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  • Playing the Fool: Is It Time to Trust the Knicks’ Front Office?

Playing the Fool: Is It Time to Trust the Knicks’ Front Office?

After years of skepticism from Knicks fans toward the brass that resides over the team, is now the hour to put faith in this current iteration of executives?

When dealing with a certain segment of the Knicks fan base, asking them to give the organization the benefit of the doubt—ever—is akin to trying to convince your mom to let you attend a co-ed sleepover after prom.

It’s not an argument you’re going to have, let alone win.

For the eternal optimists among us, this can be a bit frustrating. It seems like every move the team makes will not only be questioned by this subset of fans but will be counted as further evidence of the cancerous strain that has run rampant in the organization for most of this century. The virus’ name is Jim. He plays guitar and the kazoo. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.

For many out there, Dolan’s mere existence colors every other move the Knicks make. It usually comes out looking like the time your three-year-old dumped all the bottles of paint on the floor and mixed them together.

Is it fair though? Let’s take a look at the top three reasons why, according to the parishioners of the Church of Stephen A. Smith, the Knicks are a lost cause as long as Dolan owns the team:


There’s no plan in place

“What are the Knicks doing?”, has been a more common ask in NBA circles over the last 15 years than, “Are the Spurs finally done,” “Is LeBron better than Jordan,” and “Did J.R. go out last night?”

Usually, the answer—correctly—is something in between “nothing good” and “I have no idea.” The past offseason started out no different.

It began with excising Phil Jackson in late June 2017. Even the most ardent Phil supporters would agree that given the way things were spiraling out of control, the move was probably warranted. The timing—just after the draft and days before free agency began—left a bit to be desired, as did the fact that Steve Mills ran the show as a solo act for a few weeks before Scott Perry came aboard.

In that short time, Mills made two moves that signified someone in over his head: signing Ron Baker, a fringe NBA player, to a decidedly non-fringe contract, and handing a $71 million offer sheet to Tim Hardaway Jr. as the team was about to embark on a rebuild.

Those moves remain on the ledger for this regime even though Scott Perry was still working in Sacramento at the time. After all, the man who made those transactions is still very much part of the equation. We’ll get to Mills in a bit. For now though, let’s keep the focus on Perry.

Since he’s been here, the criticism of some fans has remained that they’ve operated like a team that didn’t always know it was supposed to be rebuilding. This point would hold a lot more weight if he spent lavishly on veterans or traded away youth for more established players. Neither has happened.

Every young player on the roster Perry inherited with the exception of one is still here.

As for veteran acquisitions, Jarrett Jack and Michael Beasley were signed to minimum contracts, and for all their faults, have served the team admirably. Jack especially has been the type of veteran presence a rebuilding team should have, as shown by his desire to stick out the season with this group despite no longer being a part of the rotation. Michael Beasley is Michael Beasley, and we should all be thankful for that.

There have been other refrains. “They picked Frank Ntilikina to be a Triangle point guard and then stopped running the Triangle” has been a popular one, as has “bringing in Emmanuel Mudiay shows they no longer have faith in the guy they just drafted.” Both criticisms are a bit short-sighted given the direction of a league that has always been about asset accumulation.

Generally speaking, when you get a 21-year-old former no. 7 overall pick in return for very little, it’s a good move. This isn’t the NFL, where if you have two quarterbacks, you really have none. In a league where having big, switchable ball-handlers are at a premium now more than ever, the more you have, the better off you’ll be. Mudiay might never improve in the myriad ways he needs to, but it’s still a risk you take every time.

As for Ntilikina, the second-youngest player in the league whose merits have been debated ad nauseam, the 6’5″ Swiss army knife with an All-Defense ceiling doesn’t seem to be phased by the presence of either Mudiay or Trey Burke, another solid Perry pickup.

WHOOOOOSH.

Don’t forget about Troy Williams, who has shined in his short stint with the team. Like Burke, Williams is signed to a team-friendly deal for next season. If nothing else, it’s clear that this regime has done something many before it have failed to do: take low-risk, high-reward fliers on young players with untapped potential.

Every move evinces a measured, rational approach to team building, and it’s resulted in an air of competence wafting around the Garden. In other words, much of the “same old Knicks” chatter has largely been absent since Scott Perry’s arrival.

Oh…but there is that one young player who was shipped out of town. That gets us to our second critique:

They don’t know how to develop players

Trading Willy Hernangómez for two second-rounders one season removed from making the All-Rookie First Team was not a popular move with the fans.

Perry himself named the lovable Spaniard as a core piece moving forward when he first got here, and then proceeded to acquire a starting center in the Carmelo Anthony trade who effectively nailed Hernangómez to the bench. Many said that it showed how they couldn’t get their priorities straight, losing an asset because of that collective shortcoming.

One person who might disagree with that assessment is Willy’s new head coach, Steve Clifford, who stated last weekend that the former Knick “wasn’t playing [in New York] for a reason,” among other critiques, per Yahoo Sports. It’s generally regarded as poor practice to dole out playing time that isn’t earned when trying to establish a culture of winning. Talent aside, it’s pretty clear that Hernangómez wasn’t earning his keep.

That they got two second-round picks for a ground-bound, defensively challenged center with no range from a team that figures to be pretty awful in a few years was regarded as a win around the league, but it still called into question whether the Knicks could have done anything differently. The same questions have started to arise lately as New York’s younger players haven’t exactly been getting the lion’s share of playing time.

What hasn’t gotten as much attention is the fact that before this season, Perry brought in a fresh face to revamp the player development segment of the organization. If this regime is prioritizing one thing above all else, it’s improving the way they bring players along. Former First Brother-in-Law Craig Robinson—who nominally manages development for the Knicks’ G League affiliate—has a plan in place, reportedly, and has already said that the offseason will be a key part of that process.

That Robinson comes from spending one season as vice president of player and organizational development with the Milwaukee Bucks—a franchise that turned Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon from second-round picks into a borderline All-Star and Rookie of the Year, respectively, not to mention shepherded Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s rise to stardom—is encouraging (as is the fact that the former Commander-in-Chief is available as a sounding board. That doesn’t hurt either.)

Fans see what they see though, and to many, the Knicks aren’t playing the kids enough.

It may be a bit of an overreaction. Through Monday, New York has given 16 percent of the minutes this year to first- or second-year players, which isn’t insignificant. Also, there’s some evidence that the distribution may be warranted:

Is Hornacek perfect? God, no. The year-long playing time for fellow rookie Damyean Dotson—in a league desperate for players of his ilk—has been baffling, as has his reluctance to give Trey Burke more court time.

This leads us to the last thing thing often gets lost: the evaluation process doesn’t only include assessing the guys in jerseys. Jeff Hornacek is under the very same microscope.

There are those out there who think the front office is doing enough to guide Hornacek’s rotations during this time. Oh, but how short a memory we have in this city. Of all the controversies surrounding the franchise over the last several years, the most maddening one ended mere months ago when they finally let go of an executive who attempted to coach from on high.

Phil Jackson’s meddling turned off many in the organization, including several players and free agents. You may remember one in particular. If there’s one thing this front office needs to distance themselves from, it’s the notion that those under them aren’t free to do their job as they see fit.

Scott Perry and, yes, Steve Mills, have given Hornacek enough rope to either pull himself up or hang himself with. Both of them will take a look at him after the season and consider what’s best for the team moving forward.

That leads us to perhaps the touchiest issue out there…

Steve Mills still has a job, and James Dolan still exists

Is it totally fair to blame people for holding these two against the organization above all else? Steve Mills, a Dolan disciple, is not only employed, but technically the man in charge. As the one common denominator (aside from Dolan himself) who’s been here through all the misery, isn’t his mere presence evidence that nothing has changed?

Even the hopeless romantics Knicks fans would have to admit that Scott Perry is only here because David Griffin refused to come into a situation where he wasn’t the final voice on all basketball decisions. The Griffin negotiations were a slap in the face to the fan base. Now, the primary faces behind the madness are still there smiling at us as yet another 50-loss season circles the drain.

It’s a fair point, except that under a bit of scrutiny, it doesn’t hold up. Mills is Princeton-educated, and for all of his lack of foresight as the sole basketball decision maker, he’s not a stupid man. The plan was never for him to build this team by himself, and he was smart enough to know he needed to bring in someone to help him run the show.

Enter Scott Perry. As with every GM, he’s been a part of some regimes that have made questionable decisions, but if you stay in this line of work long enough, you’re going to get some warts. The fact that he’s been continuously employed in front offices for over a decade is a testament to his value, with the hire universally lauded around the league.

But Mills still has some say. The $71 million offer sheet given to Tim Hardaway Jr. during the few weeks he was running the show by himself was generally lambasted as an overpay for an unproven and maybe tertiary contributor. The optics at the time were terrible. They had dealt away Hardaway Jr. just two years prior, and there was an active search for a front office partner ongoing when the move was made.

This year, Timmy has mostly struggled, but has also had moments where he’s looked like foundational piece to the core (albeit one ideally suited for sixth man duties). Say this for Mills though: his spending was on youth at a position of need for a player still getting better. There are worse things than overpaying a productive 25-year-old about a third more than he’s worth.

It doesn’t change the fact that, on balance, Mills probably should have been out long ago. Which brings us back to Prince Joffrey himself.

For the segment of Knicks fans we opened the column talking about, Mills will always be nothing more than a Dolan spy, sent into the basketball ops department to bring back valuable information to his boss. The final question for them is a simple one: so what? The notion of a business owner wanting to know what goes on behind the scenes of his organization is nothing new. Even the most ardent Knicks conspiracy theorists would admit that Jimmy’s days of butting into basketball decisions appear to be over.

If that’s the case, there’s no apparent harm in Mills reporting up the ladder, if it’s even happening at all. It might still feel unpalatable to some, given the history that surrounds these parties, but maybe—just maybe—some learning has occurred on both of their parts.

Only time will tell. In the meantime, fans who will forever be convinced that no turnaround will ever occur under this regime will continue to have a leg to stand on.

The rest of us continue to look for positives and try our best to judge Scott Perry’s moves on their merits. So far at least, it’s been a refreshing change from the past.

One Comment

  • Angelo

    March 28, 2018 at 11:39 am

    I’m encouraged so far just off the Troy Williams addition. Phil was not good at evaluating talent or being a GM from the perspective he had an outdated approach to both building the roster & how the game is played. So as much as Hornacek is criticized & some of it is legit, Phil didn’t leave much behind to work with! Scott Perry at least understands that the Knicks need 4 things… 1. Playmaking Talent 2. Athleticism 3. Shooting 4. Athletic Bigs that can Run The Floor, Defend in Space & Play Above The Rim. There really is nobody untouchable on our roster including KP as much as we like him. The Knicks are at least 3 years away from being good, that’s a harsh reality that our fanbase must accept. This is a long rebuild. We aren’t going to be an attraction for Free Agents until we start drafting better & having better young assets to attract proven Studs. Ntilikina looks to be a nice Perimeter Defender who can develop his shooting & slashing, but it’s pretty obvious he’s not an NBA Lead Guard or PG, he’s much better suited off the ball. Noah & Kanter don’t need to be a part of the teams future. Let’s hope Perry drafts well, the best player available with both talent & athleticism. No more marginal athletes in the 1st round for the Knicks!! That means no Trae Young or Doncic if the lottery goes well.

    Reply

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