The Knicks Could Take A Lesson From Sci-Fi

“We’ve made too many compromises already. Too many retreats. They invade our space and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!”
Jean-Luc Piccard

I’m not angry or upset at the Knicks latest deal. But I’m not jumping for joy when I think about it. I’m left indifferent to Isiah’s new deal, kinda like Jerramy Stevens’ hands to a well-thrown football. It’s no secret that New York could use a small forward to end the Keith Van Horn curse. Since they sent the high-socked spiked-haired one packing, Van Horn’s successors at small forward have all been disasters. Tim Thomas suddenly turned into tiny-Tim, Jerome Williams fell victim to a rule not even named after him, Trevor Ariza is playing like a 20 year old, Quentin Richardson is playing like a 25 year old with a 40 year old’s back, and Penny Hardaway is playing with himself (since he’s not on the team he has to practice by himself – you perverts!).

It’s certainly possible that Jalen Rose can end this curse. Rose is a multi-skilled offensive player, who can handle the ball from the 3 spot and provide a little bit of scoring. New Yorkers might remember when Jalen Rose torched the Knicks for 20 second half points in a 2005 Raptor victory. The Knicks have had problems finding a backup ball handler, a problem only exacerbated by the injury to Marbury. Although the Knicks still need a backup point guard, Rose’s ability to play point-forward will help the team in that respect. He could be the small forward they’ve been looking for all season, and his ability to run the offense might take the pressure off of Crawford & Robinson. The extra year on the deal doesn’t hurt anyone except James Dolan’s accountant, and if there is anyone who can turn a mid-late first into gold it’s Isiah Thomas.

On the other hand, Rose might go the way of the last 5 small forwards who donned the blue & orange. Even in his Pacer heyday, Jalen was a good but not great offensive player. While Rose is a skilled passer for a swingman, he still coughs it up a decent amount, and the last thing the Knicks need is more turnovers. Or maybe the last thing the Knicks need is another porous defender. If that wasn’t enough, Rose is a bit of a head case, ranking about a 5 on the 10 point Artest scale. Rose has complained about playing time, and only have to look at the Knicks bench to see how far those with a skewed sense of entitlement get with Coach Brown. When Marbury comes back and demands the ball in his hands, will an unhappy Rose do a Johnny Cash impersonation and show up dressed in black? Or maybe Larry Brown will get fed up when Jalen allows one too many opponents a closer look at the rim. As for the draft pick, maybe Isiah’s luck runs out? Or maybe he gets another Robinson or Lee: that is a nice role player, but no one that will change the franchise.

So while we wait for the Jalen Rose experience to play out, the question that keeps popping in my mind is “is this how it’s going to be for the next few years?” Are the Knicks going to cash in expiring deals for longer contracts of the league’s unwanted mediocre players? I have the bad feeling that next year I’m going to be writing another blog about the Maurice Taylor/Theo Ratliff trade. The year after, Malik Rose for Wally Szczerbiak.

And my feelings are warranted. The Knicks sent Camby for McDyess, and McDyess for Marbury. They sent Keith Van Horn for Tim Thomas, and Thomas for Curry. Othella Harrington for Jamal Crawford. Kurt Thomas for Quentin Richardson. At the time of each deal, it would have been hard to argue that the Knicks didn’t get the better player. However taken as a whole the deals have extended New York’s stay in salary cap hell. The aftermath has left fans in some kind of rooting purgatory, where we concede any hopes of being seriously competitive both now and in the near future. The Knicks are stuck in a vicious cycle of absorbing salary to get better, but not being able to get better because of those long term contracts. Since the last Finals team fell apart, New York has been a skipping record, waiting for someone to move the needle. Watching the Knick franchise is like watching one of their games. When the Knicks are down by 18 in the 3rd & claw their way back to a single point deficit I don’t say to myself “that’s great they’re coming back!” Instead I ponder “why are they always losing & playing from behind?” And that’s exactly how I feel about the direction this team is in.

I know rebuilding takes time, but then again I’m not sure if this is rebuilding. Isiah didn’t inherit an ideal situation, but he’s only addressed the issue of youth. The Knicks are still capped out. The Knicks are still on the red side of the ledger when it comes to draft picks. And the Knicks still don’t seem to understand that it’s important to get players that can defend. The Jalen Rose trade is a good example of this, of the 4 things the Knicks sorely need to move forward as a franchise, the only long term benefit is the draft pick. If New York is serious about rebuilding eventually somebody, whether it be Dolan, Isiah, or whoever is the GM, is going to have to draw a line in the sand and say this salary cap nonsense ends here.

Babcock Loses Job

Toronto GM Rob Babcock was fired today, and it’s ironic that his former team is not even in last place in their division. The Knicks are below the Raptors in winning percentage, but somehow the Knicks are actually ahead in the “games behind” column. Unlike the Knicks, the Raptors don’t have the luxury of the league’s biggest payroll. Nor do they have a shoe-in hall of fame coach roaming their sidelines. They don’t have the advantage of being one of the biggest sports market in the US. Toronto has to recruit athletes for a winter sport in one of the colder cities in the league. Hell they don’t even collect the American dollar at the gates. And as of today, they’re still doing better than the Knicks.

Since Toronto has opened up the can of worms on firing GMs, I’d like to broach the topic on whether the Knicks should keep Isiah? Right now he’s put together a dubious roster that even Larry Brown can’t get to win more a third of their games. The only thing worse than Isiah’s judgment on NBA talent might be his understanding of the NBA’s salary cap. Just like the team Isiah has inherited, the Knicks lead the league in salary while remaining south of the .500 mark.

Thomas’ strength is his uncanny ability to spot talent in the draft, but he’s traded the next two Knick first round picks. The traded draft picks mean that Isiah won’t be able to use his greatest trait, but it also means he’s removed his second best trait. Look at the Knicks roster & ask who are the Knicks best assets? Personally I would choose Marbury, Frye, Curry, Crawford, Lee, Davis, and Ariza. All of those players except for Crawford were either drafted by the Knicks or acquired with draft picks. Marbury cost the Knicks their 2004 pick, a future 1st round pick, and the 30th pick in the 2003 draft (Maciej Lampe). Curry and Davis came to New York for the Knicks 2006 first rounder, the option to swap 2007 first rounders, two second rounders, and the 9th overall pick in 2003 (Mike Sweetney). Isiah’s track record sans drafting and using picks as bait has been unimpressive. Of his 8 trades, only 3 didn’t have the Knicks shipping away a draft pick, the inconsequential Weatherspoon/Norris swap, the controversial Nazr to the Spurs, and the ‘decision still pending’ Crawford deal. Free agency hasn’t been kind to Isiah either. Reclamation projects like Baker, Woods, and Butler have yet to bear any fruit. Even when given a little money to spend on free agents Thomas has gaffed with the knee slapping, side splitting (to everyone but Knick fans) 5 year deal to Jerome James.

Let’s stop for a second & think about this more objectively. Imagine we can clone the Knicks’ franchise, with everything remaining the same except they don’t have a GM. You’re the owner of a franchise with some promising young players that has mortgaged a bunch of its future draft picks and has the worst salary cap situation in sports. Would you hire a GM who has been successful in drafting players, trading draft picks, and has shown no ability in being able to reduce the salary cap? If the Bulls can turn it around in 2007 with a pair of first rounders and a load of capspace, the Knicks will only see one mid (Bulls ’07) and one late (Spurs ’06) first round pick so they won’t be able to take advantage of Isiah Thomas’ draft wizardry. Additionally, without those future draft picks, Isiah won’t be able to use his second favorite tactic: dangling picks in front of other teams looking to unload players (Marbury, Curry) that they’ve soured on.

Take a look at Isiah Thomas’ track record. Outside of the draft, Isiah’s acquisitions have been risky gambles. Some have turned out reasonably well (Nazr Mohammed, Jamal Crawford) while others have gone from harmless wastes of time (Vin Baker, Tim Thomas, Qyntel Woods) to the downright bad (Jerome James, Quentin Richardson, Malik Rose, Penny Hardaway). The rest are muddled with cap and trade implications (Eddy Curry, Stephon Marbury) that make it hard to judge whether or not they were worth it. In baseball terms Isiah Thomas might be a Dave Kingman, Rob Deer, or Pete Incaviglia. Someone that hits for a low average, but is always swinging for the fences. Continuing the metaphor, the Knicks have a runner on third with two outs in the ninth inning of a tie game. In this situation, Isiah Thomas is not the man you want at the plate. I’d rather have a slap hitter that can get that run home, than the guy who is going to strike out trying to put two on the scoreboard. Translating back to basketball, today’s New York Knicks need a guy that can dump some salary and grab some useful guys that can fill the rotation. As far as I’m concerned, Isiah Thomas has shown he’s not that guy.

Life Without Marbury

And you thought the Knicks’ season couldn’t get any worse? The Knicks 6 game win streak ended when the hapless Raptors crushed them by 29 points on Sunday. Then New York lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves. At home. On Martin Luther King Day. Although the loss was their 22nd of the season, the worst aspect of it was the injury Stephon Marbury suffered. The early reports are that Stephon will likely miss the next 5 games due to a shoulder injury. While Marbury has been a lightning rod to those looking for an individual player to blame the Knicks recent woes on, it’s indisputable that he’s the best player on the team. Nate Robinson and Jamal Crawford will try to fill the hole left by Marbury, but their absence will leave another hole for someone else to fill. To be successful in this stretch, the Knicks will need another guard to step up & produce.

Quentin Richardson

Richardson showed some life in the Knicks last game, but on the season he’s been as dependable as a newborn puppy dog on a white couch. Injuries have kept Quentin out of the preseason, and his back has kept him out of a handful of games this year. Q is shooting an appalling 41% eFG%, way below his 48% career mark. He’s scoring at a rate of 11.5pts/40min, which places him behind granite statue Jerome James & troubled child Qyntel Woods. With Marbury out and the trade deadline a month away, now would be an ideal time for Richardson to snap out of his season long coma.

Qyntel Woods

At one point in his career, Woods was considered a decent prospect. NBADraft.Net heaped praise upon praise on Qyntel comparing him favorably to Tracy McGrady. Meanwhile the USAToday said he was good enough to possibly go 3rd overall in the 2002 draft. Woods played reasonably well his first year in Portland, posting a 11.2 PER as a 21 year old rookie. However that was the high point in his career. Portland released him after a turbulent sophomore season, and Miami sent him packing after a 3 game tryout. While Woods’ physical ability is intriguing, he’s regressed since his first year and time is running out on the 24 year old. It isn’t often that players get more than 3 chances to make it in this league, and Woods could extend his NBA life with a productive 5 games.

Penny Hardaway

Hardaway has been on the disabled list since December with an injured knee, which is the NBA’s version of “nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more!” If Penny is interested in rejoining the NBA as a player, now might be a good time to do so. Unlike the two mentioned above, Hardaway has had experience running the point, which could aid the Knicks since Robinson is more of a shooting guard. Penny can still play some defense on the perimeter & has good court vision with the ball. Unfortunately he suffers from Lavor Postell‘s syndrome: he can’t shoot a lick & doesn’t know it. Penny’s career eFG% as a Knick is 44.6%, which is 10 points lower than his heyday in Orlando. If Hardaway is given the opportunity, he should do a December 30th Scott Skiles impersonation & set up his teammates as much as possible.

Trevor Ariza

Although more of a small forward, Ariza is agile enough to play shooting guard as well. Last year he was the lone bright spot on the team, but this year he’s been the forgotten man in Larry Brown’s rotation. His problem is simple, he’s a liability on offense. According to 82games, Ariza is connecting on only 26% of his jump shots. While Brown has no problem putting players on the court out of position (see Lee, David – starting small forward) he doesn’t like having a black hole on offense. Remember this is the same coach who took Ben “my offensive game should be limited to tip ins and alley oops” Wallace, and encouraged him to shoot more. Ariza becomes the dark horse candidate to contribute more, because his main focus is defense and the Knicks will need more offense with Marbury out.

2-5! What Me Worry?

If you’ve been disappointed with the Knicks 2-5 start, here are 3 reasons not to sweat out the 2006 season:

1. Larry Brown is a great coach. Brown is not Herb Williams trying to whip a dead mule over the finish line. He isn’t Lenny Wilkens past his glory days. A year before arriving in New York, Wilkens won less than 30% of his games. Last year Larry Brown was a quarter away from winning back to back championships.

Don’t be fooled when Brown says he doesn’t know who to play. He’s not Abe Simpson going through some dementia episode. Larry knows exactly what his players have done in the past. He’s just using the media to publicly ask him players to show him what they can do. The same can be said of his irregular rotation patterns. By not committing minutes to anyone, he’s trying to keep the team anxious to play. Brown has been too successful at the highest levels of basketball to be the doddering old fool who doesn’t know his own team.

2. The defense has improved. Before last night’s Utah game, the Knicks ranked 7th on defense. Then they went out and set a franchise record for the lowest points allowed in a game (62). This kind of talk was unthinkable a year ago. The Knicks top 5 minute getters are: Marbury, Crawford, Davis, Richardson, and Curry, which is not exactly a defensive juggernaut. However, Brown has improved the team using 2 methods. First is his ability to sprinkle defensive specialists in his lineups. Matt Barnes starting the game is one example. Barnes is a swingman who can defend and rebound, but is a black hole on offense. Coach Brown is hoping that the rest of the offensive minded Knicks (Marbury, Curry, etc.) can make up for Barnes’ scoring liability, and reap Matt’s strength on defense. Throughout the game he has at least two defensive minded players to balance out the rest of the team.

Brown’s second ability is get the most out of his defensively challenged players. Curry had 5 blocks against the Jazz, and he looks a little more defensively aware than he did in the preseason. While Marbury isn’t about to turn into Jason Kidd, he looks a bit more interested on that end as well. Overall the team appears to rotate a bit quicker than they did last year.

3. The young-ins are getting time. One of the knocks against Brown was that he didn’t give ample playing time to rookies. With 3 rookies and 2 second year players on the roster, the concern was that coach Brown would stunt their development by riding the veterans. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jerome James and Penny Hardaway could easily be taking time away from the younger players, but Brown has let them rack up DNP-CDs. Instead he has relied on Frye and Ariza. With Richardson splitting time between SG & SF, you could make the argument that Ariza is the Knicks primary small forward. Matt Barnes, a 3rd year player, is the official starter but he’s averaging less than 19 minutes a game.

Meanwhile Channing Frye has settled in as the Knicks 3rd big man and is flourishing. If he qualified, his 21.6 PER would lead the team. Frye is the Knicks best rebounder, a decent shot blockers, and has a nice shooting touch. I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t pick up more minutes as the season progresses, and he might earn a starting role in the Knicks front court before the year is up.

Although Nate, Butler, and Lee aren’t getting as much playing time as the others, it’s not due to a neophyte bias. Lee and Butler are stuck at the end of a deep rotation, because the Knicks have too many power forwards. Robinson has been his own worst enemy. Nate has been too wild, averaging 3.6 TO/40, 8.4 PF/40, and is only shooting a paltry 39.4% eFG. It’s just not reasonable for him to be out there more than the ten minutes Larry is giving him.

Right now the Knicks record might be a letdown for fans that expected big things out of the starting gate due to their aggressive offseason. However, there are bright spots to the early season. Under Brown the defense has made leaps and bounds, and the Knicks young players are seeing ample playing time.

Knicks 2006 Preview Part II

Small Forward/Shooting Guard: New York has some depth at the swingman spots, as the only Knick that can’t play both spots is the rail thin Jamal Crawford. Newly acquired Quentin Richardson hasn’t played much with the team due to injury. Reportedly he’s back practicing with his new teammates, but it’s unknown whether he’ll be used at the 2 or the 3. So far Penny Hardaway has been the benefactor of Richardson’s hamstring, and he could find a role in Brown’s rotation as a perimeter defender. Hardaway still has good court vision, but his shooting has deteriorated to the point where it has become a liability. I would imagine that this would be a temporary solution, because Penny’s $16M expiring contract will be too much temptation for Isiah to resist (see the Charlton Heston comment from Part I). Vegas odds are 5:1 against Hardaway remaining a Knick by the trade deadline.

With all the excitement over Eddy Curry, Jerome James, Larry Brown, and the three drafted rookies, it seems that Trevor Ariza has become the forgotten man in New York. As a second round pick, no one expected much from him, but last year Ariza might have been the lone bright star in what was a dark season for the Knicks. This season he has a year of experience under his belt, an improved team, and one the best coaches in the game. I don’t want to go as far to say this is a critical year in Ariza’s development, but he won’t find a better environment to improve himself. The same could be said of Jamal Crawford. While he’s still young, he’s approaching that age where players stop showing improvement. If Jamal can’t put it together under Brown, he’ll never do so.

I’ve talked time and time again about Isiah’s ability to find young talent. Like a miner in a dark cave, Zeke may have found another gem in Matt Barnes. I have a special scouting report from Chief KnickerBlogger Talent Evaluator, David Crockett:

Barnes can start or come off the bench. He has always been an underrated defender – good feet, long arms, and just a little more athletic than you think he is. Perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t need the ball to make an impact. Barnes is a very good passer. He runs the floor and boards. He does all the hustle stuff, and unlike Tim Thomas he’s good at defensive rotations. That help will be critical as Marbury and Crawford continue to feel their way into their roles.

I know Brown has been angling for his guy, the ancient George Lynch, but i think Barnes will grow on him and stay in the rotation even after Quentin Richardson gets healthy.

If Barnes is the real deal (and I have no reason to doubt Dr. C.) then it’ll be all the more reason to trade Hardaway. On second thoughts make those odds 10:1 in favor of Isiah trading Penny. The obvious choice is Richardson at small forward and Crawford at shooting guard. Earlier I said that Jamal would find his way to Brown’s dog house, and I’ll stand by that statement. Don’t be surprised if Isiah finds a way to upgrade the position, or if Ariza, Barnes, and Hardaway steal Crawford’s minutes at the 2 to provide a better defensive alignment.

Coach: New York’s biggest upgrade might not see any time on the court. Larry Brown gives the Knicks their first real coach since Jeff Van Gundy. Although you won’t see Brown buffing the floor holding onto opposing player’s ankles, his presence will be felt on the court as if he was doing just that. The Knicks don’t have a particularly good defensive team, but Larry Brown will get every bit of effort possible out of his players on that end of the court. While Brown’s wanderlust will eventually get to him and the Knicks will be worse off when he goes, the Garden faithful should enjoy their hometown coach while they have him.

Outlook: I’ll start with the most pessimistic view. Eddy Curry’s heart sidelines him for good, and Quentin Richardson’s back keeps him from playing more than 40 games. Jerome James tries to eat the $30M the Knicks gave him and Channing Frye is too soft to man the center. Isiah panics and trades Hardaway & David Lee for Mike Olowokandi and instantly gives him a 6 year $45M extension. Trevor Ariza and Nate Robinson spend the year at the end of the bench, as Brown has Isiah grab Lynch & Eric Snow for their leadership abilities. Their traded unprotected 2006 pick wins the draft lottery & turns into Andrea Bargnani, the next Dirk Nowitzki.

The best case scenario might start with Eddy Curry and Stephon Marbury making the All Star team. Isiah Thomas is able to turn Malik Rose and Penny Hardaway into Dan Gadzuric, Danny Fortson, and a first round pick. The two became expendable because of the rapid development of Frye, Lee, Ariza and Barnes. Brown makes the Knicks one of the top defensive teams in the league, and they take the Atlantic. The Knicks use home field advantage in the first round to trounce the injury ridden Pistons. In the second round they face the Cavaliers and Trevor Ariza gains national prominence on his ability to shut down LeBron James. Against the Heat, Shaq inexplicably wanders on the court to break up a fight between Dwayne Wade and Nate Robinson. All three are suspended, which allows the Knicks to advance to the Finals.

Reality lies somewhere in between, the Knicks only won 33 games last year, and I think improving by 8 and making the playoffs seems to be reasonable given all that is involved. 41-41 and a first round whipping.

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?

The New York Knicks: What Can Brown Do For Them?

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.