As a New Yorker I constantly hear “James Dolan is the worst owner,” “Until Dolan sells the team we won’t ever win,” and “it is Dolan’s fault that no big free agents want to play for the Knicks.” All of those statements have some truth behind them, but you’re foolish if you think James Dolan is the only reason for the New York Knicks ineptitude for the past two decades. Sure it starts with Dolan but start taking a look at those who made basketball decisions, who have been scouting, drafting and coaching. It is a team effort to be this inept for two plus decades.
Selling Free Agents on “The Mecca” and Not a Winning Culture
Since LeBron James was a free agent the first time when he chose Miami, the Knicks have been using the same old pitch. “Come play at the Mecca,” “Madison Square Garden is the best arena in sports,” “Win in New York and you’re a legend.” Yeah, yeah, yeah keep those meaningless sayings and find your way out of the meeting with any top free agent. Guys of Lebron James and Kevin Durant caliber want to win and want to be sold on a winning culture and plan, not a damn building and banners from the 1970’s. Dolan is guilty here but so are his right hand men in charge of basketball decisions. Whether it was Phil Jackson, Steve Mills or whoever has been at the helm of basketball decisions since the turn of the century, they all gave the same old pitch that hasn’t worked. This receptive failed pitch is a result of the next two glaring issues the Knicks have struggled with for the past two decades.
The Knicks Have Failed to Identify, Draft and Develop Talent
The Knicks have had six lottery picks in the last ten NBA drafts. Those selections were Danillo Gallinari (6th pick 2008 draft,) Jordan Hill (8th Pick 2009 draft,) Kristaps Porzingis (4th pick 2015 draft,) Frank Ntilikina (8th pick 2017 draft,) Kevin Knox (9th pick 2018 draft,) and R.J. Barrett (3rd pick in the 2019 draft.) Since Barrett was just drafted two weeks ago, we will exclude him from this conversation, but of the other draft picks, tell me who is a franchise changer? Gallinari has scored allot of points and got paid a lot of money doing so, but he is nothing special. Jordan Hill a decent journeyman bigman in the league, but not what you’re expecting when you take someone with the 8th pick. Porzingis is the closets thing the Knicks have drafted to being a super star since Patrick Ewing in 1985. Porzingis showed flashes of his super star potential but injuries derailed that and the Knicks traded him for essentially cap space. Frank Ntilikina shows all signs of bust and was a reach at pick 8 anyway, especially when Donavan Mitchell was still on the board. It is still too early to determine what Kevin Knox will be but his rookie campaign was underwhelming and was outshined by the Knicks later pick Mitchell Robinson, who appears to be a formidable center for years to come.
When you look around the league, the teams flourishing are those who draft and coach well. Warriors drafted Curry Klay and Draymond; Bucks drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton; Raptors drafted Siakam and traded young drafted talent for Kawhi; Boston drafted Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart; the Lakers drafted Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram to package for Anthony Davis, and their rival Brooklyn Nets who “stole” KD and Kyrie form the Knicks have drafted well with non lottery picks, and developed a cohesive team. The list goes on and on.
When you are able to identify and develop talent, you are always going to be in a good position as a franchise. Wether you develop and keep that talent like Golden State did, or you trade it for an established star like the Lakers and Raptors did, the one thing that remains content to winning is identifying the talent. The Knicks have been unable to do that for decades, and it shows in their record.
Lack of Leadership
The Knicks front office plays seems to make the wrong moves, and in the early years you can place blame on Dolan for being too involved in basketball decisions. But when there was a planned protest outside of MSG, Dolan stepped back, hired a “brilliant basketball mind” Phil Jackson and was praised for it at the time. In retrospect it turned into a disaster but the idea in itself was something we had not seen from Dolan. But in that era, the Knicks went with Derek Fisher after failing to secure Steve Kerr as the head coach. Fisher was beat up by Matt Barnes and shorty after fired less than halfway into his 5 year deal. Then we had some Kurt Rambis interim tenures and then Jeff Hornacek for a few seasons. It seems like the Knicks have got a coach who is respected around the league any stars in David Fizdale, but until they have decent talent, it will be hard to judge his job. Over the course of 5 seasons, the Knicks had 4 head coaches. It is impossible to build any type of cohesiveness and culture required to become a good team, let alone a great team.
The Knicks decade long struggles will continue, the lottery appearances will continue, and the generations of fans dying to see a championship Knicks team will continue to grow unless the Knicks resolve the issues above. If this offseason of being denied by KD and Kyrie Irving in favor for their “little brother” Brooklyn Nets, showed the Knicks anything, it is that they must change their entire process of building a team. Stop blowing up and gutting teams to create cap space for the big time free agent. Build a foundation, a new culture, much like the Nets, Clippers, and others have done in recent years. Once you have that solid foundation, then you become attractive to those elite free agent talents. I get that Knicks fans wanted the quick fix after years of being a mess, but get the right people in the decision making role and proceed with the slow grind to a respectable team. Then and only then can you begin to dream big with the chance of it becoming a reality.
My advice to Knicks fans, appreciate this new slow grind. Support the R.J. Barrett, Kevin Knox, and Mitchell Robinson development process. Root for Julius Randle to continue to improve on his previous season of 21 points and 8 rebound per game. Hope that Fizdale can create that winning culture like Kenny Atkinson did for the young Brooklyn Nets, and hope that when the next big free agent is available that the Knicks front office doesn’t trade away the young core to create cap space, creating this entire cycle over again. Better yourselves and one day it will be you landing the marquee free agents.