LAS VEGAS – Can’t understand the New York Knicks these days?
Don’t worry – you’re not alone. A sizable number of team executives gathered at the NBA’s annual desert summer league can’t either.
Think the Knicks overpaid for Tim Hardaway Jr.? Guess what? Hardaway’s four-year, $71 million deal startled more than a few decision makers here. The Hawks were keen on keeping Hardaway. At $40 million. Maybe $50 million.
“I would have offered Dion Waiters money,” said a Western Conference exec, referencing the four-year, $52 million deal Waiters signed with the Miami Heat last week. “Seventy-one million? No one else was going to offer that.”
Here come the new Knicks, same as the old. Who knew former president Phil Jackson didn’t have the market cornered on questionable decisions? A year ago Jackson stunned the NBA by inking Joakim Noah to a four-year, $72.6 million deal. In Noah and Derrick Rose, Jackson had 40 percent of the Bulls’ 2011 starting lineup.
Turns out, he got 40 percent of the value. If that.
Can’t blame this one on Phil though, folks. He’s airing his toes out in Montana. No, this was a Steve Mills specialty. Mills, a James Dolan loyalist seemingly immune to regime change, pulled the trigger on an offer for a serviceable player who will consume 18 percent of the Knicks’ salary cap. Hardaway is 25 and on the rise, which automatically makes him a better signing than Noah, then 31 and on the decline.
Which is about the best thing you can say about it.
If only the Knicks had access to a veteran basketball executive, one with a championship on his résumé and widely held respect in league circles? In other news, David Griffin is still unemployed. The breakdown of the talks between Griffin and the Knicks was predictable. Griffin had the audacity, as an incoming top basketball executive, to ask for authority on all basketball matters, including staff. The Knicks, who value blind loyalty to Dolan above all other attributes, declined.
Oh, how the never mighty have fallen. The Knicks can’t erase the Jackson era – and judging by the early reviews of Dennis Smith, the explosive playmaker Dallas drafted one slot after Jackson tabbed Frank Ntilikina to be his triangle point guard of the future, the fallout from that era could linger for years – but they could have aggressively moved on from it. Instead, New York has fallen back on the loyal lieutenants from Dolan’s army, content to let those responsible for the past shape the future.
It’s astonishing. Operating an NBA team isn’t rocket science. Peter Holt – the former longtime Spurs owner with a fistful of championship rings – wasn’t a basketball savant. He just hired two, Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford, and got out of their way. Heat owner Micky Arison runs the Carnival cruise lines. His basketball brilliance traces back to the day he handed Pat Riley the keys to the kingdom.
Why is this so difficult in New York? Failure often leads a team to alter course. The Knicks double down on it. Winning the press conference takes precedent over winning games. And as the days tick by and the list of available qualified executives dries up, you can’t help but wonder: Is it only a matter of time before Isiah Thomas returns?
Impossible, right? Not in New York. No one would have believed that Thomas, who piled up losses as a Knicks coach and bloated contracts as an executive, would have been welcomed back into the Madison Square Garden fold after exiting in 2009. And yet there was Thomas, in 2015, being introduced as the president of the WNBA’s Liberty, back at the Garden, within earshot of Dolan again.
To be fair, Thomas has denied interest in a Knicks gig. And yet: Would he turn one down?
These are turbulent times in New York. The former franchise player, Carmelo Anthony, has been alienated. The current franchise player, Kristaps Porzingis, has, too. The NBA landscape is as complex as it’s been in years, with more and more talent migrating west and Golden State beginning a four-to-five year stretch in which, barring injury, it is unbeatable. A seasoned basketball mind is needed to guide the Knicks through this wilderness.
If only James Dolan knew it.
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