Day 2 of the Leon Rose era exploded into a public falling out with the biggest Knicks fan ever, Spike Lee. What else needs to be taken care of?
Leon Rose was “introduced” Monday as the third president of the New York Knicks in the past six years, and it took fewer than 24 hours for the former CAA agent to get a distinct understanding of how the enterprise he now runs can often resemble the Big Apple Circus. The morning after R.J. Barrett led a thrilling win over the Houston Rockets, the franchise’s most famous (and famously loyal) fan was lambasting the organization on TV (then later to the New York Times and the Michael Kay Show).
Welcome aboard, Leon!
Oddly, the Knicks didn’t hold a press conference for Rose, who instead released a letter asking for “continued patience”—inspiring! He also reportedly addressed the players and staff personally, and left a good impression doing so.
The Knicks are the latest franchise to hand over the reins to a prominent agent. Bob Myers (Golden State), Rob Pelinka (L.A. Lakers), and Justin Zanik (Utah) have found success, while others have not (Lon Babby in Phoenix, Arn Tellem in Detroit). Rose has already consulted with Myers, called the new Knicks executive “universally respected.”
Rose is the ninth person to possess the keys to Dolan’s increasingly valuable vehicle since Jimmy D inherited the family business. If Rose wants to be the first of his predecessors to turn the Knicks back into contenders (or at least break the playoff drought), here are a few things he’ll have to address.
Player Development Overhaul
The most impactful improvement Rose could make—outside of landing Giannis or Zion—is optimizing the franchise’s player development program. Short-term, it’s particularly important with the current cabinet of partially developed players and future draft picks. In the long run, consistently competent development is imperative to re-establishing the franchise as a year-to-year non-joke (baby steps). On a related note, did you know the longest-tenured Knicks are Damyean Dotson and Frank Ntilikina?
The Knicks should be allocating tons of resources—as the Yankees do—into their developmental operation. In 2018, VP of Player Development Craig Robinson went all Joe Lacob and hyped up the Knicks developmental methods at the time—and even compared the organization to Nike and Google (sick!). “If you look at how things are done around the league, no one is actually trying to do this the way we’re trying to do it. So it’s also got that aspect of being able to do something that is completely new and could be transformative in the industry.” Two years later, Robinson has seen his responsibilities cut, and Rose will need to figure out who to put in charge.
On that note, Rose will also need to improve the Westchester-to-Knicks-Contributor pipeline. As The Athletic’s Mike Vorkonuv pointed out:
“The Knicks’ development system has not drawn compliments in talking to some around the NBA. Before this season, the G League team had been a pipeline to the Knicks, with all five of Westchester’s starting lineup getting promoted in 2017-18, but none have stuck with the team. Five players have turned G League deals into NBA deals, though only Kenny Wooten remains in the organization. The players have been seen as bright spots—Trey Burke, Luke Kornet, Noah Vonleh—have been traded or not re-signed.”
In his statement, Rose pledged to “develop a plan that makes sense, both to jumpstart our short-term growth and ensure our long-term success.” That sounds safe and good, but it’s also indicative of a larger problem. The Knicks have been mired in a purgatory between competing and rebuilding, a symptom of operating under an impatient owner, and the results have been decidedly mixed. Mitchell Robinson and Barrett have shown plenty of promise. Ntilikina is more confident on offense but still limited. Kevin Knox, in the best case scenario, is still in his cocoon phase. Dennis Smith Jr. has completely regressed. Rose will have to decide on a philosophical approach to next season and beyond—and how willing the front office is to sacrifice wins for a (belated) commitment to the young players ahead of a potentially loaded 2021 draft and free agent class.
Rose faces a slew of roster decisions, and he comes in without attachments to any previous roster moves, though he does have a CAA relationship with Ntilikina and Randle. Here’s a few routes to go.
Let Most People Leave
Some decisions are easy or already made: Ntilikina ($6 million in 2020–21) and Knox ($4.5 million) are coming back, as is Dennis Smith Jr. ($5.7 million) pending a trade, though his value is at a career-low. Maurice Harkless (expiring) and Bobby Portis ($15 million team option) will almost certainly move on.
Next season’s money for Taj Gibson ($9.45 million), Wayne Ellington ($8 million), Elfrid Payton ($8 million), and Reggie Bullock ($4.2 million) is not guaranteed. Gibson and Ellington are fine role players but not long-term pieces and shouldn’t be brought back at those figures. Rose should, however, retain Payton and Bullock. The Knicks have been a noticeably better offense with Payton on the court, and he just turned 26. Bullock has struggled with his shot since returning from a neck injury, but he’s a great dude, is still 29, and provides above-average one-on-one perimeter defense and a career 38.6% mark from downtown. Ideally, both can find roles as productive and relatively inexpensive rotation pieces next year.
Allonzo Trier ($4.4 million) and Dotson ($2 million) are eligible for qualifying offers. Dot has shown some flashes and deserves a closer look, especially as the Knicks look to improve their spacing. I’m sure plenty of fans would like to see Trier get more opportunities, but a season out of the rotation doesn’t bode well for his future in New York. 2019 second-round pick Ignas Brazdeikis (averaging 20.9 points per game for Westchester) will return ($1.5 million), and should see more innings in the big league rotation next year.
Trade Julius Randle (?)
This should be at the top of Rose’s offseason agenda. Randle’s had an up-and-down but mostly infuriating first season of a three-year, $63 million contract he signed with New York last July. His effort and work in the paint is admirable, but his lane-clogging and ball-stopping is not ideal alongside R.J. and Mitch.
He’s owed $18.9 million next season, but only $4 million of the third year (2021–22) is guaranteed. Rose should explore using cap space and picks to entice a team to take on Randle. For his faults, Randle is a durable 25-year-old amid his third consecutive campaign averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes. It’s not disastrous to stick out another year with Randle—maybe the right coach can reel in his bad habits—but Rose’s roster-building syllabus should prioritize Barrett and Robinson over his CAA pal.
How much Rose’s CAA ties are going to affect his decision-making is something to generally keep in mind in the future. For instance:
The Knicks, according to NBA sources, have been gathering intel on All Star Chris Paul and could make a run at him this summer. Paul, 34, carries a huge contract but he’s had a resurgent season in OKC & is proven leader. (He was also once represented by…Leon Rose.)— Frank Isola (@TheFrankIsola) March 5, 2020
Chill During Free Agency
This one’s easy: don’t do what they did last summer. With Barrett, Robinson, Ntilikina, Knox, Payton, Bullock, Smitih, Brazdeikis and a couple draft picks/G Leaguers in tow—plus either Randle or his return package—Rose should use this summer’s tepid free-agent pool to tack on a couple vets and floor-spacers/shooters and save the star-chasing for 2021. I know one impending free agent and respected vet with a close relationship to Rose.
One more thing Rose should bring up in any meeting re: attracting free agents: BUILD A MORE CONVENIENT PRACTICE FACILITY.
Rose said that “while evaluating every aspect of the organization, most immediately, we will support Mike Miller, his staff, and our team.” Marketing guru Steve Stoute already accidentally booted Miller on TV, and the “most immediately” in Rose’s statement indicates the end is near for the Knicks interim coach.
Miller has done a respectable job since taking over from David Fizdale on December 8th, but the idea the team has been considerably better under him is overblown. Their Defensive Rating was 113.0 under Fizdale and is 111.9 under Miller. Their Net Rating is six points better under Miller (-4.3), but Fiz had the boys dead-last at a laughable -10.9. Both coaches have had their rotations rightfully questioned. Fiz had two wins against teams over .500 (both vs. Dallas), while Miller has overseen just three of those victories.
It sounds like CAA client Tom Thibodeau is the frontrunner for the gig, but Rose should choose a coach with a more successful recent record of collaborating with young players—someone happy to abide by a slower timeline. Unfortunately, the current names that have been mentioned have either turned down the gig (Jay Wright, John Calipari) or don’t exactly fit the above prerequisites (Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy).
Rose will take his time to evaluate the staff before any major decisions, such as how much of the current administration to keep around—including his pal Scott Perry—and how many non-“World Wide Wes” CAA colleagues join the fray. It seems like assistant GM Allan Houston will a part of the next administration, and is perhaps in line for a promotion. According to the New York Daily News, “Houston also has recently spent time regularly around the players, traveling with the team, and, per sources, spending time in the locker room. This is perhaps an indication that Houston will remain in the organization under Rose and have an elevated role.”
However Rose rounds out his front office, the most immediate concern should be getting the pre-draft preparation in place. The previous regime—to their credit—left Rose with a toolshed of picks, including two first-rounders and an early second-rounder in the upcoming draft. If no major trade comes about, the new regime will need to rapidly establish a process to thoroughly scout and evaluate prospects ahead of the combine (May 21-24) and June 25th draft.
Oh, and then they’ll need to gameplan on what the team actually needs, which could be tricky with so many players likely to not return. Assuming their looking for wings over bigs—do they want scoring combo guards like Killian Hayes or Anthony Edwards, a playmaker like LaMelo Ball, or a bigger wing like Obi Toppin?
I think even Steve Stoute would agree that the best rebrand is winning. It would also help, though, to publicly and maturely repair relationships with franchise icons like Spike, Marv Albert, and Charles Oakley—who called for the NBA to “step in” and remove Dolan on Wednesday (been with you, Oak!).
The Knicks current brand is dysfunction—so any change is welcome. The repeated public spats, petty statements, and general incompetence tie back to Dolan’s actions, which Rose obviously has no domain over. Rose can, however, take steps to upgrade the product on and off the court and negate the trickle-down effect of his boss’s petulance.
Best of luck, Leon! Should be easy. No pressure.