Its Day three of Free Agency and the annual cry of disappointment is already being heard from the mouths and fingers of Knicks fans. I am one of those hopeless dopes who look at every move from the perspective of “this will be great for us.” I realize there are far more cynics in the bandwagon but the wagon is still full.
That’s the thing about Knicks fans, they haven’t abandoned ship. We’re like the band on the Titanic: doing what we do best while all hell breaks loose around us. But a possible rescue mission is on its way and Knicks fans may be missing it.
Zach Harper of CBS Sports wrote brilliantly about it in ways I can’t possibly hope to duplicate, but it got me to thinking about the fan base and our star player. Knicks fans are hopeful, and hopeless. We are patient and desperate. We are loyal and yet take to every possible forum to bash our star player. We are a prideful bunch, always quick to remind those that this is the mecca of basketball even if other cities probably took that title a long time ago. We are everything and nothing all rolled into one.
But in our conflicting identity there is a fierce passion that never fades. In that fire lies our biggest problem: We collectively don’t want what we say we want. If you asked 100 Knick fans about what they want from their team, long term success or short term success: 98 out of 100 fans will take long term and two will go the other way because there’s always two dopes in a crowd. But if you asked those same 98 fans about how to get to long term success, you may get 98 different answers.
There’s a quick fix here and a free agent there that ultimately can fix what’s ailing the Knicks. While free agency has served some teams well, its a dicey proposition to put all your chips into one basket and hope for the best. We saw how well laid plans can be ruined in 2010 when Lebron went to Miami. Two years of organizational dumping of bloated contracts eventually landed the Knicks Amare Stoudemire on a max, uninsured deal.
Its safe to say that Carmelo Anthony is at the center of alot of the organization’s failings. Melo openly pined to “come home” to play for the Knicks and ignoring the better judgement of a proven General Manager in Donnie Walsh (brought in at the insistence, read: stop f’n embarrassing yourselves and get a guy who knows what the hell he’s doing, of David Stern, then the Commissioner of the NBA) Knicks brass (read: owner James Dolan) gave away assets that could’ve grown around Anthony to bring the star in five months before he could’ve came for free in free agency. If you will remember, that summer the owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement and there was a work stoppage which may have endangered Melo signing on for the huge contract he eventually inked prior to last season.
That move to trade assets like Wilson Chandler, Danilo Galinari and Timofey Mozgov (remember him?) and dont forget those draft picks left the Knicks with very little wiggle room to work with. To date, the Knicks don’t have a single draft pick in next year’s (2016) draft and traded away our second round picks from 2016-2021. To be fair, we have a second round pick in 2017 from Houston and two second rounders, one from Cleveland, and another from Houston, which will I’m sure be traded by the time I post this article. That’s not cynicism pouring out on the page, second rounders are treated like step children and are often used as assets that teams throw in to make the salaries work in the larger construct of trades. You can buy into the late first round into the second round with ease because most teams don’t have the cap space to afford a 14th or 15th guy on the bench.
Melo inked a near max deal, which given the state of the NBA’s rising salary cap will be a drop in the bucket and then spoke about maximizing his brand which drew the ire of the fanbase and the rolling eye verbal emoji of the NBA Twitter heads who love beating the Knicks pinata whenever possible.
Twitter has been a haven for Knick fans to voice their frustration over the franchise’s lack of forward thinking and a place for Knick haters to dwell and throw salt on the wound. Twitter, and by virtue the internet is a wonderful place because its like that sex party scene in Eyes Wide Shut: everyone wears a mask and does whatever the hell they want. While that’s great and all, the ugly truth of failed leadership is there for all to see. Its not that the analytics crowd is against the Knicks, its just that all their projections have been saying the same thing: this team as presently constructed is NOT worth keeping together. Trade everything of worth and sell off assets like Michael Jackson and recoup whatever value in future draft picks and gain back some credibility.
That’s all great but the old credo remains: you can’t rebuild in New York. I’ve seen it in the fan base. Fast forward to the first two days of free agency and this year’s draft. After spending the entire season sucking and landing the second worst record in the NBA, the Knicks somehow saw two teams leap frog them landing them the fourth pick in a draft that had three potential saviors.
The outrage from the fan base and the point and laugh of the Twitterati anti-Knick brigade made the internet an almost insufferable refuge. It was like coming home with a bad report card, you knew you had to check in but you knew you were going to get skewered. Knicks fans take things personally. I know because everytime I read a tweet from Frank Isola of the Daily News it irritates the shit out of me. Its a natural reaction. While I know his criticism of the Knicks comes from a general hatred of James Dolan (which I share, and I don’t use the word hate lightly and have fully understood the meaning of what I say when I say I hate someone) who has built a virtual Wall of Jericho from the press legion ready to pounce and ask him difficult questions for him to avoid, my anger is misplaced and goes to him because I feel its a personal attack on me.
Its like the old saying- you pinch yourself to see if you’re awake or dreaming. You read an Isola sarcastic remark, get angry and remind yourself you’re a Knicks fan.
Some Knicks fans have all but given hope that this franchise while under the stewardship of James Dolan will ever get its act together and its not completely unfounded. Everything that Dolan has done has been shortsighted. Whether its bringing in Hall of Fame coaches Larry Brown and Lenny Wilkens (two guys from Brooklyn to make it simpler) and then eating their contracts, it screams New York City excess: “Let’s just light this pile of money on fire because I can”. While it shows a willingness to spend above and beyond, its also a glaring example of how frivolously that money is spent. No rhyme or reason.
When the Knicks drafted Kristaps Porzingis (note, I did not need to check the spelling on his last name, just goes to show you how much time I’ve spent reading up about this kid) the outrage was palpable. It may have had something to do with the five minutes (in real time but what felt like hours of sweating it out in Knicks fan time) between the Lakers picking DeAngelo Russell at 2 and the Sixers pick. The Sixers, also in the business of sucking, had spent the last two drafts drafting two big men. There was enough reason to think the Sixers would balk on Jahlil Okafor and go for someone else. But that flew in the face of everything Sam Hinkie, the GM responsible for the Sixers current strategy, has built. He is an asset hoarder like his former boss, Darryl Morey. He understands that in order to build something that lasts, you have to build through the draft, keep flexibility in the contracts you hand out to free agents and trade excess fat and see if teams will bite with first round picks. You use movable contracts and first round picks to pluck that superstar and build around your own core of maturing elite talent.
So it only made sense to draft Jahlil Okafor despite the uncertainty of how he will develop around two other bigs who will require the proper time on the court to develop as well. That’s the Sixers problem. The Knicks and its fanbase, already visualizing Okafor in a Knicks jersey immediately vented their frustration on to the internet. Which, while its made to do, almost turns the functionality of it into a virtual toilet to dump their shit into. Phil Jackson, brought in as the latest former New York hoops legend (he of the 1969 and 1973 World Championship teams), bore the brunt of the jokes, anger and all other emotional debris.
He is now the face on the dart board that is the New York Knicks franchise. Every tweet dissected and used as a running joke. The idea, from this Knicks fans perspective, was that Phil would serve as a real life buffer between Dolan’s crazy ideas of how to turn the Knicks around (by the way while I hate how he runs the franchise I will never say he doesn’t go for it and is unwilling to spend on a plan and at least from that perspective I have to respect him), and how a franchise SHOULD build itself. Giving a guy that had no previous experience building a team this job was the kind of shortsighted move that Dolan had been wont to make. But viewing each of Phil’s moves there are some good takeaways if you are a Knicks fan about the general direction this team is going.
Whether Melo likes it or not, and this is just one fan’s guess: he is now told rather than asked for his opinion on moves the Knicks plan on making, his career goal of winning a title while in his prime may not necessarily be high on Phil’s list of things to consider when he’s making some of the moves he’s making. Which, again its only my opinion, is a very wise and prudent plan. The Knicks only owe Melo the remaining $124M left on his contract. What they owe the fan base is a consistent winner.
Porzingis may be the biggest unknown in this draft but its a shot in the dark that was necessary. The Knicks have not drafted a player with this much upside since Mark Jackson. While the Knicks were busy “striking out” on the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Monroe, they signed Aaron Afflalo to a reasonable two year deal and are closing in on a one year deal for Robin Lopez. Both defensive minded players (Afflalo’s advanced stats show a decline in his production however) that should help out Carmelo Anthony when he makes his return from knee surgery. They also flipped Tim Hardaway Jr, a shoot first ask questions last sequel to the horror of JR Smith, for a first round talent in Jerian Grant who as a 6’5 PG who can drive to the hoop, an essential quality of the triangle offense.
Which brings us to the topic that drives today’s analytics driven NBA insider insane. The Triangle is attached to Phil Jackson’s hip because its a system he deeply believes in. And why not? He won 11 championships employing the system in both Chicago with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in the 90’s and the early 2000’s and again in the late 2000’s in Los Angeles with Shaq, Kobe and Pau Gasol. While many laugh about how archaic the triangle is, its been less than 10 years since a team ran it and won a title.
In a recent interview with Howard Beck of the Bleacher Report, he spoke about the triangle, more as an ideology of how the game should be played moreso than a system. The tenets of the triangle are important to adhere to but don’t fit in today’s pick and roll league. But Phil Jackson repeatedly has said that everyone harps on the Triangle system too much when describing the Knicks failure last season. The Knicks didn’t fail because of the triangle, they failed because they didn’t have the talent to compete. Plain and simple. That’s not a system thing, that’s a fit thing.
Phil’s moves as a GM have been mostly to remove the bad seeds. In the interview he described building something similar to what San Antonio has. An atmosphere clear of dysfunction and unified in a common goal. When Knick fans cry about why free agents don’t want to come to NY its clear that much of it has to do with the anarchy going on behind the scenes. The word among fellow players I’m sure is poisonous. The only way to get around that is to remove the dead weight and that’s what Phil did when he shipped JR Smith and Iman Shumpert. Shumpert was a player that had regressed in his development and the front office fairly didn’t view him as a part of their future. The organization knew that they wanted to be rid of JR Smith and felt the only way to do so was include Shumpert, at the very least an intriguing piece, to a contending team like Cleveland. We can fairly wonder whether Jackson got proper value having sent them at their lowest possible value but the reasoning behind the trade was solid: he was building a team.
Knicks fans watched JR and Shump help Lebron and the Cavs reach the Finals and suddenly acted like the Knicks shipped off amazing assets to the Cavs for nothing. It was the same faulty logic that caused sportswriters to drool over Delladova when he held Steph Curry, the reigning MVP, and wonder how much he would get paid in free agency. Game three of the Finals seems like a distant memory. In the end, Shump and JR played like replacement level talent and the Cavs lost.
The worst move Phil made was to ship off Tyson Chandler to Dallas. Whether you believe any animosity existed between he and Melo is up to you (if you held a gun to my head I would venture to guess that there was because you can’t spin this move in any way) but the Knicks shipped him for a bag of doritos, Shane Larkin’s over dribbling and Jose Calderon’s sweaty pits. They managed to get Raymond Felton, a serial abuser of the pregame spread, off the team as well. Again, attaching an asset to a cancer. It was barely addition by subtraction. But leaving a hole in the middle of the defense confirmed our worst fears. The paint area became a runway bigger than Madison Ave for opposing offenses. Nobody was afraid of Jason Smith’s Brandon Malone hairdo from 90210. And there’s only so much Quincy Acy can do to intimidate before he does this.
Notice three things from this video: there’s franchise player Carmelo Anthony slowly walking up, hands on hips, to fake care about Acy going bat shit crazy. Cole Aldrich immediately grabbed the basketball because that’s the only time during a game the team trusted him with the basketball. Finally there are more Washington players holding Acy back than his own teammates. Everything about this Knicks franchise encompassed in one fight.
The Knicks were ill equipped to handle a college team never mind a playoff team even in the East. We can’t even call certain players on the Knicks sub-replacement level. They were sub-Hades level talent on the Knicks last year without Carmelo Anthony. So much of the whining about helping Melo with free agency would’ve been like touching the stove after having done it a number of times. Why? The roster needs a U-Haul more than one max contract level talent. Every realistic option (that removes Jimmy Butler, Marc Gasol, and Kawhi Leonard off the board because their respective teams made it clear they would match any deal any team threw at them) had flaws. I also wouldn’t count LaMarcus Aldridge. In the end, even a pity date was cancelled with a lame excuse attached. I’m sure the Knicks being absolutely against Aldridge playing power forward was the reason he crossed the Knicks off the list. Sure.
Want Greg Monroe? He would’ve been a good asset, but his value is greatly diminished if he doesn’t have a defensive minded player around to hide behind. Want Wes Mathews? His emergence last year cut short by an Achilles this year, was given a four year deal by the Mavs. Were the Knicks in a position to take a gamble on Wes and tie up cap space? The Knicks were linked to David West. He’s 34 and wants to play for a contender, how in the world does that qualify the Knicks? DeMarre Carroll is the type of guy who showed up last year on a very good Atlanta Hawks team but is that worth tying up a $15M of cap space on a player without a track record? Even in the new economy of the NBA, that’s a dangerous proposition.
Danny Green flirted with the idea of coming home to play for the Knicks, but wisely chose to stay with a team and organization that has built up his value and allows him to compete long term and would’ve had him in a role that allows him to keep his value.
In the end, the Knicks signed Afllalo to a two year deal with an option after the first year and Lopez to a four year deal. Both are assets they can flip midseason to a team desperate for help for first round picks if need be. They maintained max flexibility heading into the 2016-2017 season when the cap jumps from $69M (projected cap this year) to $90M and the year after when it jumps to $108M. Teams are eyeing that number and spending knowing that long term contracts signed today will wind up being bargains. Steph Curry is locked up for $12M a year until after the 2016-2017 season.
Again, spending this year wouldn’t have been the worst thing, but actually being mindful on what the Knicks were spending on has been this team’s biggest problem and a renewed focus on managing the cap and maintaining flexibility shows the Knicks are serious about turning this thing around. The fanbase meanwhile cries out for a savior to come. Perhaps Phil Jackson IS the savior but maybe the Knicks fans should weigh moves in one way: did this move make us better? Most of Phil’s moves have. While that sentence may wind up biting me in the future, needless to say this franchise is moving ahead without Melo’s consent.
What that means for Carmelo is something else altogether. The Knicks still have that hand to play this year. What this salary cap does to Melo’s contract is the real bonus if Knicks fans really want to crow. Melo’s $22M salary moving forward doesn’t look so bad and he is still worth it. Despite every attempt to prove otherwise, if the Knicks put him on the trading block you can bet there would be 29 franchises making Phil trade pitches. There in is where Phil will make his money. Will Phil even broach that subject with Dolan and Melo? If he does so then this is a true rebuild.
Of course there are a ton of hoops to get through before we even get to the Melo-Drama Part II. Melo has to consent. It was reported back in December, that Melo was open to waiving his no-trade clause to facilitate a move to a team of his choosing. Again, Melo controls his destiny and that of the Knicks. What if James Dolan opts to fight Phil on his insistence of trading the superstar? We all know that Dolan won’t mind paying Phil to go away if he does something contrary to what the owner wants. He’s done it before. The danger and uncertainty of this rebuilding truly lies there.
As the organization hopes to rebuild, how will the fans react to Melo if reports come out that he nixed an enticing trade proposal? This team is not built to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. That’s saying alot. The Knicks need a lot of help and that help was gained in the draft and free agency. Making wise short term investments like Afllalo, who’s contract at age 29 and in today’s NBA economy, is a bargain and will be valuable come the trade deadline, is the right way to turn silver into gold and gold into platinum.
How will the fans turn if something right happens to the Knicks? There hasn’t been much movement away from the Knicks. There’s still a healthy contingent selling out Madison Square Garden year after horrible year. What if the fans have reached a point that they are incapable of seeing a wise move for what it is? Hopefully they will be wide awake to see a new day for this franchise.