Saturday, December 22, 2007

Knick Fans Have Mainly Lost Their Minds is a site that I like a whole lot since it has a lot of good statistical information along with some sensible explanations of how statistics work, and some opinions about the Knicks that aren’t completely insane. Their recent recap of Isaiah Thomas’ tenure as coach of the Knicks does a much needed job of putting things in some sort of perspective.

The point to be taken from their recap is that the team that Thomas took over was not only awful, but also old. In that situation, one thing to do is let the contracts expire and try and build from the draft, with the hopes of becoming relevant in the future. Had Thomas gone that route four years ago, the Knicks might, right now, be approaching semi-serious contention. Thomas, however, proceeded to make trades with the goal of winning immediately, some of them with draft picks, and assemble what has finally revealed itself as one of the worst rosters known to man.

It’s not as if Thomas’ employers or the Knicks fans would have had much patience for re-building at any point during Thomas’ tenure. Possibly they could have been won over by it, but the temptation of immediate wins and playoff appearances was not something felt by Thomas alone. The people concerned with the Knicks all honestly believed that making the Knicks immediately relevant could and should be attempted.

The route that Thomas went thus involved taking a number of chances, and, unfortunately, none of them paid off. This can, in part, be attributed to bad judgment by Thomas, but one has to keep in mind that, as a GM charged with turning a bad team into a winning team, while suspended over the piranha-tank that is the New York Press, it was pretty much Thomas’ job to take those chances. The Dolans gave him a handful of chips, and we all looked nervously over his shoulder as he walked to the crap table.

Thomas’ first move was the trade for Marbury. Marbury has had serious flashes of brilliance throughout his career, and there was reason to believe that he could carry a team. There was also, even then, a good case to be made that Marubury was bad for teams and threatening to chemistry, but it wasn’t as if there were dozens of super-star point guards for Thomas to choose from. Thomas’ gamble didn’t pay off, but, given the overly ambitious goal of the Knicks, it wasn’t one that Thomas was necessarily unwise in taking. Given the short-term (and ultimately more important) goal of generating buzz around the team, it was practically inevitable.

Only someone with a serious problem with depression could have anticipated how badly the Curry trade worked out. When Thomas got him, Curry was very young and had led the league in field goal percentage one year. He was seven feet tall: it defies reason that someone seven feet tall could be so incapable of rebounding. It was almost impossible not to see potential in Curry and it seems unfair to expect Thomas to have anticipated Curry’s miserablness.

Furthermore, it is not as if the Bulls, who should seem to be on the winning end of the Curry deal, are much better, right now, than the Knicks, but, at the time that Thomas took over the Knicks, the Bulls had a far more interesting and talented young roster than the Knicks have had at any point in recent history. Despite that, the Bulls are so bad this season that they lost a game to the Knicks. The Bulls are so bad that they would probably be better if they had hung on to Eddy Curry.

So why aren’t people assembling with gigantic pink-slips to demand the ousting of the Bulls management? If the Mitchell report has taught me anything, it is to be less hesitant in calling out the sports establishment for ridiculous racism. Thomas was given an extremely difficult task, and he proceeded to do it badly. Looking back over the league’s last few years, it is not exactly as if there were many sure-fire ways of catapulting the Knicks into contention that Thomas passed on. Top notch talent is extremely hard to come by—particularly when you don’t have much to offer in return. With the benefit of hindsight, Thomas’ biggest mistake was probably not mortgaging the farm to get Kevin Garnett from Minnesota—but even that would have been a risk that he would understandably have shied away from. The series of more minor moves that he did undertake worked out badly, but any move that he could have made would have been a gamble with a significant chance of failure. The Knicks roster is a mixture of bad luck and bad judgment, for which Thomas deserves a significant amount of responsibility, but in no way warrants the bitterness of the anti-Isaiah campaigns, which are very revealingly deconstructed by Basketbawful’s Evil Ted.

There is something about successful, outspoken black men who disappoint expectations that brings out an ugly edge of hatred in American sports fans. It makes what happens on the floor at Madison square garden seem relatively pretty.


John said...

The idea that taking Marbury was a reasonable chance is absurd. Every team that Marbury played for did poorly with him and improved after he left. Despite his skills he was without question a chemistry killer and brought out the worst in others. It would have taken a miracle for him to be a winning influence with the knicks. Since the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior , and there was not an iota of evidence that Marbury had a positive impact on any team it was not rasonable to believe he could with the knicks.

nigel fowler said...

the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior---john

Okay, but this isn't always the case with respect to Supreme Court justices or errant schoolboys, So why should it absolutely be the case for basketball players? Just a thought.

Sam said...

John: I see your point. At the same time, there are instances of players who have been seen as a threat to chemistry becoming better in new surroundings (Stephen Jackson and ‘Sheed come to mind, although I’ll admit neither of them were ever as bad at anything as Starbury) and positively impacting their team. I’m not saying that a departure from past performances is ever likely, but it is occasionally possible, and if you are trying to re-build from the ’04 Knicks you have to be thinking more about possible than likely.

Isaiah Thomas would have had two reasons for hoping for a positive change in bringing Marbury to New York. Firstly, he probably thought that certain things that Steph had been told throughout his career (“pass the damn ball”) would take on extra weight coming from hall-of-fame point guard Isaiah Thomas—his belief in his ability to influence Marbury, while incorrect, seems like an inevitable result of being Isaiah Thomas. Secondly, he probably thought that the return to NYC would bring out a more positive, hard-working and driven aspect of Steph: certainly it wouldn’t hurt ticket sales to bring back a guy still fondly remembered in New York as “the Coney Island Kid.”

The goal of the Knicks (still the most valuable franchise in the NBA) isn’t to win basketball games, it’s to survive as a profitable corporate entity—winning basketball games is only the traditional means to this end, and when that stops being a viable option the ownership has to turn to other means of generating buzz around the team (such as staging the “Fire Isaiah” movement, if you believe some people). Steph’s a great fit because he guarantees that people will continue to hear the phrase “New York Knicks” even if it is only in the context of “Stephon Marbury, point-guard for the New York Knicks, apologized today for___”

John said...

I appreciate your knowledge and actually agree with practically everything you said. However, Marbury in my view was a poster child for "chemistry killing" as there was not an iota of evidence that he could ever be the one in any way to help turn a team around. I played college basketball, but even club players know the difference between stars who help energize team mates and those that drain everyone else and Marbury is the latter. You know the old saying insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The comment I made about future behavior is often used in psychiatry when describing the predictability of the recurrence of violent behavior. I hypothesize it also applies to selfish behavior. Marbury's nickname should be Me Me Me (I remember seeing a race horse with this name (probably named for the owners ex-wife).