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Monday, July 16, 2007

New York State of Mind

The 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

9 comments

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9 Comments:

At Monday, July 16, 2007 11:46:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

Bill Simmons actually expressed surprise and disbelief at Isiah Thomas doing a good trade:

http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/070629

 
At Monday, July 16, 2007 3:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

True, but that kind of goes along with my premise that everything that Isiah does becomes a punchline to Simmons and some other writers; in the piece that you cited, Simmons said, "Good God, Isiah finally made a good trade! It happened! Somehow, he just landed Zach Randolph for Channing Frye and Stevie Francis! I'm shocked! What's happening to this league? Even Isiah is doing the right thing!" That is hardly high praise for Isiah's basketball acumen.

 
At Monday, July 16, 2007 5:04:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

In my opinion, the Knicks will win about 45 games next year and make some noise in the playoffs. They have a talented group now. I think they could have made the playoffs this year if not for some injuries. With experience, they'll only get better.

I think the fact that so many writers and fans are so quick to blast Isiah Thomas goes back to stuff that happened 15-20 years ago. Larry Bird and Michael Jordan were, along with Magic Johnson, the preferred (by fans and the media) faces of the NBA. Isiah Thomas was the leader of a blue-collar, "dirty", win-at-all-costs team getting in the way of Bird and Jordan. This, and the fact that Thomas' Pistons weren't in awe of Bird and Jordan (as can be seen by the numerous hard fouls and harsh comments) made Thomas a sort of "public enemy" to mainstream NBA fans and writers. It looks like that image has remained with Thomas to this very day.

 
At Monday, July 16, 2007 5:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

To this day, Isiah is fond of pointing out that he is the only player who has a winning overall playoff record versus Bird, Magic and Jordan.

 
At Tuesday, July 17, 2007 4:35:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

Quite frankly, Isiah Thomas has done his bit to become a punchline. Even though the whole "Isiah sold the CBA down the river" thing is way oversimplified (the CBA was going down the drain just fine without him), it is true that he handled the whole situation in a disastrous manner. His stint as coach of the Pacers was not exactly a success, and even before that his time with the Raptors was marred by constant "situations" and soap operas of all kinds and description.

It is also true that the Knicks were turdic in nature before Isiah came along, but... Jerome James? Vin Baker? Malik Rose? Jerome Williams? Larry Brown? Tim Thomas? Jalen Rose?

It isn't the controversial trades for underachieving players like Marbury or Francis, it's that his best move to date (other than good drafting, he does do good drafts) was getting talented but suspicious Eddy Curry.

Give Isiah his props: the man has worked long and hard towards that puncline.

 
At Tuesday, July 17, 2007 6:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

You are correct that Isiah receives too much blame for the CBA fiasco. As I wrote in an earlier post, if the league was doing so well before he came along then how come he was able to buy it lock, stock and barrel for $10 million? Once the NBA decided to create and fund its own minor league (the NBDL) I don't think that Bill Gates could have saved the CBA--and what reason would there be to save it?

While with Toronto, Isiah drafted T-Mac when taking high schoolers was anything but a sure thing. He also drafted Rookie of the Year Damon Stoudamire and Marcus Camby, who has had a very solid career. Isiah was run out of Toronto not because of poor basketball decisions but because he lost a power struggle for control of the team. I suppose that is what you mean by "soap operas" and "situations."

Moving on to Indiana, Isiah arrived as coach when the team decided to rebuild after the 2000 Finals run. Jermaine O'Neal, Al Harrington and Brad Miller all developed and improved while Isiah was the coach; O'Neal was quite upset when Isiah was replaced. In Isiah's first two seasons the Pacers were eliminated from the playoffs by the eventual Eastern Conference champions. In his third season the Pacers got off to a great start and he coached the East in the All-Star Game. Injuries, some Ron Artest suspensions and family tragedies that affected O'Neal, Jamaal Tinsley and Austin Croshere all contributed to a second half collapse and early playoff exit. Others may disagree but I don't think that Isiah did a poor job as Indiana's coach.

Individually, some of Isiah's personnel moves in New York may not seem to make sense but look at the result: the team that he has assembled for this season looks pretty good on paper. As for hiring Larry Brown, who would have looked at his track record--particularly as a quick fix guy who coached both the Nets and the Clippers to the playoffs when they were dog franchises--and predicted that Brown would flame out so badly with the Knicks?

Yes, Isiah has made mistakes but even the greatest GMs and coaches make mistakes. Considered fairly, his record is not nearly as poor as many people try to suggest.

 
At Tuesday, July 17, 2007 7:36:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

Everybody makes mistakes. The problem is, it's hard to find some non-mistakes in Isiah's resume: he has a very good eye for the draft, and he has helped some young players improve. That's fine, but it does not sound like senior staff ability to me, rather sort of junior position in charge of specific and limited areas of a team or franchise.

The Toronto Raptors were a constant source of news and rumours regarding clashes between players, coaches and front office execs. While I think Isiah did a good job there, I also think that it's not a good sign he got involved in a lot of internal strife - it would not matter if it was a one-off thing, but it seems to be rather the rule than the exception with Isiah Thomas.

The CBA was doomed no matter what and the NBA backstabbed him, but Isiah's handling of the situation was not impressive. He gave conflicting statements about his plans and intentions and eventually bailed out in an undignified manner. The ship was sinking, but I think he could have done more to salvage as much as possible.

Indiana was perhaps his finest hour, bringing together a fine bunch of players. Then again, he was ousted in first round three seasons in a row, if memory serves me right. We all know what excuses are like; the Suns have one each year and I am sure the Pacers had one for each playoff exit. Still, three straight first round defeats don't spell "ticker tape parade" to me.

Most of Isiah's moves in New York didn't even look good on paper: Vin Baker? Jerome James? Tim Thomas? It's one thing to be fooled by somebody pulling a "contract season" on you, but Jerome James had like a contract three games or so.

Even the moves involving potentially positive assests (Marbury, Francis, Brown) were highly questionable on paper considering the setup of the team. The only non-draft moves that look good on paper, as far as I can see, are the Eddy Curry trade and the Zach Randolph trade.

The way I see it, the one thing that goes some way towards redeeming Isiah Thomas of the Knicks is the fact that the people before him did an even worse job and left him an impossible position. He is working under duress so he is entitled to ample allowances, for instance regarding their salary situation.

The real question is how come several other GMs like Mullin or Vandeweghe have managed to rebuild their reputations simply because Baron Davis had a rare healthy spell or Carmelo Anthony turned out to be good.

 
At Tuesday, July 17, 2007 2:24:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I'd like to point out that it was Larry Brown who allegedly pushed very hard for the Knicks to acquire Steve Francis and Jalen Rose.

 
At Tuesday, July 17, 2007 5:07:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JN:

My point is that Isiah was hardly the failure that he is alleged to have been either in Toronto or Indiana. A lot of organizations have internal strife, including some that won titles (MJ's Bulls with Jackson-Krause, the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, etc.). The fact that Isiah has a strong personality and has sometimes clashed with others does not prove either that he was in the wrong nor that he is not a sound decision maker regarding basketball moves (which is the main aspect that I am evaluating here).

Some of his NY moves did not look right to me at the time either, but look at the roster he inherited and the roster he has now; the bottom line is that he has put together a pretty solid team, at least on paper, in a pretty short period of time, particularly considering the mess that he inherited. The next step, of course, is for Isiah the coach to lead the Knicks into the playoffs and to continue to develop the talents of his young players. Only after he does that--or fails to do that--can his tenure in NY be fairly evaluated.

As for the subject of Indiana's first round losses, the fair question is how good were those teams realistically expected to be. You mentioned "excuses" and the Phoenix Suns but the Suns are a legitimate title contender stocked with a two-time MVP and a lot of talented players. The Pacers were the underdog the first two years that they lost in the playoffs and both teams that beat them went to the Eastern Finals. The third year, the Pacers had the best regular season of Isiah's tenure but Artest's suspensions and some off court tragedies unraveled the team down the stretch. Perhaps those are just "excuses" but whatever you want to call them I don't see how this reflects poorly on Isiah as a coach. Young players develop under his tutelage and he appears to have a good rapport with them. I don't know if he is a great coach or not but I see no reason to conclude that he is a terrible coach based on his three years in Indiana and one year in New York.

 

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