Are the New York Knicks the NBA's Most Dysfunctional Franchise?

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Are the New York Knicks the NBA's Most Dysfunctional Franchise?
USA Today

Nine.

That's how many games the New York Knicks have now lost...consecutively. Only the Milwaukee Bucks, who quashed an 11-game skid this past weekend, have been victims of a more disspiriting slide so far through the 2013-14 NBA season.

Potential causes of New York's calamitous clodhop through the early schedule can be found in every nook and cranny of the newly renovated Madison Square Garden. There's Carmelo Anthony's not-so-sharp shooting from three (21.6 percent over his last nine games), J.R. Smith's inconsistency off the bench, Amar'e Stoudemire's flailing facsimile of his old self (4.9 points and 2.8 rebounds in 14.5 minutes per game) and injuries to Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton.

Those tangible, on-court complications have begat a number of those nine losses, which, in turn, have borne accelerants of a wider, more amorphous vicious cycle. All the losing has turned up the temperature of head coach Mike Woodson's seat, made Iman Shumpert the subject of trade rumors and sideline squabbles, and called into question the wisdom of ousting the architect of last year's 54-win squad (Glen Grunwald) in favor of a once-and-former MSG executive (Steve Mills) with only passing experience on the basketball side of things.

None of this reflects well on team owner James Dolan, who recently told the New York Post's Mike Vaccaro, in Dolan's first published interview in seven years:

...in the end it’s all my responsibility. And when they see a player not playing well they wonder, “Why did we draft him?” or “Why did we trade for him?” and “What was the thinking?” and “Well that was pretty dumb.” And eventually it gets to the point of, well, this isn’t going to change unless somebody changes it and that’s when they look to the owner. Sometimes that isn’t emotionally satisfying for the fans and you get what you get.

Yet, despite the team's lack of success and the rampant dissatisfaction among Knicks fans that such failure has inspired, Dolan still thinks he's a good owner:

I think I watch out for my fans. I try to give them a good product. I care for the teams. I’m emotionally involved and intellectually involved. I think an owner needs to be present. When an owner is not present that’s when things tend to go awry. The players, the coaches, the fans know there’s somebody in charge. They may not like what I’m doing but it’s much better than having nobody there. Nobody there just leaves you in despair.

 

The Times, They Are A-Changin'

USA TODAY Sports

In years past, Dolan's confidence in his own stewardship might've been easier to justify, if only by comparison.

The Sacramento Kings were mired in mediocrity amidst the Maloof brothers' financial collapse. George Shinn squeezed the Hornets out of Charlotte before leaving them high and dry in New Orleans. The Bobcats were a fine mess in Michael Jordan, with the NBA's greatest player overseeing arguably the worst team in league history.

The Los Angeles Clippers were still the laughingstock of the league, "thanks" in no small part to Donald Sterling's miserly ways. The Phoenix Suns were competitive for a time, but seemed to be shrinking under the tight-fisted tyranny of Robert Sarver.

Even the Nets, with new owner Mikhail Prokhorov trying desperately to make a splash in anticipation of the team's move to Brooklyn, couldn't quite compete enough to give the Knicks any reason to worry that their local market share would be siphoned off.

But times have changed around The Association, perhaps enough so to single out Dolan's Knicks as the most dysfunctional bunch around.

The Nets, like the Knicks, are struggling under the weight of injuries and expectations. Their 5-12 record isn't anything to write home about—even less so in light of their $100 million payroll—but at least it's better than New York's steaming pile in the standings.

The Kings appear to be getting their house in order, with new owner Vivek Ranadive ushering a fresh regime powered by innovative thinking and a renewed commitment to bringing quality basketball back to Sacramento. The Hornets have given way to the New Orleans Pelicans, marking the symbolic start of a new era under Crescent City magnate Tom Benson, bolstered by the breakout season of Anthony Davis.

The Hornets moniker is soon to resurface in Charlotte, where the 'Cats are currently forging a defense-first identity under head coach Steve Clifford. The same goes for the Suns, whose first-year head coach-general manager tandem of Jeff Hornacek and Ryan McDonough has coerced some surprisingly competitive play out of what looked to be a "tank-tastic" roster.

Perhaps most damning of all, the Clippers—yes, the Clippers—looked like a contender in the Western Conference before Chris Paul and J.J. Redick succumbed to injuries, and might again once those two are reunited in Doc Rivers' starting backcourt.

All because Donald T. Sterling, notorious cheapskate, decided to loosen his purse strings to pay for the NBA's priciest coach, in addition to the more than $200 million he's invested in CP3 and Blake Griffin over the next five years.

Not to mention the salaries he'll be shelling out to Redick, Jared Dudley, DeAndre Jordan and Jamal Crawford.


The Doldrums of Dolan

Ray Amati/Getty Images

Spending has never been a problem for Dolan—not on the lower end, anyway. The progeny of a billionaire media magnate, Dolan has never been shy to open his checkbook, be it at the behest of his bumbling basketball minds or as a snap response to shiny objects glittering in his eye. According to ShamSports, the Knicks have paid luxury taxes every year but two since said taxes came into existence in 2002-03, with a total bill of more than $205 million that's far and away the highest of any in the NBA to date. 

And what, pray tell, has New York reaped from those investments? What kind of return has Dolan gotten from all the checks cashed with his signature on them?

Try one playoff series victory in four postseason appearances since the luxury tax came into being.

To be fair, that doesn't include the Knicks' solid performance during Dolan's first three years at the helm: a trip to the NBA Finals in 1999, an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2000 and a 48-win campaign in 2000-01.

But, much like a college coach engineering an instant turnaround, Dolan can't entirely take credit for the Knicks' successes during those years. After all, it was his father, Cablevision owner Charles Dolan, under whom the foundation of the Knicks' 14-year playoff streak was forged.

As it happens, that run ended with the 2001-02 season, which came on the heels of Dolan the Younger giving his front office the green light to sign Allan Houston to what became a six-year, $100 million albatross-of-a-contract. Houston's deal touched off a nine-year drought during which the Knicks made the playoffs just once while cycling through seven head coaches, who combined to lead the team to a record of 279-459 (.378 winning percentage).

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That's to say nothing of the disgrace that became of the Knicks behind not-quite-closed doors. The Isiah Thomas era, which lasted from 2003 to 2008, would've been embarrassing enough on the team's performance alone. But a sexual harassment lawsuit involving Thomas and former Knicks executive Anucha Browne-Sanders, during which Dolan was named as a defendant, stained the organization's sinking reputation well beyond the ink of New York's tabloid back pages.

Donnie Walsh, the sage who's been party to most of the Indiana Pacers' success over the last quarter-century or so, did his best to clean up the mess that Thomas left behind. Walsh brought in Mike D'Antoni to be the head coach, budgeted the Knicks' disastrous cap sheet and engineered the marquee signings of Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler, as well as the blockbuster trade that brought Carmelo Anthony back to the city of his birth.

Glen Grunwald did an admirable job as Walsh's successor. He dug up a number of unheralded players who became fan favorites at MSG (i.e. Jeremy Lin, Chris Copeland, J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton, etc.).

Dolan, though, apparently wasn't satisfied with the progress the team had made on Grunwald's watch or with the way the now-former Knicks GM went about his business. As Dolan told the New York Post:

...Glen is more of a “classic” GM, and he just wasn’t the guy to lead this initiative for the team, and it had to be someone in that position who could do it because I wasn’t going to do it. It needed someone behind it, someone who understood it, and that just wasn’t Glen’s forte. I think he was a good general manager, he’s got a great eye for talent, he knows basketball well, but the job description changed.

Indeed, the job description has changed, as it always seems to do under Dolan. Grunwald may be a sharp basketball mind, but he supposedly lacked the savvy and the "business skills" to do Dolan's bidding. He wasn't a smooth operator like Steve Mills, whose connections to the NBA's peripheral power brokers—particularly those at world-renowned agency CAA, including William "World Wide Wes" Wesley—Dolan appears to hold in high regard.

So high, in fact, that he allowed the Knicks to reserve a roster spot for J.R. Smith's brother, Chris, who's currently toiling in the D-League for the Erie BayHawks.

Albeit while earning NBA-caliber checks from the big club in the Big Apple.


Owning Up

David Dow/Getty Images

That silly saga is but a symptom of the drama and dysfunction that constitute the core of Dolan's Knicks.

How is this once-proud organization supposed to build a winner when the guy in charge has spawned a culture of sniping, back-stabbing and paranoia, with his hire of someone to keep watch over his head coach (per Frank Isola of the New York Daily News) as just the latest (and saddest) example of that?

How are the Knicks ever going to live up to their city's lofty expectations when their owner seems more concerned with bankrolling his own "rock-'n'-roll fantasy camp" career as a musician than he does with either overseeing the franchise's day-to-day operations or hiring (and keeping) competent people to do it for him?

Even the most notorious among Dolan's cohort of onerous owners—Sterling, Sarver and Jordan, to name a few—have proved smart enough to do the latter. Knicks fans can only hope their resident tycoon follows suit soon enough, lest they be left to witness another iteration of "Melo-drama" as the team descends into another quagmire of tragic mediocrity.

A destination towards which the Knicks are already well on their way, nine losses and counting.

 

Is James Dolan the worst owner in sports? Let me know what you think on Twitter!

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