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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Knicks Fans Pray That the Light at the End of the Tunnel is not an Oncoming Train

Not quite two months ago I asked Have the Knicks Turned the Corner? and I suggested that their next five games--four of which would be played on the road--might provide the answer. The Knicks lost four of those five games and went 4-15 in the ensuing 19 games to plummet to 20-39, the 13th best record in the 15 team Eastern Conference and the 25th best record in the 30 team NBA. Even in the moribund East the Knicks are 9 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot; if the Knicks were in the West they would be 13.5 games behind the eighth seed! The Knicks' attention to detail defensively and on the boards during a 7-3 run from late December to early January proved to be a quite temporary condition; the Knicks currently rank 22nd in point differential, 25th in points allowed, 27th in defensive field goal percentage and 29th in rebounding differential.

Last season, a Knicks' blogger and some Knicks' fans were outraged when I dared to suggest that despite all of the pro-Mike D'Antoni media hype the Knicks were not in fact any better than they were when Isiah Thomas coached the team. I compared the team's record and defensive statistics in year one of the D'Antoni era to the corresponding numbers from Thomas' first season as Knicks' coach, prompting all kinds of bleatings that I was cherrypicking numbers and that I had some kind of pernicious agenda. As I responded at that time, when D'Antoni has put up year two numbers we can compare his year two numbers with Thomas'. The Knicks still have 23 games left but here are the relevant numbers as things stand today: the 2009-10 Knicks have a .339 winning percentage, while Thomas' 2007-08 Knicks finished with a .280 winning percentage (that works out to less than a five game difference over an 82 game schedule). The 2007-08 Knicks ranked 25th in point differential, 22nd in points allowed, 28th in defensive field goal percentage and 18th in rebounding differential (i.e., Thomas' Knicks rebounded much better than D'Antoni's Knicks and were equally poor defensively). Maybe the Knicks will get hot down the stretch--or maybe their collection of rent a players will perform even worse as they count the days toward summer vacation--but as of now the numbers pretty much validate everything that I wrote about the Knicks in my 2009 article: D'Antoni's first Knicks team did not perform as well as Thomas' first Knicks team and D'Antoni's second Knicks team has gotten worse instead of improving. Fans bitterly complained about Thomas' coaching and about his roster moves but D'Antoni's coaching has not improved the team's record and David Lee--New York's most productive player by far--was drafted by Thomas, who also drafted Wilson Chandler, a promising young player who ranks second on the team in mpg and third in scoring.

Everyone knows that the Knicks have put all of their eggs in the LeBron James free agency basket but it is worth noting that nearly two full years into the post-Isiah Thomas era the Knicks have made little progress either in terms of developing a solid supporting cast or in terms of establishing a winning style of play. Why should James--or any other superstar free agent--want to come to a team that apparently has no plan other than signing one or two stars and hoping for the best? Jerry Krause once infamously stated that organizations win championships--a senseless swipe at the talents of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the other Chicago Bulls players who captured six NBA titles--but it is certainly true that organization wins championships--in other words, a franchise must be committed to doing things the right way from top to bottom in order to achieve the highest level of success. Just look at the New England Patriots, L.A. Lakers and San Antonio Spurs for three examples of 21st century sports franchises that have owners, talent evaluators and coaches who are intelligent and dedicated. With all due respect to Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni, I don't see any championship rings on their fingers, nor do I see the slightest evidence that any kind of championship blueprint is in place in New York. At best, the Knicks are going to get the leftovers of the upcoming free agent class after James and Dwyane Wade make their decisions--perhaps Chris Bosh will leave Toronto to come to New York. Bosh is nothing to sneeze at but he is not likely to lead a team to a championship any time soon--and he certainly won't lead the Knicks to a title if David Lee and Wilson Chandler (or their salary cap friendly replacements if the Knicks do not keep them) are the best members of his supporting cast.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:59 AM



At Thursday, March 04, 2010 2:36:00 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

I generally agree with you that Knicks fans are likely to be disappointed in 2010-11.

A couple countervailing points, though.

1. Look at Boston in 2007-08. They added Allen and Garnett to Rondo (an untested second-year player) and Perkins (an untested fifth-year player) and Pierce, plus signed a bunch of veterans (House, Posey, Cassell, Brown) for the bench. Voila, championship. So this model is possible, though probably not likely.

2. If New York can't land two top FAs in July 2010, they could use Eddy Curry's contract to trade for a star, or sign a star FA in July 2011. Pierce, Yao, Tony Parker, and maybe even Kobe Bryant will be available. Greg Oden might be available as a RFA if Portland chooses not to extend his contract in Oct 2010.

3. D'Antoni's cupboard has been pretty bare of talent. Since he started in fall 2008, he's lost Crawford, Randolph, and now Jeffries & Robinson. Curry has been injured throughout D'Antoni's tenure. Their 2009 draft pick, Hill, was disappointing.

At Thursday, March 04, 2010 5:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bhel Atlantic:

There is no evidence that the Knicks have the strategic structure (i.e., a style of play focused on defense/rebounding/efficient offense) in place to become a contending team, nor is there any evidence that the Knicks have a coherent plan to assemble enough talent to become a contending team (praying that LeBron will sign with a decrepit team is not a plan).

Here is my take on your specific points:

1) This is a poor comparison. The main reason that the 2007 Celtics were so bad is that Paul Pierce missed 35 games. The 2007 Celtics already had three players on the roster who would start for the 2008 championship team: Pierce, rookie Rajon Rondo and third year center Kendrick Perkins. The acquisition of Kevin Garnett was a perfect storm for the Celtics: rarely is a player of that caliber available and the reality is that he would have never signed with Boston had the Celtics not already had Pierce and Allen in place prior to his arrival.

What pieces do the Knicks have in place to entice LeBron to sign with them? KG was lured to Boston by the prospect of playing alongside two future Hall of Famers.

2) Pierce is a future HoFer who played very well during the 2008 championship run but he is not currently a franchise level player on the level of Kobe or LeBron and it is even less likely that he will be at that level in a year or two as he ages.

Even if you assume that Tony Parker would leave a model organization to play for the train wreck that is the Knicks, Parker is not a franchise player. There is no way of knowing when--or even if--Yao will be a franchise player again. Do you really consider Greg Oden to be a max level player? Kobe Bryant has nothing on his mind but winning championships, so there is a 0% chance that he leaves the Lakers to sign with the Knicks.

Is your best case scenario for the Knicks that they come up emptyhanded in the summer of 2010, suffer through another dreadful season in 2010-11 and then pin their hopes on signing Pierce, Yao, Parker, Bryant or Oden?

3) Walsh and D'Antoni have been on the job for nearly two years but the best players on their roster are holdovers from the Thomas regime (Lee and Chandler). Walsh and D'Antoni have apparently put all of their eggs in the LeBron basket, with no backup plan whatsoever if LeBron does not come to New York. Meanwhile, they have subjected their fans and ticketholders to two seasons of wretched basketball. It is interesting to me to compare how much criticism Thomas received to the free pass that D'Antoni and Walsh have gotten so far--and look at the venom that foolish Knicks blogger directed at me last year when I dared to suggest that the Knicks have not improved much, if at all, under D'Antoni; that just goes to show that getting corporate sponsorship for a blog does not have anything to do with the quality of that blog's writing or analysis.

At Thursday, March 04, 2010 8:31:00 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

Thank you for your response.

Again, I agree with you that Knicks fans will probably be disappointed in 2010-11.

Regarding your answers to my points (1) and (2), I will just say that the best-case scenario for the Knicks is that LeBron and Bosh, or Wade and Bosh, both decide to sign there. Yes, I agree that it's unlikely. But it's possible. They could both decide to sign at the same moment, obviating the concern about "What other talent will I have to play with?"

Also, I forgot to mention that Carmelo Anthony will be a FA in July 2011.

Although Mike D'Antoni is often slammed for his run-and-gun approach, he got his team awfully close to the championship in 2005, 2006, and, most of all, 2007. He probably would've experienced similar playoff success in 2008 without the Shaq trade.

Regarding your answer to my point (3): If you had taken over as Knicks GM in April 2008, as Donnie Walsh did, how would you have done things differently? Would you have attempted to develop a winner with the existing talent on the roster, rather than "clearing the cupboard" for 2010 FAs? I submit that this would have been very difficult. I agree that Walsh/D'Antoni have subjected the fans to some bad ball, but I think fans are somewhat forgiving, as at least it looks like they have a strategy with some likelihood of success. That was not the case under Thomas.

I certainly agree with you that Isiah Thomas is a good judge of college talent. Ariza, David Lee, Nate Robinson, Renaldo Balkman, and Wilson Chandler were all good picks. Walsh made one good pick (Gallinari) and one bad pick (Hill).

At Friday, March 05, 2010 7:44:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bhel Atlantic:

I think that it is highly unlikely that LeBron will sign with the Knicks. LeBron will get more money by re-signing with the Cavs but, more importantly, he understands that to be ranked among the very greatest players of all-time he must win some championships and he knows that a team must have a defensive mindset to win championships.

Even if LeBron and Bosh sign with the Knicks, what would the rest of the roster look like? Lee would likely be gone in that scenario. Two stars plus 10 scrubs would equal, at best, a 45 win team with no chance to win a championship.

Carmelo Anthony was paired with All-Star Allen Iverson and could not get out of the first round. Last year the Nuggets took advantage of some slippage by other West teams to advance to the Western Conference Finals but that team is much deeper and more talented than the Knicks can even dream of being in 2010 or 2011.

Another way to look at D'Antoni's record is to say that despite having very talented teams he never made it to the Finals even once. Why should we think that he is going to take the Knicks further with less talent? A squad hypothetically consisting of LeBron and 11 scrubs is not as good as a team with Nash, Amare, Diaw, Marion, etc.

Earlier this decade, the Orlando Magic made the playoffs with a "heart and hustle" team before clearing the decks and signing T-Mac and Grant Hill. I think that the Knicks should have spent the past two years building a "heart and hustle" attitude that might have enabled the role players to get some playoff experience. That would have been much more likely to set the stage for a big free agent signing than what the Knicks have done.

It is also worth emphasizing that at least as much as I am critiquing Walsh and D'Antoni I am critiquing the media coverage of the team. I realize that Walsh and D'Antoni inherited a losing team but so did Isiah--and in the two years since Isiah's departure the team has not improved even though Walsh is supposed to be a better exec than Isiah and D'Antoni is supposed to be a better coach than Isiah.

Why do you think that the current regime's plan is more likely to be successful than Isiah's? So far, the results are indistinguishable and the top two players on the roster were drafted by Isiah, not Walsh. I think that it is unlikely that the Knicks will get LeBron and I am not at all convinced that their strategy is going to be successful; there is a chance that they will end up with a pile of money that will be spent on second tier players, much like what the Pistons ended up doing after trading Billups and getting rid of Iverson and Sheed. Will Knicks' fans be thrilled if years of losing results in signing the 2010 equivalents of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva?

At Friday, March 05, 2010 11:15:00 AM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

Walsh took over only 23 months ago, so it seems premature to think that his draft picks could now be standouts; thus it's an unfair comparison to say that "the top two players on the roster were drafted by Isiah". Give Gallinari another year, and he could get there. Even top 2008 draft picks like Beasley, Eric Gordon, and OJ Mayo are arguably not among the top 2 on their respective rosters.

I thought it was impressive that by adding Nash + Q-Rich + a training camp with D'Antoni to Phoenix's previous core (Stoudemire, Marion, Johnson) in 2004, the Suns went from 29 wins in 2003-04 to 62 wins in 2004-05. And then it was impressive that, losing three starters from the previous year, D'Antoni led a team featuring Boris Diaw and Tim Thomas as its main "bigs" into the WCF in 2006.

I think that among other things, Phoenix got unlucky with injuries during the playoffs. Joe Johnson broke his face in 2005. In 2006, Kurt Thomas and Raja Bell got injured in the WCF, and of course Stoudemire was injured the entire season. In 2007, Nash had that bloody nose which kept him out of crunch time in Game 1 against the Spurs, and then came the suspensions for Game 5. Yes, every team suffers injuries, but Phoenix was particularly hard-hit at inopportune moments.

I thought that Isiah's plan had a 0% chance of building NYK into a championship contender, and Walsh's plan has maybe a 20% chance. :>

As for Detroit signing Gordon and Charlie V, well I'm a lifelong Pistons fan, so don't get me started on that one! Starting with the Billups-Iverson trade, Dumars has made a series of very bad decisions.

At Friday, March 05, 2010 4:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bhel Atlantic:

Walsh has yet to acquire talent--either through the draft or via trades/free agency--that exceeds the talent (Lee, Chandler) that Thomas left behind. Gallinari does seem like a promising player, though.

The D'Antoni Suns played a style that was very conducive to producing regular season wins but not suited to winning a championship. Many teams are not prepared during the regular season to deal with a run and gun team in the fourth game in five nights but in a playoff series it is much tougher to be successful with that approach if it is not backed up by solid defense.

If you look back at the teams that won championships most if not all of them overcame some kind of adversity (Bynum was injured and essentially a token starter for the Lakers last year, with most of his minutes going to Odom).

If you look at Isiah's record in Toronto and New York, he has actually had more success in the draft than Walsh has. Neither Isiah nor Walsh has ever built a championship team in the NBA.

Teams think that if they set aside a stack of cash they will automatically get top tier talent but it is not that simple. After this summer, Knicks' fans will likely share the pain that you feel as a Pistons' fan.

At Friday, March 05, 2010 7:44:00 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

One last point. Walsh built a Pacers team that went to the conference finals in 1994, 1995, 1998, 1999, and 2000 — and then again in 2004 with substantially new featured talent. Yes, they didn't win a championship, but it's still an impressive record that Knicks fans would happily accept. Were I a Knicks fan, I would put my faith in Walsh. (Without faith, what else is there for a bereft Knicks fan?)

At Saturday, March 06, 2010 1:13:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bhel Atlantic:

It is true that Walsh built contending teams in Indiana. I think that Walsh is a solid GM and that D'Antoni is a solid coach. However, I am a bit mystified by their moves so far in New York and I also think that the media has not criticized their moves with the same intensity that the media criticized Isiah Thomas' moves. So, I am interested to see what happens with the Knicks both in terms of the on the court rebuilding plan and the way that the media covers the team.


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