Try to find a more uncomfortable NBA situation than the one taking place in Manhattan these days. Try to find an organization with less cohesion, more despair or one with its priorities as displaced. There's no recent history implying that good fortunes are on the horizon, and there's not much of anything planned for the future at all.
After a half-season of tragic hopelessness has wiped out whatever good sentiments last year's 54-win group brought about, there's a perfectly valid discussion worth having that directly impacts every facet of the franchise's direction.
Who on Earth wants to play for the New York Knicks?
To outsiders looking in at the dysfunctional mess that is Madison Square Garden, what's the appeal? Would any logical NBA player take it upon himself to sign on with a franchise that continues its endless cycle of impeding its own path to success?
James Dolan is banking on it. That's the plan for the future, just as it was the plan for the past—to clear the books and align a pair of stars to show off inside the World's Most Famous Arena.
The pitch worked on Carmelo Anthony once. But in the wake of New York's nightmare season, would anyone in his right mind—including Anthony—voluntarily sign away his future to Dolan and the billionaire's Cablevision cohorts?
When potential free agents consider signing with the Knicks, they'll need to be aware that they're not simply joining a new basketball team. No, that wouldn't be nearly "Knicks" enough. They must understand they're signing on with an organization run with motives and intentions completely divorced from general basketball logic—or any logic, for that matter.
All it takes is a simple look at the team's list of recent front-office shot-callers to get an idea of the mess. Following Isiah Thomas' disastrous reign as team president, Dolan made an uncharacteristically sound decision in letting a bona fide basketball mind in Donnie Walsh lead the team toward the dream summer of 2010.
Walsh shed tens of millions of bloated Isiah-issued salaries in order to miraculously put the team in a position to spend that summer. And after the payroll was cleared, and a new, star-studded lineup was in place, Dolan did away with his best basketball executive and once again took basketball matters into his own hands.
After two seasons of shrewd, low-key management from Walsh's replacement, Glen Grunwald, Dolan made another shift in power—this one back toward himself. Out was Grunwald, and in was a replacement less likely to challenge Dolan's power.
Hearing that part of Grunwald's undoing was not being enough of a yes man for the owner. Had competing opinions too often....— Brian Geltzeiler (@hoopscritic) September 26, 2013
In appointing former Garden President Steve Mills as general manager, the owner simply implanted a business mind with minimal basketball expertise as the head of basketball operations. A clever way of naming himself the de facto GM while hoisting somebody else's likeness as the one responsible.
When speaking with the New York Post in a rare interview last fall, Dolan told Mike Vaccaro that he believes 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 know somebody's in charge, all right. Somebody who doesn't have a clue.
Murkiness Seeps Onto the Hardwood
Prospective free agents must also understand that they're at a supreme disadvantage within the organization, should they be represented by anybody other than Creative Arts Agency—the agency that represents Anthony, J.R. Smith, Mike Woodson, assistant GM Allan Houston and various Knicks execs.
To brush the surface of how the all-encompassing representation so often complicates matters with the Knicks, simply look to J.R. Smith's non-NBA prospect being extended a fully guaranteed NBA contract. Or via Posting and Toasting's Seth Rosenthal, Woodson's convoluted future:
Popper also reported the "desperate" Knicks were "pushing to oust" Woodson, which reads most strangely. Teams don't usually have to "push" to fire a coach. They just do it because they are in charge. ... Another thing that could complicate matters is if, say, that coach submitted years ago to the mega-agency to which most of the organization is beholden and every last tentacle of that mega-agency has to give a thumbs-up to turning on one of their men before the team can comfortably fire a terrible coach.
Perhaps a potential free agent would care to be briefed on how he's at risk, when he inevitably falls out of favor with the flaky owner, to be painted a villain through various press leaks. Third-year swingman Iman Shumpert, a subject of two-year-long trade rumors and apparent Dolan nemesis, was on the receiving end of in-house jabs earlier this season.
In the midst of Dolan doing everything in his power to ship a rare young asset out of town, a report popped up in the New York Post, which included details from a team official regarding how displeased New York was with Shumpert regarding the timing of an offseason knee surgery:
A source said the surgery’s late date wasn’t good timing because it ruined the chance for Shumpert to participate in a portion of the offseason workout program with the assistant coaches and the early part of voluntary scrimmages at the Knicks’ training center. The workout program was considered vital because Shumpert elected to play in just one summer-league game in Las Vegas in July because of a conflict with a trip to China.
Shumpert wound up missing no pre- or regular-season time with knee issues.
A potential signee would also likely be familiar with Dolan's emotional tendencies, outlined no better than during the Jeremy Lin saga of 2012. According to the New York Daily News' well-connected beat writer Frank Isola, the owner felt "betrayed" and "deceived" by Lin, and therefore chose not to re-sign him.
Ball Don't Lie's Dan Devine shed some reality on the topic while the news was fresh two summers ago:
This wasn't an act of treason. This wasn't a violation of some sacred trust or blood oath. This was a player with the collectively bargained right to find out how much he was worth on the market doing so. This was another team with an interest in that player and the salary cap space available to sign him exercising its collectively bargained right to offer him a contract that increased its chances of doing so. This was how free agency works. Weeping and gnashing your teeth at that indicates that Dolan, general manager Glen Grunwald and company don't actually understand the rules of the game they're playing, which is about as apt a description of the way the New York Knicks organization has been run for the past dozen years as any I've yet read.
There's an overemotional and personal aspect to every decision made under the Garden roof. It's already cost the Knicks a young, promising point guard in Lin, and it may have already cost them another promising piece in Shumpert.
All this, and we still haven't even approached how bad the Knicks are at basketball.
2010 2015 "Plan"
As if the organization's philosophy wasn't skewed enough, the Knicks can't even show the competency to learn from their own mistakes. Even despite the team's 2010-11 outlook of "empty the books and immediately re-fill them with two of the best players available, no matter what the cost," ultimately failing miserably, it's apparent that the team is set to try its luck one more time.
After ridding itself of nearly all assets able to be developed on the cheap—i.e., draft picks and undrafted free agents—New York has no choice but to swing for the fences in courting one of the league's top names to pair with Anthony.
And that's if Anthony, himself, chooses to invest the remainder of his prime in Dolan's business.
This season, one in that Dolan reportedly expected the Larry O'Brien Trophy to be carried into the Garden locker room, has been the prototypical exemplar of the organization's failures, and why it's unlikely it'll ever be able to sustain a winning culture.
After winning 54 games thanks to a pleasing brand of three-point heavy small ball, Knicks brass decided to scrap the entire philosophy after a series loss to the mammoth Indiana Pacers. They sent three players and three draft picks to the Toronto Raptors for Andrea Bargnani, effectively negating everything that made the Knicks' third-best 2012-13 offense tick.
Along with other moves, the offseason has proved to be a disaster, for few reasons other than the Knicks simply cannot stay out of their own way.
|2014 second-round draft pick from Sacramento (protected for picks No. 31-55)||2014 first-round draft pick to Denver|
|2014 second-round draft pick to Houston|
|2015 second-round draft pick to Houston|
|2016 first-round draft pick to Denver (right to swap)|
|2016 first-round draft pick to Toronto|
|2016 second-round draft pick to Sacramento (protected for picks no. 31-37)|
|2017 second-round draft pick to Toronto|
A season removed from finishing second in the Eastern Conference and going 3-1 against the top-seed Miami Heat, the Knicks are a miserable 21-35, five games out of a playoff spot and seemingly only getting worse.
The team's first-round pick, which could fall in the early stages of the lottery, belongs to either Denver or Orlando. New York remains without any cap space until next summer, thanks to Amar'e Stoudemire's $23 million salary (and Tyson Chandler's $15 million, and Bargnani's $11.5 million) remaining on the books next season.
Who will the Knicks end up with in 2015?
Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. are the lone tradeable assets to move, with every tradeable draft pick until 2018 already shipped out for Anthony, Bargnani, Raymond Felton and Marcus Camby.
And this is the organization that's supposed to sway a top-level free agent into thinking it can house a champion?
Of course, none of this can go down until ownership throws $129 million at Anthony, promising to pay him top dollar until he's 34 and in decline. The Knicks will sell him on the mecca, the market and the superteam on which he can handpick his star teammate the following summer.
And then, with two draft picks between now and 2017, and a capped-out roster for the duration of 'Melo's contract, the Knicks will rise to dominance once again, as Anthony and his personally selected sidekick parade down the Canyon of Heroes, to live in New York sports folklore forever.
Like the rest of Dolan's reign, that sales pitch isn't something that any logical person could buy into.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.