Since 2000, the only New York Knicks we have known have been dysfunctional. The quick splash and sale of false promises, and the back page, have always mattered more than building methodically and astutely: that’s just boring. Allow Patrick Ewing to expire to open flexibility? Allowing floatsam in 2003 to expire to open flexibility? Let’s bring in Stephon Marbury and a bunch of big names and see how it works! Some thought normalcy came in 2008 when the Knicks hired Donnie Walsh. Nope. Fans wanted to hear “we are not impulsive and will get LeBron,” so the Knicks sold that; and when LeBron did not come they panicked by overpaying lesser free agents because striking out would lose the headline.
That brought just one good team from 2010-2014, when the Knicks hired Phil Jackson. Phil deserves praise for getting James Dolan’s ear, and bringing normalcy to the Garden.
It is true that the hype from MSG when hiring Phil was that he would become what Pat Riley has become in Miami: the shark in the waters, selling free agents on his grand plans for New York. Phil has taken some heat because to date, he has not accomplished that, his biggest non draft talent addition being Robin Lopez (a nice role player, but not a star by any means).
However, the job Phil has done should be judged based upon his name, or the city where he manages. It should be judged the way all GM’s are judged: based upon the situation he inherited, and where he has brought it, in light of the market. From that perspective, Phil has done an excellent job not just upgrading his roster, but purging MSG of its reckless “make a splash win the headline” culture.
Phil’s remake of the Knicks has been sound, and has shown a nice understanding of the CBA, the utilization of the NBA D-League, and the ability to drown out what fans want and what star names demand, to simply do what he believes is best. That has not been done in New York for ages.
Phil inherited a disaster at the end of 2014. And with few options to build for 2014-2015 given the asset situation, the 17 win team he oversaw was hardly his fault, but a product of moves made prior to his reign. Slowly, however, Phil dug out from that hole.
To start, Phil added Langston Galloway in 2014-2015, through utilization of the D-League. Utilizing the D-League as a tool to add talent? That does not sound like a Knicks thing to do. Indeed, prior to Phil, rather than using an end of the roster spot on a speculative young player with upside, the Knicks, to win some headlines signed Ron Artest – he was the signing who sold newspapers, sold tickets, and got people talking on social media, after all.
Then the 2015 draft came. Fans wanted Emmanuel Mudiay (who has been very good, but is he a fit in light of the use of the triangle, or at least a facsimile of it?). Fans wanted Justise Winslow; he of the Duke and Final Four name cache. Fans did NOT want Kristaps Porzingis. What did Phil do? He did not care who fans wanted, and went with the player he thought was best – Porzingis. Kristaps has started his inaugural campaign excellently, and has become a nucleus piece and fan favorite.
Phil then topped that move off with trading Tim Hardaway Jr. – he did not care who THJ’s dad was, or that Melo may have liked him, and simply did what he thought was best and added a solid piece in Jerian Grant. This was the second move of a trend – not caring what Melo says as star player and making it clear that he, not Melo, runs the show. THJ, together with Iman Shumpert and JR Smith, made for the third player traded whom Melo was upset for seeing leave, as someone close to him. The pre Phil Knicks would not have been as bold, but Phil made clear that he, not Melo, runs the franchise.
Lastly, Phil masterfully guided the Knicks through 2015’s free agency period. Fans wanted a splash. All you heard about was the Knicks’ 2015 cap space. The old Knicks would have made sure that a splash was made. No LeBron, Aldridge, or Love. We’ll pay SOMEONE, or two. Or, the old Knicks would have strung along a bunch of “D” level free agents on one year deals, so that they could advertise to fans “look at all this cap space in 2016, we’re getting Durant”!
Not Phil. Phil has banished that culture from MSG. On July 1, 2015, when players were signing left and right, you know what you didn’t see? The Knicks. Phil did not care about the social media commentary of how bad it looked that his Knicks were silent. Instead, he understood: cap rise or not, free agency is one big auction. The crown jewels get the big bucks. Money flies around to the “B” level pieces when teams with money for the “A” class guys miss out. But as that money dries up, the market shifts, there is less to spend, and you can swoop in and grab the unheralded and undervalued at slight or even notable discounts.
The Knicks did that. Phil struck out with “A” level free agents, but that did not deter Phil. He read the market. He understands, clearly, that he did not strike out because of his salesmanship, but because this crop of players has shown they will not make decisions based on market size or city, but on where they can win. Once the 2014-2015 Knicks went 17-65, that sealed their fate with 2015’s best free agents.
With that, Phil knew. He could not panic sign people and ruin his 2016 flexibility with an average, even solid, product. However, he also could not string players along on 1 year deals and stand pat, saying “we’ll do this again next year”! He had to simultaneously upgrade the roster so that free agents had a reason to come, while retaining future flexibility so that there was money to add those free agents.
That is simply not the nuanced type of thinking the Knicks used to employ, but they do now. And by replacing a bunch of unplayable, barely rosterable pieces with legitimate rotation players, Phil has done just that. The Knicks now have Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Porzingis, Grant, Galloway, and other low headline but strong additions in Kyle O’Quinn, Kevin Seraphin, and Lance Thomas.
Using the D-League? Not panic signing pieces because the Knicks don’t strike out in free agency? Using the draft? Disregarding superstar demands? Not selling fans on the next huge free agent, but on slow, sustainable building? The Knicks never did these things, but do them now. Suddenly, the Knicks are a normal franchise.
Not splurging on the wrong talent just to say he did something? Drafting the player the fans don’t want? Using tools fans care little for like the D-League in a significant way? Suddenly, the Knicks are a normal franchise. And it shows on the court. With the league’s 14th best offense, 15th best defense, and a 4-6 record, the Knicks appear to be squarely average, and headed to a 35-42 win season. That is a huge improvement from 17-65.
Sure, the Knicks are in the “middle” and some love to say the middle is a bad place to be. But that statement is dated, given the way the free agent market now functions. The middle is only a bad place to be when you lack flexibility to escape the middle. The middle, with flexibility to get to the top, is a good place to be, because that flexibility will be attractive to elite free agents, who can see the path to the top.
When you are 17-65, it is hard to attract free agents because the player inevitably questions how he can win with you. But if you are in the middle, at 35-40 wins? That is a huge difference in quality, and it is much easier to get a free agent to say “they have a decent group there. I can be that missing piece to take them to the next level.”
That is the Knicks goal. The Knicks figure to win 35-40 games this season, if they can sustain their level over 10 games. Assuming a $89 million cap, they head into next year with $21.1-$34.6 million in cap space, depending on whether Afflalo and Derrick Williams opt in to their deals. They do so with a nucleus of Melo, Kristaps, Lopez, O’Quinn, and Grant under contract. Calderon’s $7,708,427 is the only bad deal on the books, and perhaps they look to move him to open more space without affecting the win/loss total. Phil now has a war chest of free agent money, but with the outline of an actual roster to sell free agents.
All told, the Knicks are in a dramatically better position than they were when Phil took over. And it starts with replacing Dolan’s former grandeur with normalcy. Has Dolan actually changed? Probably not. More likely is that Phil has leveraged his celebrity and name cache, and Dolan’s awe of celebrities and nagging desire to live around them, as a tool to get Dolan to endorse the Knicks new path of normalcy, as opposed to his former penchant for selling the fanbase on the grandiose, and on the idea that the rules of team building don’t apply to the big city Knicks. Phil has convinced Dolan that such is not the case. Who knows how he did it, but it is working. The Knicks seem to finally realize that they are no different than the other 29 teams, the same team building rules apply to them, and that there are no shortcuts.
The leap from terrible to decent is the easiest leap to make. And the Knicks have acted normally in the past, in small patches. For the Knicks, making the leap from decent to sustainably good, and keeping Dolan in check over the long haul, will be the hardest part of Phil’s job.
But so far, Phil has put the Knicks on a rare path of normalcy, and he is off to a good start.