a lower ?bust? probability at that spot than Lee? Lee is a 6-9 lefty who can score with either hand in the post. He has a shot out to the 15-18 foot area coupled with very good run jump athleticism and decent handle for a 6-9 kid. Just wait until the summer league Knicks fans. I bet there?ll be a lot of folks saying ?who knew?? when they see the box scores. Currently, Lee?s part of a logjam at power forward. So it wouldn?t surprise me if his stay in New York is brief but I certainly hope Isiah doesn?t just give this kid away. He’s got some talent and some skill, and that’s all you’re looking for at #30.

Draft Reviews. In the ?publish or perish? world of academics when an up-and-coming young scholar, such as yours truly, submits a manuscript to a journal for publication the editor and some number of anonymous reviewers typically decide its fate in one of three ways. In the best case scenario they may accept the author?s brilliant exegesis for publication, perhaps with only a few cosmetic changes (Accept). That, for all practical purposes, never happens. Rumors and legends persist but they are merely this and nothing more. More likely, if the publication gods are smiling, after the editor and reviewers have sufficiently ridiculed a manuscript they will ask the author to revise it based on their oh-so-helpful comments and to then resubmit it for additional battering (Revise and resubmit, or R&R). Or, in the worst case scenario, they may reject it outright (Reject).

In this draft Isiah Thomas gets a revise and resubmit (with major revisions needed). Certainly Zeke upgraded the talent on the roster. One could quibble about the selection of Channing Frye but no one available at #8 was, as far as I could see, a clearly superior choice. The addition of Robinson was to my mind the real plumb. At #21 the expectations for him should be realistic; come in, make the rotation, and contribute. Robinson should be able to do that on his defense alone. But his athleticism, energy, and charisma could very pleasantly surprise. Given the current roster makeup it?s hard to envision David Lee getting to see the light of day in New York, but he?s a nice pick at the end of round 1. And hey, nothing about the current roster should be taken as given.

Zeke can change this R&R to an acceptance for publication if he can manage to find something that looks like a direction. Some of the parts, though certainly not all, appear to be falling in place but this roster still needs a lot of work.

Up next: Eastern Conference Reviews

Oh, and Happy 4th everyone!

Zeke’s Eye For The Draftee Guy

Being maxxed out on cap space and having little left in trade bait, the Knicks future is directly tied to the draft. If New York is this bad next year, they’ll have two mid/high lottery picks and two very late first rounders in which to improve their team. Although the Knicks have had recent success in the draft with Sweetney and Ariza, their history has been more Jerrod Mustaf than Charlie Ward. A few infamous moments in New York draft history over the last decade:

2002 – Knicks trade the #7 pick, Nene Hilario, for Antonio McDyess, and then select Milos Vujanic in the second round. McDyess plays 18 games total in a Knick uniform, exactly 18 more than Vujanic plays in the NBA.
1999 – Knicks select Frederick Weis with the 15th pick while New York City born Ron Artest from St. John’s University, who lives 7 subway stops away from MSG, is still avilable. Artest wins defensive player of the year then goes crazy pondering why the Knicks selected Weis.
1996 – New York has three picks from 19-22. Those three players selected play a total of 103 games for New York. The person selected in between those three: 2-time All Star Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

While Isiah didn’t commit these atrocities, and with the Knicks’ future directly tied into his ability to draft, we should take a look at Zeke’s track record. When Thomas was the expansion Raptors GM, he participated in three drafts. In 1995 Isiah had the 7th spot. During the draft Toronto fans were cheering for Ed O’Bannon, who led the UCLA Bruins to the national championship. O’Bannon was awarded the NCAA tournament MVP & was the National Player of the Year. Instead Isiah drafted Damon Stoudamire from Arizona. The next year, the Raptors GM opted for the Unanimous Player of the Year and selected Marcus Camby with the #2 overall pick. In 1997, Thomas’ last year as Toronto GM, he took a chance on a high school player named Tracy McGrady at #9.

To take an objective look at these picks, let’s take the career PER of the players surrounding Isiah’s picks.

1995
No Player Career PER
1 Joe Smith 15.7
2 Antonio McDyess 18.7
3 J. Stackhouse 17.4
4 Rasheed Wallace 17.7
5 Kevin Garnett 23.0
6 Bryant Reeves 13.8
7 D. Stoudamire 17.4
8 Shawn Respert 11.6
9 Ed O'Bannon 9.1
10 Kurt Thomas 14.9
11 Gary Trent 15.9
12 Cherokee Parks 12.0
13 C. Williamson 15.3

Although the draft had some great players early on, by the time Toronto’s turn had arrived the pickins were slim. With the 7th pick, Isiah got the best person available, Damon Stoudamire. “Mighty Mouse” played well for the Raptors as a young point guard, but his career tailed off after he was traded to Portland. Selecting Respert or O’Bannon would have been a mistake. Kurt Thomas was still a risky pick, considering he missed a whole year at TCU due to an injury, and would miss serious time his first three years in the NBA as well.

1996
No Player Career PER
1 Allen Iverson 20.9
2 Marcus Camby 17.9
3 S. Abdur-Rahim 19.8
4 Stephon Marbury 19.4
5 Ray Allen 19.7
6 Antoine Walker 16.9
7 Lorenzen Wright 14.2

Not listed here are three excellent guys that went 13-15: Kobe Bryant, Peja Stojakovic, and Steve Nash. If the draft were held with today’s knowledge, those three middle picks along with Iverson and Ray Allen would comprise the top 5. Clearly there were better players available in the draft than Camby, however getting someone that put up a 17.9 career PER isn’t a total disaster. Camby never fulfilled his potential in Toronto, but in New York he replaced the injured Patrick Ewing and was a large contributor in the 8th seed Knicks getting to the NBA Finals. In hindsight, with such a deep draft getting Marcus Camby with the #2 pick was a sub-par selection.

1997
No Player Career PER
1 Tim Duncan 25.1
2 Keith Van Horn 17.1
3 C. Billups 16.7
4 A. Daniels 14.4
5 Tony Battie 14.3
6 Ron Mercer 12.6
7 Tim Thomas 14.8
8 Adonal Foyle 12.8
9 Tracy McGrady 24.4
10 Danny Fortson 16.6
11 T. Abdul-Wahad 11.4
12 Austin Croshere 14.8
13 Derek Anderson 16.3
14 Maurice Taylor 14.1

Even Isiah’s biggest nemesis has to admit that Toronto had the steal of the 1997 draft. Despite only playing 18 minutes a game, McGrady had a PER of 17.4 his first year. By his second season, he still didn’t see much time (23 min/g) despite seeing a marked improvement in his production (20.6). Obviously, the young McGrady was just oozing with talent.

Not listed above are any of second round selections. To round out Isiah’s career, we can add: Jimmy King (1995 #35) and Trevor Ariza (2004 #43). While we can throw King in the bust pile, Ariza was certainly the best player available at #43, and maybe the best second rounder taken (or at least the best not named Anderson Varej?o).

So Isiah’s draft report card looks like this:

1 player who was the steal of the draft (McGrady)
2 players that were the best picks available (Ariza & Stoudamire)
1 second round bust (Jimmy King)
1 overall #2 bust, yet serviceable player (Marcus Camby)

While Thomas’s track record is favorable, his past is a small sample size which may not indicate future successes. Knowing Isiah’s method, whether it be scientific, scouting, or dart board, would make it easier to judge his ability. However, the Knicks President’s draft history makes me more comfortable with the Knicks’ future than if Pete Babcock, John Gabriel, or Garry St. Jean were the man in charge.

Knicks Off-Season Preview (Part 2 of 2)

What the Knicks Should Do Now

I?m back to offer a ?quick and dirty? assessment of the Knicks? primary needs with the help of a few stats compiled at 82games.com. I also offer a few modest suggestions for how to address them. (By the way if you didn?t catch part 1 of my off-season preview go check it out.)

Defense. Overall the team?s aggregate defensive numbers depict a mediocre but not awful unit. However those mediocre aggregate numbers mask a disturbing trend. The Knicks yielded points per game (93.5, ranked 13th) that belied their respectable eFG defense (46.2%, ranked 8th). To put this in perspective consider that New York?s eFG defense was only slightly behind Indiana?s (46%), identical to New Jersey?s (46.2), and slightly better than Miami?s (46.4), Memphis?s (46.5), or Philly?s (46.7). However, New York gave up 93.5 ppg and 104 points per 100 possessions (ranked 12th), more than all the aforementioned teams. How, you ask? The Knicks were more generous than the United Way, sending opponents to the free throw line 26.8 times per game. This ranks them 3rd from the bottom. Only the Bulls and Jazz were more charitable.

The most straightforward explanation for why the Knicks fouled so often in 2003-04 is that very few of them can adequately defend their counterpart. In fact, in the backcourt Marbury was no better than adequate and Houston was only a bit better. The two starters managed to hold opposing guards to slightly below average shooting and below average PERs at their respective positions. (NBA eFG averages for PGs and SGs were 46.1% and 46.9%; PERs were 15.1 and 15.2) Houston actually played admirably well defensively, considering his age and knees, holding opposing SGs to 13.9 PER, well below the PER average at his position. Marbury?s individual defensive numbers did improve when he came to New York, though at least some of that may be attributed to the fact that Eastern Conference point guards were not as good as those in the West. The average eFGs and PERs for Western conference PGs were 47% and 16. The Eastern conference PG averages were 45.1% and 14.2. Interestingly, Marbury in Phoenix yielded defensive numbers that were practically identical to the average Western conference PG’s output. In New York he basically gave up the average Eastern conference PG’s output. So, while I was pleasantly suprised to learn that Marbury?s defense doesn?t appear to be turning scrubs into all-stars I think it’s safe to say that he could be a lot better if he wanted to be. In a pre-playoff article posted at NJ.com by the Newark Star-Ledger’s Dave D?Alessandro (whose link appears to have expired) Marbury talked unselfconsciously about taking his rest on defense to keep himself fresh throughout the game. On the other hand Frank Williams played spectacular defense, holding his counterparts to a PER of about 10.1 and 40% eFG per 48 minutes.

Unfortunately, the frontcourt?s defensive numbers were not encouraging apart from Penny Hardaway and Michael Sweetney, who both held their counterparts to below average PER and below 45% eFG. Kurt Thomas’s and Nazr Mohammed’s defense on opposing power forwards and centers was far from inspiring. But Tim Thomas’s 51% eFG defense (emphasis not in original) and above average PER on small forwards were worse than Keith Van Horn’s in New York. In fact they were downright Peja-like. Of course looking solely at a counterpart?s offensive production to measure defensive impact doesn?t tell the entire story, especially for frontcourt players who must rotate and cover for other players often sacrificing position to their counterpart. For instance, Ben Wallace looks like a mediocre defensive center when measured this way, but of course we all know better. Nonetheless, individual defense measures yield interesting insight into the Knicks because they expose the starters? overall poor individual defensive ability. Only two of the five starters appear even adequate by these measures. This inability to defend one on one in all likelihood explains why the team gives up almost 27 free throw attempts per game.

Offense. The Knick offensive numbers tell a similar story of overall mediocrity masking frightening underlying trends. The Knicks scored just under 92 ppg, right at about the league median (half the teams scored more than the Knicks, half scored less). The Knicks managed to be a decent shooting team, ranked 13th in eFG at 47.4% (but only 3.4% behind league leader Sacramento). This is despite the roster changes and despite playing long stretches without leading scorer Allan Houston. The Knicks outshot the Nets, Pacers, Pistons, and Heat on the season. The team?s top three offensive players, Marbury, Houston, and Tim Thomas, all shot well above 45% eFG and had at least an average PER at their primary position. The Knicks were also a solid rebounding team, one of only 11 who grabbed greater than one full rebound more than its opponents. Yet the Knicks ranked only 21st in points per 100 possessions with 102. How does a decent shooting and good rebounding team end up toward the bottom in scoring? Simple: the Knicks lost 17% of their offensive possessions to turnovers and they took only 21 free throw attempts per game. The turnover rate tied for 3rd worst with bunch of other teams. The Knicks made far more bad passes (-120) and committed more offensive fouls (-39) than did their opponents. Unfortunately the Knicks? turnovers were debilitating because they did nothing in sufficient quantity, like rebound or generate steals, to offset them. The free throw woes have been well documented; only Toronto took fewer free throws per game. The turnovers and inability to get to the free throw line more than offset shooting and rebounding that were modest strengths.

What are the Knicks most glaring needs? On defense the team simply cannot continue to send opponents to the free throw line. No matter what acquisitions Isiah Thomas makes this off-season it is self-evident that the team needs both defensive upgrades and perhaps more importantly a recommitment to playing defense, particularly from its top players. On offense the team needs better offensive efficiency more than a dominant post player per se. Although a dominant big man would be a welcome sight in orange and blue offensive efficiency begins with taking care of the ball. A big man?s impact is seriously diminished when the team loses almost 20% of its offensive possessions to turnovers. Just ask the Rockets, who are rumored to have grown weary of Stevie Franchise and his turnover prone ways.

So what should the Knicks do now? Again, my hope is to address this question at the strategic level rather than suggest a host of roster moves, keeping in mind that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

First, I strongly urge the front office to pursue only players that bring better defense, versatility, or ball handling/passing to the team – not just more prolific scorers. On defense the team needs substantially better individual defense, especially in the frontcourt. On offense the team?s turnover problems stem from a serious absence of ball skills among the starters other than Marbury. None of the other four starters are particularly skilled ball handlers or passers. The Knicks, with limited salary cap flexibility into the foreseeable future, will find themselves best able to acquire these skills by leveraging its few valuable assets for draft picks and young, reasonably priced veterans who can help lay the foundation for a winning organization. Fortunately the Knicks can add such players through the draft, salary exemptions, and by moving expiring contracts, waiting to add a star player as the final piece of the puzzle. This is the most realistic, if not altogether preferable, means of building a serious contender in the post-Jordan salary cap era. Detroit was the first to win a title this way but Indiana and Memphis have been building themselves similarly all along, now hoping to find the player who can elevate them the way Rasheed Wallace elevated the Pistons. For the Knicks, Isiah Thomas must perform due diligence and investigate the availability of the top talent but I?m certain he realizes that the team?s immediate future is more likely to be filled with the likes of Antonio McDyess, Shane Battier, and Trevor Ariza than Rasheed Wallace and Shaquille O?Neal. Though neither McDyess nor Battier would be a sexy acquisition both bring skills this team needs. They play at both ends of the floor, pass well, and don?t turn the ball over. The market for McDyess is almost certain to be limited to some part of the mid-level exception and Battier is the kind of player who could be targeted in a three way deal involving an expiring contract. Both players could potentially start or come off the bench and neither would likely prohibit the Knicks financially from making another acquisition. I am not endorsing these players per se, though I do like them, except to suggest that there will be numerous players available who bring the skills the Knicks need who are not necessarily stars.

Second, to the fans I would caution that failing to acquire a superstar does not equal a failed off-season. Many of us fans are infatuated with the idea of acquiring one (or more) of the premier (i.e., Shaq or Rasheed Wallace) or high second tier (i.e., Erick Dampier or Marcus Camby) post players expected to hit the market this summer. However it is extremely unlikely that the Knicks can land premier or high second tier big men with only salary exemptions to offer, and less to package in a sign-and-trade. Even should the Knicks somehow miraculously land one of the second tier big men for the mid-level salary slot, consider that his impact on the team could be lessened (if not swamped) absent improvements in New York?s two biggest problem areas: turnovers and fouls. So, for instance, although Dampier is a clear and welcome upgrade in every respect to Nazr Mohammed his ability to avoid foul trouble would be sorely tested by the team?s mediocre perimeter defense, and that could seriously diminish his impact. The point is that the Knicks must address turnovers, defense, and free throws in order to improve. They cannot upgrade in other areas and leave these unaddressed. As I look at any transactions Isiah makes this off-season that is how I will assess them, including the second round pick in the upcoming draft.

Third, the Knicks must find ways to drop deadweight from the roster before training camp. Shandon Anderson should be bought out and released, as was the plan at one time last season. It should be made clear that he is not in the picture. No hard feelings. Buying him out would be best for everyone involved. I feel similarly about Moochie Norris. In his entry Kevin suggests buying out Penny Hardaway. Financially, this move would be a no-brainer if both sides could reach an agreement. From a basketball standpoint however I wouldn?t be upset if Penny makes it onto the opening day roster. He and Marbury are really the only two offensive players on the team that can score, pass, and handle the ball. Although Penny?s physical skills have eroded he played surprisingly good defense at small forward last season, and he still ?thinks? the game at a high level. Apart from that, since he plays most of his minutes at small forward now he?s not really taking minutes away from any of the youngsters. Only Tim Thomas and Shandon Anderson played significant minutes at that position last season. If the Knicks could keep Penny to 15 minutes per game he would be valuable.

In all, this promises to be an exciting off-season but I hope the excitement is generated by prudent moves that continue to shape the identity of the franchise and lay the groundwork for a future NBA champion.

David Crockett, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina. He can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com