New York State of MindThe New York Knicks have not seen first place in quite some time but, to mix sports metaphors, they have lapped the rest of the NBA in one regard: they must pay a $45.1 million luxury-tax bill, which is almost $38 million more than any other team in the league. The luxury-tax is a dollar for dollar amount that must be paid by any team that exceeds the NBA's salary cap restrictions; teams can go over the cap in certain situations without facing the penalty--Larry Coon's NBA Salary Cap FAQ offers a very detailed explanation of everything you could possibly want to know about this subject. Five teams (Knicks, Mavericks, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Spurs) currently have to pay the luxury-tax, while the remaining 25 teams will each receive $1.9 million after the luxury-tax funds are collected.
Clearly, New York has yet to receive much bang for all of the bucks that have been spent; the Knicks went 33-49 last season, have not made the playoffs since 2003-04 and have not won more than half of their games since 2000-01, Jeff Van Gundy's last full season as the team's head coach. Many people are quick to blame President/Coach Isiah Thomas for this sad state of affairs but the reality is that he inherited a mess when he arrived on the scene in December 2003--a sub-.500 team filled with mismatched personnel and burdened by excessively large contracts, including Allan Houston's. Owner James Dolan has apparently given Thomas a lot of latitude financially, so if Dolan is willing to foot the bill then the only important question is not how much of Dolan's money Thomas is spending but whether or not he has made the team better in the past few years.
I admit that the idea of pairing Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis together made no sense to me at all but Thomas managed to not only get rid of Francis but he also got someone else (Portland owner Paul Allen, who has even deeper pockets than Dolan) to foot the bill. As things stand now, Thomas traded Penny Hardaway, Trevor Ariza and Channing Frye for Zach Randolph; Hardaway--who is no longer in the league--and Ariza are the players who Thomas gave up to acquire Francis, while Frye accompanied Francis to Portland in this year's draft day deal for Randolph. It was a circuitous path that took some time to wend its way to a conclusion, but at the end of the day these moves upgraded the Knicks' talent level and did not worsen the team's financial situation. Previously, Thomas acquired Eddy Curry--who seems to be on the verge of becoming an All-Star center in the East--without giving up players of any significant value at this stage of their careers (Antonio Davis, Tim Thomas, Michael Sweetney and Jermaine Jackson); several draft picks were also involved in the Curry deal, so perhaps the final verdict may not be favorable to the Knicks but any objective party looking at that transaction has to admit that Thomas did well to obtain a quality low-post scorer without giving up much.
The unfortunate thing for Thomas is that guys like Bill Simmons and others have basically turned his name--at least as an executive--into a punchline, so anything that Thomas does is not judged on its merits but simply becomes fodder for another one-liner. I don't know what Thomas did to so upset Simmons--maybe Simmons didn't like it when Thomas' Pistons ended Boston's Eastern Conference supremacy in the late 1980s--but Thomas knows more about basketball than his critics ever will. Overall, Joe Dumars has done a wonderful job in Detroit, winning one title and building a team that is a perennial contender, but he also drafted Darko Milicic when he could have had Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh and he failed to retain the services of Mehmet Okur, who blossomed into an All-Star with the Utah Jazz; just imagine what people would say if Thomas had made those moves. Every GM or team president makes some mistakes and not every deal can be evaluated correctly the second that it happens. Just like the mainstream media loves certain players but bashes others, some executives and coaches receive the benefit of the doubt while others are reflexively blasted.
Remember how the fans booed and the ESPN analysts jeered when Thomas drafted Renaldo Balkman with the 20th overall pick in the 2006 draft? Balkman turned out to be an effective all-around player last year and a Madison Square Garden crowd favorite. He performed very well in the just concluded summer league. David Lee is another productive player who Thomas drafted. Last season, Thomas acquired Randolph Morris by taking advantage of a rules technicality and Morris appears to be a decent big man prospect who will no doubt benefit from being tutored by Mark Aguirre. I think that Mardy Collins will turn out to be a better player than a lot of the guys who were selected before him in the draft.
It is easy to make jokes about Thomas and the Knicks and it is certainly true that the team has not performed well in recent seasons--but look at the Knicks' possible starting lineup this fall: Eddy Curry at center, Zach Randolph at power forward, Quentin Richardson at small forward, Jamal Crawford at shooting guard and Stephon Marbury at point guard. David Lee, Nate Robinson, Renaldo Balkman and Mardy Collins will come off of the bench. That is certainly a younger, more talented and better balanced roster than the one that Thomas inherited a little more than three years ago. I don't know how things will turn out--I'd be more confident in the Knicks' prospects if they did not have Marbury running the show--but while critics have made fun of Thomas' every move he has managed to acquire a lot of talented players. It will be interesting to see how this group responds to Thomas' coaching. Since Thomas has basically hand-picked each player who is currently on the roster one would think that this team will be very loyal to Thomas and will play hard for him.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:24 AM