Big Apple Blues

Carmelo Anthony is disappointed

“My bad,” mouthed Andrea Bargnani in the direction of his Knicks teammates who, like Jack Buck, could not believe what they just saw.

As if choreographed for a New York version of the Wave, many of the 19,500 spectators on hand, Knicks players, and countless TV viewers (including this writer), raised their arms to the sky in reaction to Bargnani’s three-point attempt with his team up by 2 points, ten seconds left in overtime, and a fresh shot clock, on December 18th against the Bucks at the Garden.

Naturally, Bargnani missed, and the Bucks sent the game into a second overtime. The Knicks won it but the victory offered little consolation to any Knick fan with a view to the future.

First, there’s Bargnani. Touted as the next Dirk Nowitzki, Bargnani was drafted first overall by Toronto in 2006 out of the Italian League. He loves to hoist the three-ball, and is pretty good at it. But he plays awful defense, and in 2012-2013, became the first 7-footer in NBA history to average more than 28 minutes and fewer than 4 rebounds per game. He’s what you’d call a soft player.

When the Knicks last summer traded their first pick in 2016 and two second rounders to the Raptors to get him, the move was greeted with mass consternation. Why Bargnani? Last year’s Knicks went 54-28, but there was a fool’s gold quality to it. They became over-dependent on prolific scoring by Carmelo Anthony and the 3-point accuracy of the combustible JR Smith. The regular season success felt more like a one-off than a glimpse of glory to come.

The Knicks’ limitations were exposed in the playoffs against Indiana, which out rebounded the New Yorkers by nine boards a game, and dominated the paint. Going into 2013-2014, the Knicks needed additional front court strength and depth to support the injury-prone Tyson Chandler and Amare Stoudamire. They needed to make more defensive stops. They needed to be tougher. The last thing the Knicks needed was another three-point gunner who didn’t rebound or play defense.

The second reason for our dismay over the Bargnani trade was that the Knicks were back to their old tricks of trading first round picks for aging veterans at a time when recent draft picks are turning other teams into contenders.

Now there’s a third reason for not liking the deal – Bargnani’s an idiot.

We knew Bargnani was soft, and that he was not a good fit; but until the Shot, we were not aware of his weak mental component. English is a second language to Bargnani so you can’t blame him for resorting to hip-hop to admit responsibility. A well-rendered “my bad” often results in complete exoneration. But not in the NBA, and not before the smart New York crowd, which did not need Bargnani’s plea to know that it had witnessed a bonehead of epic proportions. The “stupidest shot of the season,” said USA Today.

Bench Reacts to Bargnani Shot

The Bargnani episode came in the midst of a horrible start to the season by the Orange and Blue and on the heels of a brainlock by Coach Mike Woodson just two nights before against the Wizards. Woodson failed to call a time out with seven seconds left and the Knicks trailing by one with the ball under their own basket. Predictably, the possession broke down early and ended with an off-balance 40’ heave by Anthony at the buzzer.

Woodson’s failure to act can be written off as a rare mistake by an otherwise competent coach. But the Bargnani Blunder spotlighted the Knicks’ longstanding but shortsighted policy of trading future number one picks for veteran scorers.

When was the last time the Knicks drafted, nurtured, and retained a good, young player?

Since 2002, the Knicks have traded draft picks which became Nene (2002), LeMarcus Aldridge (2006), Joaquin Noah (2007), and Gordon Hayward (2010). In exchange, they got Antonio McDyess, Stephon Marbury, and Eddy Curry. Enough said. Their first pick in the 2014 draft, which is likely to be a high lottery pick in a very talented draft class, was pledged to Denver in the 2011 deal to get Anthony. Toronto owns their 2016 pick for Bargnani. The only reason the Knicks held onto their 2011 and 2013 picks, which became Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway, is an NBA rule which prohibits teams from trading away future number one picks in successive years.

David Lee, whom the Knicks drafted number one in 2005, would be the answer to today’s trivia question, but the Knicks let Lee go in 2010 for negligible consideration to clear cap space to pursue Lebron James. Now, Lee averages 18.3 points and 9.8 rebounds/game for ascendant Golden State.

In February 2011, the Knicks traded three of their starting five, promising back-up center Timofey Mosgov, plus the 2014 pick, to Denver for Anthony. How’s that working out? As this columnizer predicted nearly three years ago at the time of the trade, the Knicks are not going to achieve anything during the Anthony reign. Anthony remains a marvelous scorer and is having a good season, but he is not a team leader. When the team languishes, so does he. His public comments are less than inspirational. It was a bad sign before the start of the season when Anthony gratuitously declared his intention to opt out of his contract after this year to test free agency. If he were concerned with team morale, he would have remained silent on the topic. In light of his self-absorption, what chance is there of the championship-less Anthony re-upping with a 30-52 Knick team with a fatally flawed roster and no draft pick?… He’s gone, baby.

The author and executioner of the Knicks’ misguided attempts to build a winner by acquiring big names rather than drafting and developing young talent is their owner, James Dolan. Dolan, 58, is the son of cable czar Charles Dolan. James spent his early adult life battling drug and alcohol problems and an allegedly volatile temper. In 1999, Charles Dolan acquired the Knicks, Rangers, Madison Square Garden, and the MSG network and handed over the entire enterprise to his entirely unqualified son.

Dolan’s reign has been a disaster. He is ill-equipped to make the management decisions that successful franchises require. The Knicks are in the tank and likely to stay there. But across the river Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who acquired the New Jersey Nets in 2010 and moved them to Brooklyn, was drinking Dolan’s Kool-Aid.

Perhaps Prokhorov, an accomplished banker, businessman, and politician in Russia, and a self-made man, just could not stand to play second fiddle to the dorky Dolan. Prokhorov seemed more obsessed with surpassing the Knicks than in building a balanced roster. One of his first acts after determining to move to Brooklyn was to take out a 225′ by 99′ billboard directly across from the Garden. He promised a championship within five years.

In his dogged pursuit of big stars, Prokhorov has doled out more draft picks than Dolan.

When Prokhorov missed on getting Carmelo Anthony in 2011, he quickly regrouped and overpaid to get Deron Williams from the Jazz, sacrificing number one picks in 2011 and 2012 for the oft-injured point guard, who was signed only through 2012. Last year, the Nets assumed the bloated contract of fading Joe Johnson in an effort to induce Williams to re-sign. Williams re-upped, but the Nets are paying Johnson 21.5 million in 2013-2014, and are on the hook for another 45 million for the next two years. The Johnson deal is widely considered to be the worst contract in the game. Finally, just prior to the start of this season, the Nets sent their number one picks for 2014, 2016 and 2018 to Boston for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

The Nets thought they had assembled a championship team built around a Big Three of Williams, Garnett and Pierce and a supporting cast of Johnson and Center Brook Lopez. But the trade is beginning to look like the Big Swindle, and not in the Nets’ favor. At 37 and 36, respectively, Garnett and Pierce are slipping. Their numbers are down close to 50% off their career levels. Lopez is out for the season with a foot injury. Williams is batting chronic leg problems. It’s wait ’til next year already for the Brooklyn Bums, I mean Nets.

Pierce and Garnett fail to deliver

The Nets have the biggest payroll in the NBA at 102 million, and the Knicks are second at 89 million. At this writing, their records are 10-20, and 9-21, respectively. It was projected that the teams would contest for Atlantic Division supremacy, not basement occupancy. With both rosters lacking in young talent, no cap room, and not much to be expected from the draft, their futures look as bleak as the present. Sadly for Dolan and Prokhorov, in the NBA, money does not buy happiness.

Dolan and Prokhorov would do well to adopt some of the techniques of their small market competitors,

Where does it say in the NBA by-laws that the owner of a major-market team has to be trigger-happy? Or that patience, character-building, player development, and shrewd trades, are exclusively the province of small or mid-market teams, where there is less pressure to win now and more opportunity to adopt a game plan and stick with it.

It certainly seems that way. Indiana, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and now Portland and Golden State have relied primarily on home grown talent and draft picks to fuel their hot starts. The Pacers, headed by Larry Bird for most of the past ten years, set the standard for small market success.

The Pacer Way

The Pacers have generally operated out of the lottery but have drafted well in the first round and been patient with their young talent. Recent middle and late first round picks Paul George and Roy Hibbert have improved year to year. George, just 23 but in his fourth year, is an MVP candidate, and 7’3″ Hibbert is the league’s best defensive stopper. Lance Stephenson, branded as a trouble-maker out of college, slipped to the second-round in 2010, but is on the verge of becoming one of the league’s best all-around guards. He’s had three triple doubles already this season.

David West , the lone starter acquired through free agency, is a fierce rebounder and low-post presence. Off the bench is former leading scorer Danny Granger, their number one pick in 2005, who missed last season because of injury. George Hill is a fine, complimentary point guard who was acquired by trade from San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard, the Pacers’ number one pick in 2011. During the off-season, the Pacers reinforced their bench, acquiring inexpensive free agents Luis Scola, Earl Watson, and Chris Copeland.

Shrewd draft picks, strategic trades, patient player development. Nine-deep. Those are the ingredients to Indiana’s team cake. When have we used any of these words to describe the Knicks or Nets?

The Pacers exhibit a character and cohesion which is foreign to the Knicks and the Nets. Hardly any tattoos. No twitter accounts. No bickering among teammates. Perhaps it derives from Bird, who demonstrated a fierce competitiveness as a player and looks for the same qualities in his legions. With a grand vision, he has constructed a team which is built for the long haul.

The paradox is that nobody appreciates a team like the Pacers more than New York fans, who care more for teamwork, team character and balanced scoring than the glitz associated with superstars. They would be willing to wait for the big payoff if there was a reason to be hopeful.

But so long as James Dolan and Mikhail Prokhorov are running the show, hope is as scarce as a number one draft pick.

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One Response to “Big Apple Blues”

  1. leonard levine Says:

    Dolan is still being advised by Isaiah Thomas. Until those 2 losers are gone the Knicks will continue to suck.

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