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December mailbag, part one: when will the Knicks be good, Dennis Smith Jr. & ranking NYK coaches

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Put on a pot of coffee. This mailbag is supersized.

Cleveland Cavaliers v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Heads-up: this part one is rrrreally long. Let’s just dive in.

1) In what year will the Knicks have a winning record?

— MeloIsoMyBalls

In my 30 years following the Knicks day in, day out, only twice have they improved from a losing team one year to a winning team the next. The 1992 Knicks improved from 39-43 the year before to 51-31 after replacing John MacLeod with Pat Riley, trading for Xavier McDaniel, signing Anthony Mason and giving John Starks a bigger role. In 2011 the Knicks went 42-40 a year after finishing 29-53 by swapping David Lee, Al Harrington and Chris Duhon for Amar’e Stoudemire, Landry Fields, Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton/Chauncey Billups.

Tom Thibodeau’s teams have had winning records in six of eight seasons. I think he could be a big variable in determining the next time the Knicks are a winning team, but first he has to survive the curse that costs most Knicks coaches their jobs before they finish a third season at the helm, a volatility that predates James Dolan by decades — the only Knicks coaches since Red Holzman to complete three full seasons on the job are Hubie Brown, Riley, Jeff Van Gundy and Mike D’Antoni. There’s a lot of kvetching about the CAAntucky kink at MSG (less kvetch after Immanuel Quickley’s last couple of games), but if Thibodeau stays competent his representation makes it seem all the more likely Leon Rose continues with the continuity at the end of the bench. Which is a good thing.

Odds are in the next 12-18 months the Knicks sign or trade for someone better than anyone on the current roster. And they’re a shoe-in to finish this season back in the lottery, as they won’t be playing 72 games against Detroit and Cleveland. So assuming a pandemic and a fascist party don’t derail the best laid plans of mice and men, there’s a good chance in the next year to year and a half New York has added a high-end prospect and a pretty good veteran. Couple that with more development of the young players and a legit head coach and I say 2022-23 is the year the Knicks become a winning team.

2) I need help with the math here: The Knicks have 17 contracts for 15 spots and are under the minimum salary requirement. I get that some of these are two-way contracts but how do they get to the minimum and cut a few guys? Does this mean they have to trade for a big contract (hopefully expiring) in a 3-for-1 deal?

— Jeff B

I think the roster is now pretty much set.

P&T alum and current Strickland star draftnik Prez clued me in on the penalty for failing to reach the salary floor — there isn’t any! Any money under the floor is divided among the players on the roster. Odds are the Knicks will use their space to add salary later, either in that big 3-for-1 deal Jeff mentioned or maybe more likely in absorbing money attached to assets from other teams looking to shed salary.

3) I started to wonder how many former Knicks are active on other rosters. I come up with 26. I wonder: Do you think this is a high or low number? (seems high to me at first glance) Is this good (other teams see value in Knicks, ability of Knicks to draft/sign NBA players) or bad (players don’t fit on Knicks due to bad coaching, management makes poor decisions, high turnover)?

I would be interested to hear your and anyone else’s views...I’m trying to do some attribution analysis to understand just why the Knicks suck so bad for so many years, rather than just Dolan, etc.

— at large

I’ma be honest with you, at large — I really like this question. But I cannot for the life of me figure out how to answer it without going through all 30 rosters and trying to identify how many players from other teams are spread around the league. And I just don’t feel up to that. Between everything else going on in life, and the holidays approaching, and SB Nation not paying me anything even remotely close to minimum wage, much less a living wage, I can’t justify the amount of time and research that’d be necessary to give your question a smart answer.

So this is all guesswork: I imagine 26 is pro’ly a fairly reasonable number, given how much player movement there is from year to year. There may be more Knicks than average around the league, since the team never retains its draft picks and has gotten better about not signing people to albatross contracts. I think your search for “why the Knicks such so bad for so many years” is a multi-layered one. The broad brushstrokes go something like this:

  • They rarely draft super-high (only one top-3 pick since 1985)
  • They never, ever move up in the draft (haven’t done so since 1985)
  • They don’t retain their draft picks beyond their rookie contracts (none since Charlie Ward)
  • They don’t attract premiere free agents (the biggest signings in my lifetime = Allan Houston and Amar’e Stoudemire)
  • They never “win” trades (even when they add useful players — Carmelo Anthony; Larry Johnson — they give up so much it’s never a straight-up win)
  • They don’t keep coaches very long (covered this in question #1 above)

The usual avenues to star quality escape them and if anything can be considered emblematic of MSG’s culture, it’s turnover. The Knicks get crap a lot for not having a plan. It’s not that they never have a plan. It’s that they ALWAYS have a new plan, but never give it enough time to work before they’re onto the next one. It’s charitable of you to try and look beyond Dolan, but you’re in danger of overcomplicating things.

4)

The last few months of the 2007-08 season, Isiah’s final year as coach, was the one and only time I have ever stopped watching this team. That season started a few weeks after a grand jury awarded Anucha Brown Sanders $11.5M, more than she’d sought from her sexual harassment suit against Thomas and MSG. While there were a few players on the team I enjoyed immensely — Jamal Crawford; David Lee; Zach Randolph; Wilson Chandler — I just couldn’t anymore. There was no access point to any positive emotions. The team stunk. The owner, the coach/GM, and most of the players were forgettable at best and reprehensible at worst. There was nothing and no one to root for.

The same thing happened to me with the NFL. I used to follow the Jets and Giants, but around 2012 I was done. I found everything around the game disgusting: the owners; the whole culture around the teams and the sport; the media that enabled all the grossness for a cut of the pie; the obvious exploitation of player safety and casting aside of retired players with CTE- and long-term health issues. When everything around a thing is gross, no. Just no.

MLB gets closer and closer to losing me, too, though Steve Cohen’s (morally complicated) ownership of the Mets may extend my curiosity a bit longer. Plus like basketball I played baseball as a kid, so unlike football there’s a visceral connection to the game. But if they stick the DH in the National League I’m out. And that’s okay! It’s the game I love, not the business of Major League Baseball. I’m perfectly happy sitting in the stands at a Little League game and watching that instead. Basketball is the same. I can’t go to the gym or a playground and come across a game without having to stop and watch for a while.

To answer the actual question, what would be the last straw as a Knicks fan? Bringing back Isiah. Dolan dying and passing the team on to his children might do it. Someone paying me enough money to write about some other team. I don’t know, man. The Knicks are different for me than anything else. I was 12 when I fell for them. I’m 42 and it hasn’t slowed down any. Sadly the only way this relationship is likely to end is me dying and them carrying on with the property tax exemptions and the poor roster fits.

5) Why is it that multiple Knicks coaches and a multiple Knicks front offices continue to believe that Dennis Smith Jr. could be good? Is there anyone else in the league or any fan base that believes in DSJ?

— Paint The Court Blue

It’s not just Knicks fans who seem to hold no respect for Dennis Smith Jr. Here at P&T, every time we write a piece we’re supposed to note every player who appears in it. There’s a dropdown box under the article you click on. The Knicks traded for Smith 20 months ago, yet every time I go to click on his name, this is what greets me:

Dennis Schröder hasn’t been a Hawk for two and a half years! And yet we still get the Atlanta listing, not to mention a Laker option when he hasn’t played one minute of any game that counts for them. Look who else gets more respect:

And if you had to ask, yes, even “he” has been updated for a while now.

As long as we’re ogling, check out Smith’s career numbers. Not trending like you’d like, no.

Here are three other point guards over their first three years.

These three guards all took steps back from their rookie seasons to their third years. The first numbers show a player whose production per minute stayed the same, but whose minutes fell 25%. In year four he played just 22 minutes a game. There was a renaissance Mark Jackson’s fifth and final year in New York, after which he was shipped to the Clippers in the deal that brought the Knicks Doc Rivers and Charles Smith.

The second player, another ex-Knick, saw his minutes from year two to year three fall by 30%. He also shot 34% from the field and 17% from three-point range his third year, even worse than DSJ, Elfrid Payton or Frank Ntilikina last season. He was already on his third team in that third season; Denver then traded him to Orlando, his fourth team, for whom he never played. It was only after signing with his fifth, Minnesota, that he got his career on-track. But Chauncey Billups didn’t become a Hall of Famer until signing with his sixth team, Detroit.

The third player, like Jackson, was also Rookie of the Year, and after his first campaign, also like Jackson, his minutes began to fall off. From his fourth season on he’s never even averaged 20 minutes a game. The past four years he’s only started 23 games total, fewer than in any of his first three seasons. Yet last month Michael Carter-Williams signed a two-year deal through 2022, which will be his ninth year in the league.

This is not to say Dennis Smith Jr. will be second all-time in career assists when he retires, like Jackson was, or that he’ll be a Hall of Famer like Billups. I don’t even know if he’ll last as long as MCW has. The number here that interests me the most is 23. That’s how old Smith is, younger than the other three entering their fourth years. He was hurt last year and suffered a terrible personal loss, and when he returned to work this player in obvious need of spacing to have the best chance of success played for a team whose spacing brought to mind an orgy in a phone booth.

Is he anyone’s prototype for a successful modern guard? No. He can’t shoot and doesn’t seem like he eats, sleeps and drinks ways of making his teammates better. I’m not sure the current front office thinks he “could be good.” I imagine they’re curious if Smith can get close to the player who averaged 15 and 5 in under 30 minutes a game for the Knicks two years ago. If he can, he’s a 23-year-old guard with some game, and the league will always have a home for someone like that.

Another number worth keeping in mind: 11. That’s how many times Jackson, Billups and MCW were traded after their third seasons. Even if you’ve written off Smith establishing a career in New York, it behooves the franchise to try and build his value rather than cut him loose for nothing. It may only net a second-round pick, but something is always better than nothing. And we’ve already seen Leon Rose can do things with second-rounders.

6) If you had to rank Knicks coaches from the past 20 years (excluding Thibs for obvious reasons) how would you rank them? Personally I think Larry Brown is definitely the worst coach we had during this time period, but I want to see how you would rank the coaches we have had.

— Glen Sather’s Cigar Case

I’m going to give the defense of Larry Brown that’s been running through my head since June of 2006, when they fired him. Brown came to New York and did exactly what everyone expected. There was drama, and interminable talk of playing “the right way,” and the team was not good. But Brown’s teams often showed improvement their second year under him; it happened in Denver, New Jersey, San Antonio and Philadelphia. Sometimes the improvement was for fairly obvious reasons outside of LB — the Spurs landed David Robinson between his first two years. Still. You didn’t hire Next Town Brown thinking year one would be kumbaya. I’d assumed the Knicks would struggle that year and Dolan would fire Isiah and keep Brown. When the wind blew the other way, that was when the darkness seeped into my bones, where it’s chilled me ever since.

So I’m just gonna rank these coaches in order of my emotional suffering after they were gone, from most painful to no pain:

  • Jeff Van Gundy. Seemingly came out of nowhere. In some ways him resigning felt more like the end of an era than even the Ewing trade.
  • Mike D’Antoni. Given the Brown debacle, one could argue D’Antoni was the most exciting coaching hire the Knicks had made since Pat Riley. The Knicks paid him a lot of money to lose for two years, then gave him a whopping 54 games to run his system with his guys before they traded half the roster for Carmelo, the least-complementary player in the league to play in D’Antoni’s system. A year later the Knicks fired him, though it went down as a “resignation” once it was clear he didn’t have organization support for a new deal.
  • Larry Brown. Yeah, that season was a mess. And Brown has plenty to answer for. But since Riley resigned, the Knicks have hired four coaches who are in the Hall of Fame or who will be: Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Brown and D’Antoni. Nellie lasted 59 games, Wilkens 81, Brown 82 and D’Antoni 124 games (not counting his first two years, which were both tanks). I’m way more bothered by the rapid jettisoning of proven coaches than Brown calling Trevor Ariza “delusional.”
  • Don Chaney. Chaney the head coach wasn’t especially memorable. I just always felt bad that he got the Knicks job after JVG quit, suffered the lean years of the team going all Howard Eisley/Shandon Anderson/Clarence Weatherspoon on us, then after Stephon Marbury was acquired Chaney lasted just five games and was escorted out of the building by security like he was some kind of security threat. The real security threat was the guy who fired Chaney — Isiah.

I once worked in a call center for a gas & electric utility. They got bought by a Spanish conglomerate who wanted to put us all through re-training. The point of the new training was how to bully old people into paying us money they didn’t legally have to and encouraging customers who called in to do their business online, which would ultimately render the call center useless and those of us in it unemployed. I voiced opposition to both measures and, being young enough and lucky enough not to need the job more than my sense of what was right, I quit. I was going around the call center saying goodbye to my friends when security showed up to escort me from the building. Screw you, Spanish conglomerate. And screw you, Isiah.

  • Lenny Wilkens. It’s not like the Lenny years were particularly inspiring. I can’t really remember anything of consequence from his offense, his defense or his press conferences. He seemed a professional, respectable, classy dude. It seemed very odd to can him as quickly as they did, though when they hired Brown afterward there at least seemed to be an all’s-well-that-ends-well vibe. Ha.
  • Mike Miller. Miller was basically a tourniquet. The team and the organization were bleeding out after the David Fizdale Experience ran its course. Miller stopped the bleeding. I would have liked to have seen what he did with a full year and a roster he had some say in assembling. If they’d replaced him with a first-year coach or a retread in the tradition of Fizdale, I might have a new answer to the question above about what it would take for me to quit this team.
  • Mike Woodson. Criticizing Woody has led me to arguments and insinuations on this site I just have no interest in rehashing. So I’ll just say I was never crazy about Woodson, even with all the memes and the 2013 season. I shed no tears when he was cut loose.
  • Derek Fisher. Fisher felt like Plan B from the time it was rumored Phil Jackson was about to hire Steve Kerr until he was canned, for among other reasons maybe sleeping with his players’ girlfriends. Adios.
  • Jeff Hornacek. I really liked him as a player. He never felt right for the job here. I didn’t understand why Phil hired a guy who didn’t play in his system to run it. Hornacek agreed to but never seemed like his heart was in it. I guess that’s my answer.
  • Kurt Rambis. The only good thing to come out of the Rambis era was Chris Herring liking a piece I wrote in defense of Kurt’s candidacy for the full-time gig. That and the porn thing.
  • David Fizdale.
  • Herb Williams. You had to watch the ‘90s Knicks to understand what a folk hero Williams was. Every time he came in the game and did anything — put up a shot, block one, grab a rebound — a chant of “Herb!” went up around the Garden. Then he retired and became Dolan’s stoolie on God knows how many coaching staffs. Sad to see.
  • Isiah. I could devote an entire mailbag to the unholy mess that was the Isiah years. I don’t want to. But oh man. I could.

7)

The short list of contenders:

  • The very first time I faced live pitching was one night in the backyard where my dad decided to graduate me from T-ball. The first pitch he threw I hit over the fence into the neighbor’s yard for a home run. My father was thrilled. I was screaming, though not with pride or joy. When I swung I hit the ball off my thumb and the nail ripped off. Like, almost completely. Not just the part you cut — the whole nail. I had to get it removed. Some kid kept trying to cheer me up in the waiting room with corny jokes and self-deprecation. I remember my dad and the kid’s mom thinking he was so sweet. I remember wanting to jam my nail in his eye.
  • In high school I had a baseball game and a piano recital the same day. I insisted on playing, vaguely concerned about injuring my hand and not being able to play later. I was our catcher. In the middle innings I called for a breaking ball but our pitcher threw a fastball in the dirt. The ball bounced off the dirt and, this being the one and only game I didn’t wear a cup, went right up into my testicles. I remember rolling around in pain and my father walking up to the scene, finding out I had no protective equipment and laughing. Now I find it funny. Then I did not.
  • My fourth year of undergrad I took a huge hit from a gravity bong and coughed so hard I hurt my shoulder. Like, a lot. A LOT.
  • When Allan Houston’s series-winning shot against the Heat bounced in, I jumped for joy and must have torn my rectum or something. I landed with a polarizing mix of euphoria and anal anguish.
  • Somedays I walk upstairs my right knee feels like I’m 82. Other days it’s fine. I think that’s pro’ly the new normal for a fortysomething. Every day something hurts, but nothing hurts every day — yet. But I know it’s coming.

That’s all for part one, and really if you’ve read this far give yourself a gold star. This went waaay longer than I imagined. Two more parts to come!