The popular thing to do in NBA pundit circles, and among the more scarred and self-loathing fans, is to automatically react to whatever the Knicks organization does with cynicism and disdain. It's an easy formula. For writers, it generates emotion, which in turn generates links, which in turn generates readership. Who cares what the reaction is, eyes are on the page and Writer X's name is on everyone's lips. (I'm talking to you Mitch Lawrence, Mike Lupica, and others.) For fans, many of whom have been treated to some of the worst franchise management professional team sports has ever seen, the cynical turn is like the air we all breathe. It's just the way it is. I'm calling BS.
Someone wiser and more inclined to do the digging will find the specifics I'm glossing over in this post, and thank goodness for the readership of P&T, but I'm here to make the case that, Isiah's looming shadow or no, the Knicks are becoming a model organization in the NBA. Whether it translates to a championship is a completely different conversation, but it's not insignificant for a number of reasons. First, let's get to the argument.
The Knicks, for many years, have been flailing about at mismatched pieces and clunky personnel strategies. I've long said that the best and worst thing that ever happened to the Knicks was Allan Houston's series ending shot against the Heat all those years ago. It won him a bank-breaking $100 million contract (we're all reminded of that thanks to a friendly screen name based in this community). Trying to build a team around Allan Houston ignored virtually everything sensible about modern franchise management, and really crippled us with a downward spiral of worse and worse roster tweaking. Houston did one thing well: he drained jump shots. I don't have to tell anyone here that a player who averages 3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and less than a steal at the guard position is no better than league average. Years of bland Howard Eisleys and Clarence Weatherspoons later, we we treated to another series of mishaps that cost us the dignity of the franchise in addition to the competitiveness. I won't, for everyone's sake, rehash that period.
Suffice it to say that the Knicks were an organization that didn't know the value of a dollar, didn't know the proper way to evaluate talent, and couldn't put either of those things together. That's not the Donnie Walsh/Glen Grunwald Knicks, though. We can all question some of the moves the front office has made, and certainly there's always going to be room for those of us in the peanut gallery to suggest ways that things could have been done better, but the fact is...at the microscopic level we've changed as a franchise.
Teams these days understand the value of the star. You don't win in the NBA, more than in any sport, without the top talent. You don't very often get a gashouse gang of ragamuffins that set the world on fire. The Sixers are the closest thing we saw to that last year, and the championship Pistons are realistically the only close thing to that scenario. The cap makes for a tough situation when trying to assemble a lot of talent via free agency, but that's what a team in a hurry has to do in the 2000-sies. The Knicks did their best and put together a cast of very talented stars, who while flawed as a collection, can still beat 3 out of 5 NBA teams on their own most nights. The key is to compliment them with players that 1) can make it work, 2) fill in the gaps in the skill sets, and 3) cost nothing. Here's where the Knicks genius is coming into play.
Evaluating talent is step one and two in the above scenario, and I think it's safe to say that the Glen Grunwald legacy, early as it is, is marked by nothing, if not the ability to get great chips that have flown under the radar. Lin and Novak are such chips, and luring JR Smith might be considered another. The problem, typically, is what to do with these guys. You can't grab up 50 players, run them through the 82 schedule at 15 minutes a game, and keep the good ones. You have to make some choices. You have to have a system by which to select potential targets, based in places that might otherwise be untapped or under-examined, and lure them with an opportunity to prove themselves. Sound familiar? It's part of the Moneyball method of doing business that has characterized much of the baseball world's obsession in team-building for a generation now, but really it's just good sense.
The Yankees, to take a local example, used to corner the international market by snatching up every young prospect in Latin America because the draft rules didn't apply. There was a gap in the rules and most of baseball remained ignorant to the strategy. El Duque arrived in pinstripes this way, along with a lot of other good players and bad players alike. The Yankees, like the Knicks, have more money than they know what to do with, but until they learned to do smart things with the money...to invest and do some long term thinking, it was largely wasted.
Going back in time, the Dodgers knew this a lifetime ago. When they set up the baseball academy they run in the Dominican Republic they knew that they'd be first to find the one kid with the milk carton glove that could actually rake with the best of them. For every 100 or 1000 guys who simply gave it their best shot and eventually had to pursue other dreams, there was one kid that could make the Major League club. The minor leagues was always a place to stash those few that showed real promise. It was a halfway house between the try outs, the lessons, and The Show. It was a place to corner the market on potential and keep control of it for future gains. Even further back in time, when the minor leagues' affiliation with MLB clubs was nothing but a wacky notion dreamed up by a few heady baseball owners, as Alex Belth recaps in his excellent account of Curt Flood's playing days, "Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights," holding onto potential was the name of the game.
The Knicks affiliation with the Erie BayHawks is a bigger deal than many give credit. I don't know all the details about cap holds and BayHawks salaries, or the rules governing call ups and the rest. I'm not that well informed, although I'm guessing someone around here is. The point is, there's a place where undervalued and less well known talent can be stashed for potential. Lin was there, flashing his triple-double skills, and others have emerged from obscurity to contribute and eventually cash in as well. Gerald Green is another local example, who just did rather nicely for himself with the Pacers. The question, then, is "where does one look for talent that is not so obvious, and that might jump at the chance to play in the NBA, all things considered?" Europe is tricky because they have an established league with big enough money that you're not luring the really talented players without a guaranteed pay day. But, what about the Americans who never quite latched on, are very gifted athletically, and who might leap at the simple glimmer of an NBA future? What of the aging vets who's big contract days are done, and the curiosity of an NBA life still presents something both attainable and financially parallel?
The Knicks have pursued this take in recent days. James White, Chris Copeland, and Pablo Prigioni all fit the bill. This type of thinking is overshadowed a bit by the loss of draft picks that the Knicks have had when flipping for big name players, both young and old. First rounders are still something to pine for, and when you show a halfway decent record of turning mid-2nd round picks into contributors like Fields and Harrelson, everyone thinks big. 2nd rounders can be bought, but more importantly, they aren't the only road to the same type of guy. Stashing guys on small, limited duration deals is one way to get a long enough look to make a decision. The Rockets and the Warriors probably made the mistake of not looking long enough at Lin, to our great advantage. (We almost made the same mistake.) But, we're waking up to the possibility that controlling a lot of low cost talent, found in out of the way places, is the way to fill in a high-priced roster of stars. (It's one reason that signing Fields to that Toronto deal would be silly.)
The Linsanity saga ought to have woken up the entire league to the possibility of the D-League and to the notion that lots of players with real talent to contribute fall through the cracks. The NBA draft used to be 1000 rounds or so, not that long ago, and with a real minor league approach there would be a lot more domestic jobs for players and a chance to stash potential talent under team control. You could find the Starkses, Masons, Lins, Novaks, Greens, and others and keep them to fill out a very nice team. The Knicks are ahead of the game, but the game changes quickly. In order to keep ahead of the other teams, the Knicks need to use their financial advantage where the rules don't yet apply. They need to keep doing the sort of talent evaluating, scouting, and contract fishing that they've done and keep on drafting European youngsters with big upsides to stash for a couple of years, when viable. The test of this strategy that lies beyond the 2012-13 season is the kid out of Olympiakos and his ability to be a rotation player. The immediate payoff will be the 10th, 11th, and 12th men on the bench and whether they are worth meaningful minutes.
Whatever the case, I say to the pundits and the naysayers that a new culture has already arrived in New York, in spite of Isiah and Dolan (who could always mess it all up) and it's time for the fans to leave the sour grapes and paper bag masks behind. The writers will write and the noise makers will make noise, but what they don't notice is the winds of change blowing through the Garden.