While New York piles on former lottery picks hoping to find hidden gems, there’s a cautionary tale embedded in “youth with no guidance.”
It wasn’t the move heard around the world like the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Atlanta Hawks reaching a deal on Carmelo Anthony, but the New York Knicks Public Relations account tweeting out news of forward Troy Williams waiving was enough for a hardcore Knicks fan to gasp before returning to their chopped cheese sandwich. After a tumultuous Summer League in which he averaged 11.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.6 assists, Williams arguably neither hurt nor appreciated his stock as a player. His waiving, and then the subsequent signing of unrestricted free agent Noah Vonleh on a partially-guaranteed deal, likely doesn’t progress unless the coaching staff and front office know something fans don’t. Adding frontcourt depth wasn’t the issue fans expected the Knicks to address if management’s words are to be taken to heart.
General manager Scott Perry and head coach David Fizdale have both been vocal about adding at least one veteran to the roster in order to serve as a mentor to the younger guys, with the majority of their contribution being off the court. On July 16th, the Knicks had 16 players locked into roster spots, one more than allowed by the NBA, so dumping a partially-guaranteed contract may have been the easiest move fiscally. However, in order to add a veteran, specifically through free agency, they’d need to give up another player.
Gaining another roster opening could entail waiving Ron Baker and eating the salary, trading Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr. with either Trey Burke or Damyean Dotson attached, or stretching Joakim Noah’s contract. Whatever path they choose, adding a veteran to the roster for the sake of culture isn’t an unconventional idea.
When Your Team Lacks Vets
Some teams, however, have dismissed it. One specific instance of lacking notable, experienced veterans is this past season’s Minnesota Timberwolves. The only players on the roster over 30 were Aaron Brooks and Taj Gibson. It would be a lie to say Gibson wasn’t a serviceable role player on the team, but neither he nor Brooks are known for being tenacious “locker room guys.” With discontent from both Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler leaking after a first-round exit, it looks like the young up-and-coming Timberwolves are over before they even begin.
Maybe veterans could have hashed things out and explained why Wiggins took a backseat to All-Stars Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns. Perhaps an older brother or two could have instilled the importance of defense in the minds of the Wolves young players to quell Butler’s impatience. It’s merely speculation what old heads could have suppressed or diffused off the court, but one thing is for certain: Tom Thibodeau’s halfway-contender had something missing.
The Timberwolves are a cautionary tale of what can potentially occur without a strong locker room culture anchored by veterans. Their core of Wiggins, KAT, and Butler was relatively young, but the Knicks are closer to the beginning of their rebuild, where veterans are just as important. The Sacramento Kings have been exemplary at showing what NBA teams should avoid.
For the Kings, between 2007 and 2014, only DeMarcus Cousins has made an All-Star team—and he dipped from central California like a bat out of hell one year removed from being traded to New Orleans. Tyreke Evans won Rookie of the Year for the 2009–10 season and declined in almost every statistical category for the remainder of that first stint in Sacramento. Hassan Whiteside left Sacramento for Miami and hasn’t stopped averaging a double-double since. In between those losses, they traded Isaiah Thomas, who proceeded to put up one of the great point guard seasons in NBA history with the Celtics, and traded for Ben McLemore, a mediocre former Sactown lottery pick who they traded for after he signed elsewhere. During these long years of—well we can’t really call it purgatory, it was more like NBA Hell—the Kings acquired only three veterans with 10 years of experience: John Salmons, Travis Outlaw, and Reggie Evans. All managed to stay in the NBA for an extended period, but none managed to earn an NBA accolade.
Only a limited amount of the Kings lack of success can be attributed to poor veteran acquisitions. However, the individual shortcomings of each of their young prospects arguably could have been avoided, or at the very least lessened, with the help of an older player dedicated to a teacher role. Ironically, the Kings have discovered the fountain of youth, and that just may be their problem.
But how do we know a mentor-mentee relationship helps an NBA player early in their career? There’s no bona fide way to measure a mentor’s impact on a player, but two case studies are key to the argument that they do, especially with recent comparisons between Kevin Knox and Paul George.
Paul George, Danny Granger, and David West
The Paul George era in Indiana didn’t end as amicably as folks may have wanted, but the rise of a young rival for LeBron was an opportunity no one could pass up, making the short-lived Pacers-Heat rivalry the main attraction in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Through the first act of George’s career, Danny Granger played a big role. George has stated that Granger had been a fine mentor to him, but was Granger’s impact quantifiable? Granger’s only team in his NBA career was the Indiana Pacers, until the team’s front office sent him to Philly in February 2014. That puts him at just over three seasons as George’s mentor. George’s steady climb from 7.8 points per game to 21.7 points per game and All-Defense honors doesn’t explicitly reveal an impact made by Granger, but, if anything, it shows it didn’t hurt his on-court contributions.
George also praised former Pacer David West’s mentoring. Although West didn’t share the same position with George as Granger did, George has insisted that West’s leadership aided in his development. There are no suggestive numbers to go along with the benefits of “Uncle West” being around, but it’d be best to take George’s word for it.
Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng
There were less stressful times in Butler’s career—like the peak of Luol Deng as a Chicago Bull. In his two full seasons with Deng, Butler averaged 2.6 points and 1.3 rebounds and 8.6 points and 4.0 rebounds, respectively, while Deng earned two All-Star selections and an All-Defense honor. In their second season together, Butler became the legitimate backup for Deng. But even as a rookie, Butler followed in Deng’s footsteps, specifically with his shooting routine. It would be foolish to suggest that without Deng Jimmy Buckets would have been left in obscurity, but Deng’s influence obviously helped him along at the beginning of his career. After Deng’s trade near the second half of Butler’s third season on the Bulls, Butler took off, ready to be the man.
The culture of the Chicago Bulls at the time under Tom Thibodeau was inextricably different than that in Minnesota, with the Running Joak contributing a great deal on the court and being a central voice in the locker room. Considering that the Bulls took a step back in terms of playoff success during Butler’s first season (courtesy of a first-round exit) and hadn’t reached the Eastern Conference Finals since prior to Butler’s rookie year, winning isn’t necessarily a strong indicator of encouraging development. However, a good mentor made all the difference in his NBA’s beginnings.
It’s no coincidence that two-way players like Deng and Granger have paved the way for two of the best wings in the game. The quiet, everyday mentoring of rookies isn’t like the idolatry that players had watching Kobe Bryant or Dirk Nowitzki and subsequently mimicking their moves, but it appears to be an internalizing of productive behavior. They offer what mentors offer in other fields’ professional development.
The Quality of Veteran Leadership Matters
If Granger and Deng are reasonable examples, adding any old veteran isn’t going to cut it. If that were the case, Metta World Peace joining the Knicks would have quelled any problems short of Andrea Bargnani being a liability on literally every possession. Between Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, Tyson Chandler, and Kenyon Martin, the Knicks held 16 All-Star selections and two separate iconic championship teams during their 2012–13 run. The following year with Kidd’s and Wallace’s retirement, they lost 11 All-Star appearances and only recouped their championship pedigree by adding The Artest Formerly Known as Ron. If championship pedigree from successful vets worked before, why didn’t it help this time?
The executives might have had a rudimentary understanding of veterans being integral to a team’s success, but they executed poorly by adding “The Panda’s Friend.”
What made Kidd an important veteran on the team was his complete understanding of basketball and the maturity he showed by evolving his own specific game over time. Kidd won his first and only championship in 2011 as a 37-year-old starter for the Dallas Mavericks. However, the transformation started years before. At 34, his usage percentage dropped drastically to 17.9, the lowest in his career. Kidd knew he was getting older and that the team belonged to another future Hall-of-Famer, Dirk Nowitzki. As a result, he consciously accepted the role of second fiddle to Nowitzki and recreated himself as an NBA player. That season he increased his three-point field goal percentage to 40 percent for the first time in his career and focusing his effort in other areas. By the time he reached New York in late 2012 the tread on his tires was obvious, but his new game was down pat.
Undoubtedly his swan song, a Hall-of-Famer turned solid role player was enough to humble even the most unruly of titans on the Knicks’ roster. Originally hired to be a mentor to Jeremy Lin, whom the Knicks decided to excise, Kidd was thrust into the role of veteran voice and starting shooting guard, before being benched in favor of a red hot J.R. Smith and a once-budding Iman Shumpert. It was also the first time in his career when he averaged less than 30 minutes per game. A consummate professional and exceptional teammate, Kidd took his ever-changing role in stride. Kidd’s desire to be on a contending team was essential to him joining New York and he never lost sight of the goal, contributing wherever he could. A phenomenal example of old head leadership, he was imperative to the Knicks reaching the second round of the playoffs in over a decade, and beating the soon-to-be champions, the Miami Heat, 3-1 over the course of the season. And that’s the story of the last time ‘Melo had help.
Which Vets Are Available?
Today, there are slim pickings of players fitting distinctly within Kidd’s specific brand of quality veteran leadership. The Knicks are far off from contention and the superstars of yesteryear are all but retired. However, those caveats aren’t fundamental to their role, which would be mentoring Knox, Mitchell Robinson, and the other neophytes the Knicks have acquired. Free agency still has a number of journeymen who could take on the challenge for cheap. The Knicks showed interest in Anthony Tolliver, a combo forward nearing the end of his career, before he signed with the Timberwolves in early July. It’s not feasible to calculate Tolliver’s value as a veteran versus another player’s, but better fits for quality veteran leadership exist.
Among them is one of the last superstars of a bygone era, Vince Carter. Vinsanity already embraced the role as mentor when he joined the Sacramento Kings. If anyone fits the bill as the Kidd-type of veteran leader, it’s Vince Carter. A high-flying former superstar with more NBA accolades than a person has fingers, if anyone can mentor Kevin Knox, it’s him. Knox’s natural penchant for shooting will make him a priority for defenses from the minute he steps foot on the court. Carter was taking 20 attempts by his second season. As the NBA moves toward position-less basketball, role supersedes position, and the tutelage of Old Man Carter seems perfect for a gifted scorer who likes to hang on the rim. Additionally, Carter working with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Knox on the ins and outs of a two-man wing tandem could likely amount to great dividends, even though his own such stint with Tracy McGrady was short-lived.
Tony Allen, a defensive specialist may be just the man for the job if Fizdale wants to instill tough defense on his young squad. He may not offer much on the offensive end, but Allen’s ties with Fizdale (he played on the Grizzlies team that Fizdale coached), are another reason he would choose an offer from New York. Besides, if anyone is going to grow into an ornery old man that begrudgingly teaches the youngbloods how to play the game the right way, it’s Tony Allen.
Jason Terry, the third all-time leader in three-pointers made, has been on a steady decline since his championship in Dallas. But he’s a free agent along with noted Paul George mentor David West. The Knicks may not seem very attractive to players who have no connection to New York or the Knicks, but if the front office can sell living in the Big Apple (and pretty much being an adjunct professor to the 20-somethings on the roster) they’ll at least have one more check mark on whatever culture-building checklist Perry’s been constructing.
The Knicks are out of roster spots and hard up on cap space as usual, but a savvy move here or there could free up some money and a 15th spot for an older veteran with the intrinsic value of experience. Vets, or “old heads,” have been important to the Knicks in their last bouts of success, and their impact on youth, in the short-term or long-term, can’t be overlooked. Landing a mentor for these newly-christened NBA players may not seem urgent, but anything that gives New York a leg up on the future should be considered a top priority.