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  • Lottery Losers: How the Knicks Stack Up With Comparable Bottom Dwellers

Lottery Losers: How the Knicks Stack Up With Comparable Bottom Dwellers

Photo: via Sports Illustrated
While the postseason plays out and the losers sit idly by praying for draft success, it’s time to examine teams in similar situations as the New York Knicks. Who can we say have it worse than the Knicks right now?

A few weeks ago, for no apparent reason other than craving the feeling of having my head repeatedly smashed into a brick wall, I engaged a spirited debate with the gentleman (or gentlewoman) who runs the Nets Daily Twitter account. I learned, among other things, that Frank Ntilikina wouldn’t interest Brooklyn even if he were offered gratis and that Joe Harris’ trade value is somewhere between that of Giannis and the Brow. A more enjoyable Saturday afternoon, I could not imagine.

The delightful conversation primarily centered around which of the two franchises is in better shape, and while we weren’t able to come to a consensus (shocking given the breeding ground for sensible and intelligent discussion that is Twitter), the whole argument did get me thinking.

Around the same time, The Ringer’s Bill Simmons and ESPN’s Zach Lowe hit on the topic as well. Simmons, missing no opportunity to needle Knicks fans, concluded that the Nets and Hornets were the only two organizations currently more F’d with a capital ‘F’ than New York.

If you’re reading this, where you fall on this argument likely depends on which one of following three camps you’re in:

  • Camp 1: The Knicks are terrible, will always be terrible, and I follow them only because I’ve been told by a beloved religious figure in my life that self-loathing and masochism will up my chances of avoiding eternal damnation.
  • Camp 2: Everything is wonderful! This is the Knicks’ year! If they can just hang around .500 until KP comes back, I think they’re a dark horse for the conference finals! I love lamp!
  • Camp 3: We’re still not very good, but we’re pretty young, have a star—albeit an injured one—and boy have things been worse. There’s something brewing here that seems like it might just work—if we avoid the mistakes of the past and catch a couple of breaks.

If you’re in camps one or two, this article probably isn’t for you. For everyone else, let’s do the impossible. Let’s answer the question: where do the Knicks rank in the hierarchy of the league’s franchises? In other words, if the goal really is sustainable organizational competence with a shot at a ring at some point in the not terribly distant future, how do the Knicks stack up with comparable teams?

The term comparable gives us a starting place many Knicks fans probably aren’t going to like: if a team made the playoffs, they’re getting the benefit of the doubt here. Yes, there are arguments that some of the teams that made the 2018 postseason are in worse long-term shape (Washington, Miami, and OKC, I’m looking at you and your $390 million combined payrolls, which produced a whopping five playoff wins). But here at The Knicks Wall, we’re nothing if not unabashed realists. Making the playoffs is hard, and doing so is evidence that an organization is doing something right. For New York and several other teams, any such proclamations need come with a few grains of salt.

We’re also going to bump up Denver and the Lakers to this higher class. The Nuggets won 46 games, and any objective observer would take their situation in a heartbeat over New York’s. Ditto for the Knicks’ old West Coast rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, who have the young core and impending financial flexibility to make some serious headway during free agency.

Lastly, before we get into the nitty gritty, break out the ticker tape because the Knicks can actually say with a straight face that they’re in markedly better shape than a few teams in the league, no debate needed. The Charlotte Hornets, Memphis Grizzlies, and Detroit Pistons are all in salary-cap hell and need years to get out of the no man’s land otherwise known as NBA mediocrity. Add Brooklyn in here too, for as much as their vaunted Twitter following would like to believe, there isn’t a player on this roster who you’d bet a significant sum of money will one day become an above-average starter at their position. Turns out making a franchise-crippling trade takes more than five years to recover from after all.


Sorting through the mess

What’s the best way to parse out where the Knicks fall among the remaining teams? With some completely arbitrary guidelines, of course! Five categories graded on five-point scales sounds nice and neat, so let’s try these: roster and salary cap; ceiling/floor/most likely outcome; coaching; front office; and intangibles. Let’s get to it, starting with the team that just got the stroke of luck the Knicks were hoping for on lottery night.

The Phoenix Suns are an organization that has made New York look downright functional over the years. Their current front office has done nothing to make anyone believe that their recent good fortune will result in long term dividends (see: Brandon Knight’s extension and trading prime Isaiah Thomas for a handful of magic beans). That said, whether it ends up being DeAndre Ayton or Luka Doncic, in less than a month’s time, the Suns will have a legitimate young foundation to build around. Like it or not, that core will surpass what the Knicks have in the eyes of objective observers. The Igor Kokoskov hire was universally praised, and depending on when Devin Booker inks his max extension, they could have more cap space than any team in the league come 2019. Simply put, this wouldn’t be up for debate if anyone other than Robert Sarver owned the team. He’s like Dolan, only cheap.

Team: Phoenix Suns     Roster/Cap: 4     Range of Outcomes: 4     Coaching: 3     Front Office: 2     Intangibles: 2    Total: 15/25

Next up are the Chicago Bulls, who are tricky. They don’t have a star on the level of a Kristaps, but they do have, on balance, more young talent on the roster than New York, and (unlike some people) actually watched the progression of Joakim Noah’s career heading into the summer 2016 and have a clean cap as a result.

Fred Hoiberg settled in as a decent coach, and like the Suns, Chicago is poised to spend big in the years to come. What plagues this franchise more than anything is the same question that plagued New York until Scott Perry came aboard: do they have a clear plan moving forward? The Dwyane Wade–Rajon Rondo season was as ill-fated a shot in the dark as the NBA has seen since the Dwight Howard–Steve Nash Lakers, and if there were ever a team you’d correctly accuse of being unable to tank correctly, it was the Bulls this season. Chicago as a city has some cache, so there’s that, but GarPax still inspires no one despite what turned out to be a decent haul in the draft-night Jimmy Butler trade.

Team: Chicago Bulls    Roster/Cap: 3     Range of Outcomes: 3     Coaching: 3     Front Office: 2     Intangibles: 3    Total: 14/25

One team that has no such front office concerns is the Los Angeles Clippers, who now have the O.G. himself in Jerry West.

Do they have anything resembling a young cornerstone like KP—or even Frank Ntilikina for that matter? No. Is there a clear path to getting one (aside from some vague overtures that Kawhi’s camp might want him to play in L.A.)? Not so much. It’s as hodgepodge a group as there is in the league.

That said, Doc still carries a solid reputation with players, they have two late lottery picks this season, and Danilo Galinari’s contract is about all they have on the books beyond next season. The rest of their pieces are easily movable and they have an owner willing to spend when the time comes. If we get to hold up the prospect of playing in New York as an organizational advantage, L.A.—finally rid of the Clipper stink—deserves at least the same.

Team: Los Angeles Clippers    Roster/Cap: 2     Range of Outcomes: 3     Coaching: 3     Front Office: 4     Intangibles: 4    Total: 16/25

On the surface, the Orlando Magic are in quite the similar position to New York. Both have one terrible contract (Bismack Biyombo, Joakim Noah), one overpaid but decent player (Evan Fournier, Tim Hardaway Jr.), one expensive “meh” wing (Terrence Ross, Courtney Lee), one unproven but tantalizing rookie (Jonathan Isaac, Frank Ntilikina), a few interesting pieces, and a star surrounded by uncertainty.

The big difference is between Kristaps and Aaron Gordon. The Knicks franchise player appears to be on the road to a full recovery, and if healthy, he blows away the ceiling on restricted free agent Gordon, who the Magic may not even want to pay. The new front office of Jeff Weltman and John Hammond have been on the job for about a year, but like Scott Perry, haven’t yet had a real opportunity to put their stamp on the franchise. They don’t appear to be off to a great start though with the rumored hiring of Kelvin Sampson as their next head coach. Yes, that Kelvin Sampson.

Team: Orlando Magic    Roster/Cap: 2     Range of Outcomes: 2     Coaching: 2     Front Office: 3     Intangibles: 3    Total: 12/25

The Dallas Mavericks are a team that has gotten a pass for a little too long. (By the way, for as abhorrent as the Anucha Browne Saunders–Isiah Thomas ordeal was, the sexual misconduct stuff with the Mavs seems to run far deeper, and while they haven’t been absolved, Cuban also hasn’t been pillaged nearly to the extent that Dolan was). Anyway, Rick Carlisle soundly is a top five coach, but their second-best asset might be Dwight Powell and their last four major transactions (signing Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews; trading for Nerlens Noel and Rajon Rondo) were more or less duds. Everyone kind of figures better days are ahead for Dallas—just don’t ask for any evidence that such a future is coming. The best thing they have going for them besides Carlisle is Dennis Smith Jr. (the jury is still vehemently debating the merits of his case as a significant part of a winning team) and a fairly clean cap sheet in the not-too-distant future.

Team: Dallas Mavericks    Roster/Cap: 3     Range of Outcomes: 2     Coaching: 5     Front Office: 3     Intangibles: 3    Total: 16/25

On one hand, it feels a little disingenuous to have Atlanta as a team that should even be considered here. They are going to be spectacularly bad for the next two years, and quite intentionally so. The remaining two years and $24.8 million of Miles Plumlee’s contract is the petit filet to Joakim Noah’s nine ouncer, and Kent Bazemore is an albatross (to say nothing of Dennis Schröder, who the Hawks are not-so-secretly trying desperately to move). But we live in 2018 PP (Post Process), where a team’s dedication to sweet, glorious failure is a check in the win column. Atlanta’s commitment to the suck seems to blow by all rivals, including the Knicks. With more juicy picks and cap room on the way, can it definitively be said that they’re not in a better long-term position? Their GM Travis Schlenk comes from the Warriors organization but has done nothing but tear things down thus far, and new head coach Lloyd Pierce is in the developmental mold of Brooklyn’s Kenny Atkinson.

“Wait and see” is probably the correct assessment for both.

Team: Atlanta Hawks    Roster/Cap: 2     Range of Outcomes: 3     Coaching: 2     Front Office: 3     Intangibles: 3    Total: 13/25

The last and probably toughest comparison is Sacramento. The connections between the two franchises run deep. The Kings and Knicks can go toe to toe comparing overall ineptness over the last 15 years, and yet for the first time in a while, each appears to have turned the corner. Aside from the Scott Perry connection (he was in Sactown for three months to set them on the path to legitimacy before coming and doing the same here), the Kings employ Dave Joerger as head coach, who David Fizdale replaced in Memphis. They also have the point guard many Knicks fans coveted in De’Aaron Fox, and a European import far less ballyhooed than Porzingis but not as far off as most people realize in Bogdan Bodganovic.

Throw in the second overall pick to New York’s ninth in this year’s draft, and the choice may come down to which, umm, “eccentric” owner you’d rather have calling the shots (before you jump to answer, keep in mind that Vivek Ranadive once allowed fans to assist the team with their draft selection—shockingly, Nik Stauskas was the pick—and once proposed playing 4-on-5 on defense with one King serving as a rover).

Team: Sacramento Kings    Roster/Cap: 2     Range of Outcomes: 3     Coaching: 3     Front Office: 2     Intangibles: 1    Total: 11/25

That leaves the Knicks. You know the deal, young star with an MVP ceiling who tore his ACL, which is mending at a slightly quicker rate than his relationship to his employers, apparently. Frank is a core piece but with as wide a range of outcomes as any rookie from last year’s lottery.

The rest of the roster is a mix of young players who fall somewhere between “intriguing” and “maybe not an NBA player” on the excitement scale and flawed vets who probably won’t be here for much longer. Timmy is Timmy, for example. Along with the cockroaches, Joakim Noah’s contract will remain after the pending nuclear apocalypse. The coach and GM are, at the very least, respectable, and there is alignment within an organization that needed normalcy and internal harmony more than anything else; additionally, the recent hire of David Fizdale propagates bare-bones optimism. As a city and a drawing card, New York is still New York. By the same token, James Dolan is still James Dolan. Some things never change.

Team: New York Knicks Roster/Cap: 3     Range of Outcomes: 3     Coaching: 3     Front Office: 3     Intangibles: 3    Total: 15/25

That comes in behind the Clippers and Mavs, is tied with the Suns and just ahead of Chicago, Orlando, Atlanta, and Sacramento, in addition to the four from earlier.

So there you have it. The Knicks—yes, the James Dolan–owned, New York Freaking Knickerbockers, who (deep breath) a year ago were the laughing stock of the league after their star player skipped his exit interview with sleepy Phil Jackson, who was then fired days after making the team’s draft pick and hours before free agency was set to begin, thanks to his ill-fated attempts to trade his young star and inability to trade his old star who he himself gave a no trade clause to (exhale)—are in better shape than eight teams.

Those Knicks.

You can’t say it enough: in the NBA, just like in life, perspective is everything. If having two thirds of the league in a better spot than your organization doesn’t sound great, that’s because it isn’t, especially when you play in a city that should provide every bit the destination advantage of any other locale in the league. But beggars can’t be choosers, and when most of the basketball world still feels like you’re in a worse spot than just about anyone, this reality is far more comforting.

Imagine where they’ll be a year from now.

(thinking)

On second thought, let’s just be thankful we can somewhat-confidently say the Knicks have it slightly better than about eight other teams.

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