Thursday, February 23, 2006

Stevie’s New Franchise
By John W. Schmeelk

It’s a frustrating time of year for big time Knicks fans. It happens one or two times a year after a trade when sports show hosts and callers alike who haven’t seen the Knicks play in three years, or know the eccentricities of the NBA salary cap if they fell on their head, decide they are going to wax poetic about the team.

Let’s be clear about one thing, this article is not a defense of what Isiah Thomas has done as his time as General Manager of the Knicks. He’s done a bad job and has not improved the team, despite the fact he’s improved the talent. Everyone seems to forget the mess he inherited from the worst GM in NBA history, Scott Layden. Keep this in mind: if Thomas had made no moves the Knicks would still have the following players under contract this season:

Othella Harrington (3.5 mill)
Clarence Weatherspoon (6.3 mill)
Howard Eisley (5.6 mill)
Shandon Anderson (6.7 mill ) (7.3 next year)
Allan Houston (19.1 mill) (20.7 next year)
Kurt Thomas (6.6 mill) (7.3 next year) (8.1 mill 2007-2008)
Michael Sweetny (2.1 mill) (2.7 next year)

Whomever ended up filling out the roster would put them over the cap preventing them from signing any free agents. Imagine exactly how bad the Knicks team would be if this was the core of their roster, a bunch of overpaid veterans with no young players with any potential.

Now compare those players with this group:
Stephon Marbury
Steve Francis
Jamal Crawford
Quentin Richardson
Eddie Curry
Channing Frye
David Lee
Nate Robinson
Qyntel Woods
Jalen Rose

Now can you make the argument that as the Knicks stand right now it would be preferable to have been the worst team in the league the last three years and be under the cap after the season, sure. But to anticipate the team would be as bad as it is now when Isiah took over is unrealistic, despite what some people might say.

One very important factor that everyone seems to forget is that the only good player besides Kurt Thomas carried over from the Scott Layden regime was Allan Houston. It was with a healthy Allan Houston in mind that Thomas made the Marbury trade, and the one season both of them were healthy together for any length of time the team did in fact make the playoffs. And remember it was Scott Layden and Don Cheaney who rushed Houston back early that season to try and save their jobs. While it is easy to say now that the Knicks never should have acquired Marbury nearly everyone liked the deal when it went down.

Once the team had Marbury and his monster contract they were committed to being over the salary cap until after the 06-07 season, with Houston and Marbury accounting for 40 million dollars of salary all on their own. Thomas was in a bind through no fault of his own. And even if the Marbury trade never went down and the Knicks were under the cap heading into the offseason, what big free agent would they sign? A max contract for Al Harrington? Big money for Vladimir Radmonovic?

It brings me to the biggest misnomer of how to rebuild an NBA franchise, by getting under the salary cap and doing it via free agency. What team has this worked for exactly? Look at the league’s great teams, none got that way via free agency. Dirk Nowitzki was drafted by Dallas, and gotten in the draft where he was because teams hadn’t yet respected the international player. Tim Duncan was drafted by the Spurs with the top pick, which they only had because of a David Robinson injury and their decision to tank an entire season. Ginobli and Parker were drafted in the late first round. The Pistons got Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, and Ben Wallace in trades for players with big contracts similar to the players the Knicks have. Prince was drafted, and Billups was on the scrap heap before Larry Brown signed him. Shaq was acquired in a trade, and Dwyane Wade was drafted. Garnett was drafted by Minnesota. Kidd and Vince Carter both arrived via trade, with Jefferson being drafted. McGrady: received in a trade, Ming drafted. Lebron James and Ilguaskas were drafted. Jermaine O’Neal and Peja Stojakovic were both gotten in trades. Same for Ray Allen. Denver’s whole roster was assembled via trade, spare Carmelo who they drafted.

In fact the only good NBA team that really benefited from getting under the cap and signing a good free agent are the Suns, who picked up Steve Nash.

Let’s look at the teams that got all this cap room, only to waste it on bad players.

Washington Wizards – they aren’t winning anything with all their money tied up in Gilbert Arenas and Antwaan Jamison.
Utah Jazz – They have all their money tied up in three mediocre players – Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko, and Mehmet Okur.
Milwaukee Bucks – Bobby Simmons is really worth all that money.
Atlanta Hawks – Remains to be seen – but so far all that room last year to sign Joe Johnson really worked.
Chicago Bulls – They had cap room for three years and now they are starting over again by blowing the team up. This is year 8 of their rebuilding process.
Denver Nuggets – They used all their cap room on Kenyon Martin – now they want to deal him.
LA Clippers – An improved team but does anyone really think they have any chance for a championship with all their cash tied up in Elton Brand, Cuttino Mobley and oft-injured Corey Maggette.

Other big free agent signings that really worked out for teams the last few years:
Vladimir Radmanovic
Brian Cardinal
Michael Olowokandi
Andre Miller
Raef LaFrentz

None of this proves what the Knicks are doing is right. But it is proof that simply getting under the cap is no guarantee of turning a franchise around. In fact looking at the teams and players involved above it seems to be a path to nowhere. The point is that true franchise players that can really help a team win are never allowed to really get to free agency, and usually stay with the team that drafted them. Might LeBron James be the exception to the rule? Maybe. But remember under NBA rules the current player’s team can always offer more money than anyone else, making getting a franchise player from another team via free agency nearly impossible. Yes, the Baron Davis’, Paul Pierce's and Antwaan Jamison’s of the world may become free agents, but these are second tier players that will not carry a franchise to a title, yet will make max money or close to it anyway. Teams that tear down not only go through the pain of being bad as they get under the cap, but they also often deal with the disappointment afterwards when no one truly great is on the market to sign.

They way you win in the NBA is having that one star player. The Pistons are the exception to the rule. The Spurs have Duncan. The Suns Nash. (though I'd argue Stoudemire is the key to a future title, not Nash) The Mavericks: Dirk. The Heat: Shaq and Wade. The Wolves have Garnett. The Rockets have Mcgrady and Yao. The Cavs have Lebron (for now).

They way you get a guy like that is via trade, or getting lucky in the draft. Neither is easy, especially the latter. Teams like the Bulls, Clippers, and Warriors have had top ten picks for years and still cant make themselves into decent franchises.

The Knicks, have more confidence in getting something done via a trade than free agency. History says it is probably a wise decision. Good players get dumped for various reasons all the time. Next year the Knicks will have another opportunity to make a move with Taylor and Jalen Rose’s expiring contracts, then Malik Rose the year after that. Then Marbury and Francis come off the books the following season. There is a plan, despite people that say there isn’t.

We already talked about Isiah’s track record, and how getting under the cap is no guarantee of winning. So let’s evaluate his trades with that in mind:

Marbury: The ultimate no-brainer. Acquired for a dilapidated McDyess, Howard Eisley, Charlie Ward, Majiec Lampe, Milosh Vujanic and a first round pick that turned into Kirk Snyder. The Knicks also got Penny Hardaway – who turned into Steve Francais.

Crawford: Acquired for Othella Harrington, Frank Williams and Dikembe Mutombo. Talent wise, and youth wise a no-brainer again.

Tim Thomas: Acquired for Keith Van Horn. Not a good trade in retrospect – but no appreciable long term detriment to the team.

Malik Rose: Despite the fact they got two first round picks (one already used on David Lee), giving up Nazr Mohammed did not make a lick of sense. And not doing this would have saved the embarrassment of signing Jerome James.

Maurice Taylor: Dealt a second round pick and Moochie Norris and Vin Baker. No complaints here.

Eddie Curry: Traded this year’s first round pick, along with Tim Thomas and Michael Sweetny. The Bulls can also swap picks with the Knicks in 2007. This depends on what you think of Curry and this year’s draft class. I still do this trade knowing what I know now. I think Curry has a better chance of being a franchise player than anyone the Knicks could get in the draft this season. He is still 6-11 with great physical ability, can score, and is only 23. Who in this year’s draft class has that on the resume?

Kurt Thomas: Q-Richardson is coming along but you take this trade back if you have the opportunity. The swingman has not worked out and the Knicks could use Thomas’ toughness, defense and rebounding. Though remember he would be taking minutes away from Channing Frye.

The Draft: Thomas’ drafting has been better than good. He got a player that can make an NBA team in the second round in Ariza, a future all-star in Frye, and two guys in the late first round that will be in this league a long time in Robinson and Lee. No complaints.

Coach: He made a mistake in picking Lenny Wilkins over Mike Fratello, but you have to give him credit for bringing in Larry Brown.

Jerome James: ........

Jalen Rose: Traded Antonio Davis and got back a first round pick. Rose has one year more on the contract, and is a better player. Plus the Knicks get a first round pick out of the deal. Though I need to admit I have no idea how he is going to play with both Marbuy and Francis.

And finally we come back to the Steve Francis trade. The Knicks obviously got the most talent back. And despite what is in the papers, my people tell me this was a Larry Brown deal, not an Isiah one. And believe me, right now Thomas is in no position to make trades without Brown’s approval – let alone any contrary to what the coach wants. I think Brown actually likes the idea of having two guards in the backcourt that can play both positions. It will honestly be a interesting basketball experiment to watch over the next 30 games. It would have been a better trade if they could have sent Crawford to Orlando, relieving the glut in the backcourt. And please remember Francais was at one point the centerpiece in a trade for Tracy McGrady. The guy can play.

But the Knicks get another very talented player that has not worked out elsewhere. And two problems remain.

The first is chemistry. Brown has not been able to make it work yet, can he do so with Francais and Marbury together? We’ll find out. Brown has some sort of idea of what he wants with these two guys.

The second is still the problem that the Knicks have not yet been able to solve, but is not a hard one. Defense. The team still plays no defense. And until they do they will not win games. Stockpiling offensive talent can be an effective strategy if the team can play defense. This team can’t.

So here’s the answer. In the offseason deal some of this talent to a team for some roleplayers. Guys that play defense, and don’t need the ball in their hands. Here are the key needs:

1. A purely defensive swingman. Perhaps Trenton Hassel? The Knicks need someone that can guard the 2 or the 3 positions. That right now is their achilles heel. The Knicks can get a guy like this with their veteran free agent cap exception.

2. A shot blocker. This would help the Knicks poorest perimeter defense. Maybe Jerome James...No, no he can’t. Not so easy to come by.

3. Physical big man. A power forward to compliment Frye and Curry down low. Taylor is a decent player but he is a finesse guy, not a physical presence. This could be one in the same with the shotblocker.

Notice the need for a point guard is off the list, assuming that they keep Marbury and Francis.

So please ignore the following things you hear this week from people who think they know their face from their fanny when they talk about the Knicks:
- Getting under the cap will solve your problems.
- The Knicks are anywhere near getting under the cap as it is. (even without the Francis deal you are looking at three more seasons of being over the cap)
- Larry Brown forcing the team to play his style of play is hurting the Knicks. (The Knicks don’t play defense – this is their problem)
- Allan Houston was the start of the problem for the team. (no – in fact if he was healthy this team is in decent shape right now)
- Isiah has no plan. (There’s a plan – you might not agree with it, but there is a plan)
- The team is old and overpaid. (it’s overpaid but it is abundantly young)
- It's Jim Dolan's fault. (he's a clown, but he spends money - what else do you want from an owner)

So there you go.

Take it for what it is. The Knicks have a young power forward and young center, and two potential All-Stars in the backcourt. Look at the players on this roster that are former first round picks:
Stephon Marbury
Steve Francis
Eddie Curry
Jamal Crawford
Quentin Richardson
Nate Robinson
David Lee
Qyntel Woods
Jalen Rose
Maurice Taylor

You figure out for yourself how many are in the top ten.

There’s plenty.

And there’s plenty of talent.

Can Larry Brown get them to play defense?

We’ll find out soon enough.

Oh yeah – and in the don’t hold your breath department – the Knicks can next be under the cap in 2009. It won’t be all roses after that either. Carlos Boozer will be available that season.

AUTHOR'S ADENDUM:

After rereading this today I found that it seems to be somewhat pro-Isiah, which was not my intent. I merely meant to show there was a method to his madness, and his plan does have some solid principles behind it. (it is easier to get a stat via trade than free agency)

However, this does not mean Isiah has done a good job, or has gone about this the right way. The team is locked in to its current makeup for three years, unless they can move some of their high salary players in trades. The team has a great coach and is 20 games under .500.

Isiah should be fired, and the Knicks need to move in a different direction – despite the sound logic that guided Isiah in many of his moves. That is all.

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