Time is a piece of wax falling on a termite choking on a splinter. (Beck, ‘Loser’)
Have you detected any patterns over the past decade? A new season and decade of Knicks basketball is about two months away. A highly anticipated overhaul of the Knicks’ roster came to a head during the over hyped summer of 2010. But does the roster’s overhaul signal the beginnings of a final split with past traditions? Or is the result of 2010 free agency and the maneuvers to get there more consistent with the franchise’s recent tortured past?
Minimizing the Knicks presence in the NBA draft:
A pattern of expediting draft picks began with Scott Layden who inherited the Knicks GM reigns during the 2000-2001 season. Layden began that cycle by incompetently using draft picks to facilitate trades used to jettison the remnants of the Knicks roster that had played during the franchise’s last final appearance. In the process Layden traded four first round draft picks to expedite players such as Patrick Ewing, Chris Childs, Marcus Camby, Chris Dudley and Mark Jackson (amongst others). Generally, the players traded away along with the draft pick gifts were players whose relative value and experience in the league did not warrant paying such a ransom to dispatch. Layden’s incompetent fire sale of draft picks when coupled with his abysmal record with his remaining draft picks began, compounded and accelerated the Knicks downward spiral. (1999-2000 season)
Isaiah Thomas replaced Layden at the head of the front office. Thomas Inherited a roster bereft of viable NBA talent while confronting New York’s seemingly unyielding ‘Win Now’ mandate. In response, Thomas desperately maneuvered to replenish the cupboard emptied by his predecessor. In the process, Thomas hitched his blueprint for a franchise revival on two players acquired via trades, which cost the Knicks various draft picks whose absence still resonates with the franchise to this day. Thomas believed the players acquired (Eddy Curry and Stephon Marbury) at the expense of better lottery positioning could emerge or be rehabilitated in New York and become foundations of the franchise’s resurgence. The highly talented combo of Marbury and Curry showed flashes but ultimately failed to realize their potential or live up to the fan base’s expectations. Thomas, who is recognized as a very good judge of talent in the draft, hampered his own ability to make a greater impact on the Knicks due to the high draft picks he traded away in exchange for his highly talented yet failed reclamations projects.
Thomas’ successor at the head of the front office, Donnie Walsh, continued the Knicks tradition of minimizing the franchise’s impact in the draft. Walsh did so just as much as a result of his mixed record for the Knicks in the draft. Walsh’s primary early first round selections are questioned when compared to players Walsh could have selected- e.g., Brook Lopez, Brandon Jennings. Walsh also surrendered or minimized the Knicks presence in the draft for the foreseeable future. Walsh did so by swapping a (conditionally protected) first rounder in 2011 and by surrendering a 2012 first round pick in a trade with the Houston Rockets geared towards expediting additional salary for a summer 2010 free agency bid. Although the Knicks did not ‘strike out’ during this summer’s free agency bonanza, the franchise failed to land the league’s premier superstars and the end results of the rosters renovations include a star with past knee issues and a collection of players untested under the glare of Gotham’s expectations.
Overbidding or Overpaying for Questionable or Flawed talent:
The downward spiral begun by Scott Layden (with the draft, draft picks and the ouster of the franchise’s remnant quality players) was compounded by a series of reckless contract offers. Contract offers to players either not worthy of such lucrative offers or whose age or injury situation did not merit such generous compensation. In the process, Layden left the Knicks with 3 significant Albatross contracts (Allen Houston’s, Shandon Anderson’s and Howard Eisley’s) to players undeserving of the salaries tendered.
Thomas continued the Knicks march through cap space hell mostly by way of non meritorious mid level extension (MLE) contract offerings to wholly undeserving players (Jerome James) or to players whose overall production may not have been worth the full extension of such a contract (Jared Jeffries). Thomas in addition traded to acquire talent that came prepackaged with contracts incomparable with their relative production on the court. In certain instances the players acquired (Curry and Marbury) mostly failed to yield redeemable value on the court. In other instances the players acquired (Randolph and Crawford), although talented and later proven contributors on winning teams, were not the sort of players worth salaries that should generally be reserved for the leagues premier players. Thomas’ misuse of the Mid-Level-Exception and the issues of player salaries not commensurate with overall team impact made him a figure emblematic of a trend amongst NBA Executives to overspend for undeserving talent, a trend that is likely heading towards a reversal with NBA Ownership clamoring for a salary cap structure more likely to limit overspending on talent.
Thomas’ successor, Donnie Walsh sorta moved to reverse the Knicks course from cap space hell as part of a gamble to acquire enough cap space to make a bid at the leagues’ premier superstars. In reality and to Thomas’ credit many of the contracts acquired by the prior regime (James, Randolph, Crawford, Jeffries, Marbury, Curry) were already set to expire by the 2011 season, when coincidentally a new labor agreement would likely be negotiated. But Walsh’s desperately pushed to fast forward the clean slate, which he achieved sans the instant franchise altering free agent splashes he had hoped to make. However, Walsh’s desperation to not strike out in 2010 free agency may possibly have the Knicks in a position where they could reverse course into cap space purgatory, should the knees of their main acquisition (Amar’e Stoudemire 5 years 100 million) not hold up to help lure a cast of highly anticipated star reinforcements. Walsh in essence placed the hopes of a franchise’s forward progress in future free agency classes on the health of player with prior knee issues and an uninsurable contract. A signing that will surely make maneuvering out of a worst case scenario highly unlikely for a franchise looking to rival a stacked championship caliber cHeat team in South Beach.
Disregarded tea leaves and incongruencies:
Time is what prevents everything from happening at once. ~John Archibald Wheeler
Wasted draft picks and foolish contracts tendered ripple through the Knicks’ lost decade as the passage of time erodes the luster of a 70s championship era and a readily reminisced 90s revival. Meanwhile, other patterns (equally as destabilizing) underscored a recurring cycle of organizational ineptitude. For instance how many times have the Knicks failed to have read/vetted the tea leaves when signing resigning or trading for a player. Examples in that department include extending a lucrative contract to Allen Houston as he neared the down side of his career; trading for Eddy Curry despite his chronicled heart condition, questions about his commitment to defense and rebounding and motivational issues; and then signing Jerome James to a five-year $30 million MLE contract on the heels of a brief period of strong play during the 2005 playoff, which strongly contradicted James’ prior history of subpar play. Does Stoudemire’s non-guaranteed contract despite past micro-fracture knee surgery, eye surgery and concerns about the star forward’s commitment to defense and rebounding resonate with past failures to read the proverbial ‘tea leaves?’
The Knicks have also endured tension or incongruencies between the team’s executive and head coach. During the Thomas era, head coach, Larry Brown, fell out of favor with the organization during his sole season with the team (2005-2006) as a result of incidents, which signaled Brown’s impatience in dealing with the Knicks young roster. Those incidents included tense exchanges with players such as rookie Trevor Ariza and guard Marbury and the bizarre use of endless starting lineups that contributed a 23-59 record. Attempts to placate Brown by acquiring guard Steven Francis did not stall the eventual falling out between the team’s executive and head coach.
When Walsh replaced Thomas in the front office he also hired D’Antoni to replace Thomas on the sidelines. D’Antoni also experienced tense exchanges with players. During two years at the head coaching helm, D’Antoni’s clashes were of the colder more distant form as a silent wall distanced and alienated players not in the coach’s good graces (Marbury, Robinson, Hughes, Hill and Harrington). But D’Antoni has survived his clashes with players on the roster because unlike, Brown, D’Antoni was not hired by the organization to develop or coach the personnel cycled through the roster. Rather D’Antoni was brought on board with the Knicks, more for his supposed cache with the premier players of the 2010 free agent class whom the Knicks hoped to acquire with D’Antoni as their main draw. As a result D’Antoni received a free pass for the deficiencies in his commitment to coaching the players acquired for him during the two year march to the summer of 2010.
D’Antoni style of coaching has also had an impact on the players acquired (Gallinari’s draft selction, Stoudemire’s signing). Like, Larry Brown’s tenure, personnel moves have been made to placate D’Antoni and his ‘style of play’ (the 2010 overhaul for instance). Unlike Brown, D’Antoni remains on board with the Knicks to place his stamp on the rosters acquisition and development despite excuses having been made for his past ineptitude on the Knicks sidelines. Will the reshuffling of the player deck this past summer signal the end of the free pass afforded D’Antoni or will he continue to influence the sort of players acquired.
A Hail Mary Epilogue?
Who forces time is pushed back by time; who yields to time finds time on his side. ~The Talmud
Many of the patterns that mark the Knicks lost decade are clearly interrelated. They marked an aversion to rebuilding in an environment where rebuilding appeared an unlikely option for a franchise trying desperately not to let go of the luster of both the distant and not so recent past. A luster inextricably tied to a location considered hallowed by many fans and players alike. A lost luster that a franchise has seemingly tried to replicate in a marketing department that held little regard for reality. The aversion to rebuilding resulted in a series of either incompetent, risky or desperate gambles by the various team executives brought in to revive the franchise. As the franchise launched hay-makers in hopes that one or another move would yield nearly instantaneous fruit many of the marketed myths regarding the Knicks perpetual revival have fallen by the wayside.
Key amongst the fallen myths is the myth that Marquee free agents will consider a team’s location or a popular ‘player’s’ coach over a team’s actual progress or success. Another myth proven false includes the idea that another team’s unmotivated or troubled reclamation projects can be salvaged to form the pillars of a franchise. Yet, the most destructive myth is the myth that instant gratification is just a saviour away, whether that savior be a GM with a master plan, or an Iconic Player who could single handedly shift the franchise’s fortunes. In a war of attrition with a fanbase’s spirits many now acquiesce to the belief that a snazzy high octane offense with multiple stars can win championships in defiance of championship hallmarks such as defense, rebounding and the development of a strong supporting casts.
Is Donnie Walsh Going the Distance?
The Rolling Stones’ famous chorus declaring ‘Time is on my side, Yes it is,’ acknowledges that time can be an ally when embraced. For a Knicks organization and its fanbase in constant search for a saviour or bona-fide master plan, time is a rival since expectations are generally less patient than the famous ‘New York Minute.’ The fan base and organization’s constant search for the next panacea to what ails their team resembles the rush of waves whose crests often crash on the shores of an unrelenting reality. The more things change the more they stay the same, especially when an organization’s front office moved to defy time with haymakers and hail mary passes that generally missed wide off the mark.
Serendipitously the end result of the summer of 2010 has cleared the slate for the Knicks. In some ways leaving the path to a true rebuild possible, should the legs of the franchise’s sole star acquisition hold up. But will the franchise demonstrate the patience to see how things play out with the myriad of superstars rumored to desire a home in the mecca of basketball? Will the franchise demonstrate they have learned from the past and play the situation correctly and their cards right? Will they finally produce a balanced team directed in the front office and on the sidelines by personnel compatible with the hallmarks of a championship formula?