Too Good for Tanking: Will the New York Knicks Ever Embrace a Full Rebuild?

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Too Good for Tanking: Will the New York Knicks Ever Embrace a Full Rebuild?
Andy Kropa/Associated Press

The New York Knicks are mastering accidental tanking. And they're doing it without a first-round draft pick.

The Knicks are hardly in a position in which any team wants to reside. They sit at 25-40 without a 2014 first-rounder and with more money on the payroll for 2014-15 than any other team in the NBA, per ShamSports.

That's not exactly the way to go about your business. But in a world in which the Knicks are "too good to tank," these are the results you're going to see.

Tanking is a strategy that's overcome the NBA with each recent season.

The Philadelphia 76ers have traded almost every contributor they had for draft picks and are shamelessly pumping out loss after loss as they chase the No. 1 selection in the upcoming draft. Other organizations, though not as extremely, have followed a similar strategy.

In a league where draft picks and cheap labor matter more and more under the newest collective bargaining agreement, tanking has become more essential than ever. That is, for pretty much everyone except for the Knicks.

There's a fallacy that says the Knicks can't tank. That they've never done it before. 

But the Knicks have tanked in recent years. They've just done it in the most veiled, Knick-y way possible. 

When the Knicks prioritize the future over the present, it's usually not to lose intentionally. It's not to garner as many high draft picks as possible. Instead, it's to clear cap room.

That's what the "Hope Vendors" do. They clear as much salary as possible, because when you have cap room, anyone can come. Anyone can be the next great Knick. At least, that's how an organization can sell it.

Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

Back when Donnie Walsh was running the Knicks, the strategy was to do just that. Shed as much salary as possible to make a run at LeBron James in the summer of 2010.

So that's what Walsh did. Instead of tanking conventionally, the Knicks tanked in the only way they knew how.

They traded for Al Harrington, who had a $10 million expiring deal in 2010. They let Cuttino Mobley's $9.5 million come off the books. They gave away a 2012 first-round pick along with Jordan Hill and Jared Jeffries so that they could acquire Tracy McGrady's $23 million expiring deal

Who knew if the Knicks would actually land the best player in the world? Actually, pretty much everyone except for the Knicks knew. 

Why would the biggest free agent of the century want to go play for an organization run by one of the worst owners in the NBA? Why would a megastar choose to end up in the exact situation the Knicks find themselves in right now? A position that—believe it or not—was always an inevitability for this franchise.

But the Knicks sold that idea. They're the ultimate salesmen.

Call them what you want. Hope vendors. Smoke blowers. Public relations savants.

It can make you think, maybe this isn't completely about winning. Maybe it's just about maintaining some fraudulent identity that only James Dolan would want to convey. 

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Let's play devil's advocate for a second. For as bad of a reputation as Dolan has, maybe he's not all awful. Wait, don't start flailing your arms in disagreement just yet.

Forbes does value the Knicks at $1.4 billion, making them the most valuable franchise in the NBA, and that's after Dolan bought the team for just $300 million in 1997. 

Financially, the Knicks have grown under their owner. Granted, so has the rest of the league. Franchises are becoming more and more valuable under the new CBA, which feeds the owners about 49 percent of basketball-related income. 

Heck, even the Sacramento Kings just sold for $534 million. The Knicks, meanwhile, are working on pretty easily the highest operating income in the NBA, 45 percent more than that of the Lakers, who rank second in the league.

So if money is the goal and stars (or the hope of stars) bring dollars, then maybe Dolan's model isn't as bad as we pin it. Or maybe it is.

Back to reality. Because in real life, a basketball team has to set winning as the No. 1 priority in order to be a respected organization. That shouldn't be such an unreasonable goal.

So if we're saying Dolan isn't a terrible owner because he makes money, we're missing the point of an industry based on out-of-business competition.

Tanking is a real strategy, and that's not to say a team has to lose in order to build a foundation. At this point, the term "tanking" can be more representative of a mentality than an action, anyway.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Look at the "tanking" Phoenix Suns, who were supposed to be one of the worst teams in the NBA coming into this year. Supposedly, they were throwing the season. But it turns out they were more talented than we all realized.

Phoenix didn't destroy any of its infrastructure in the middle of the year to improve its own pick. It didn't try to sell high on Gerald Green or Goran Dragic to get even more first-rounders. Instead, the Suns are going hard for the No. 8 seed in the West.

They're not tanking, but they're of the tanking mentality. 

The Suns are young. They have too many draft picks for some cartoon characters to count on one hand. And their future is as bright as anyone else's in the NBA.

That's the sort of outlook a team like the Knicks would need to develop. But that probably won't happen.

A franchise that trades three draft picks for Andrea Bargnani isn't demonstrating a necessary understanding of today's NBA. Neither is one that guns for a No. 8 seed in a weak-as-ever Eastern Conference.

Even without a draft pick, the Knicks could have built for the future at the trade deadline.

They could've shipped out a declining Tyson Chandler for picks or young pieces. They could've attempted to flip some other assets for second-rounders. But they ended up with Shannon Brown and Earl Clark 10-day contracts in lieu of those moves.

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But that's the Knicks. The shortsighted Knicks. They're always in ituntil they're not.

There's a sort of arrogance that comes from "too good to tank." We might be starting to see that psychology out in Los Angeles with the Lakers, as well, but at least L.A. can back up that strategy.

The Knicks haven't won a championship in four decades. They have won one division title since 1994. New York City may be a destination, but the Knicks, in all fairness, are not too good to tank.

The anti-tanking mentality isn't because of one of the smartest fanbases in the league, a group to which the Knicks constantly condescend. It's an ideal that comes from the top and parasitically forces its way through the organization. And like with a parasite, it's eating away at all the Knicks' resources

Knicks fans are demanding, but they're far from stupid (unless you consider irrational levels of loyalty on the side of foolish). They don't insist upon instant excellence. They want their team to propel to greatness at some point in the future, and they understand the strategies needed to reach that goal.

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Did Knicks fans stop showing up at Madison Square Garden in the "tanking," pre-Decision years of 2008, 2009 and 2010? Did they stop watching games or harping on every Clyde Frazier rhyme? They didn't, and they never would.

That's why Knicks fans get so angry, so pointedly frustrated. Blind faith in someone who constantly disappoints you isn't sane. So the fans tend to go insane at every moment they're reminded, "Oh my freakin' gosh! I can't believe I'm stuck rooting for this team."

The latest hope the Knicks are advertising comes in the form of a man with 11 rings. At this point, who knows if Phil Jackson is coming, but it's probably safe to say Dolan wants the his followers to be sure the former Bulls and Lakers coach is on his way to the Garden.

Now, the focus is on the summer of 2015. That's when the next big star is supposed to be heading to the Mecca to wear orange and blue. Historical patterns are patterns for a reason; they have a tendency to repeat.

The "Hope Vendors" are never going away, and even if Jackson would be a tremendous get for the Knicks, you'd have to wonder if a 68-year-old team president would want to blow the whole thing up. In that sense, maybe Jackson's philosophies wouldn't contrast all that much with those of the Knicks.

As long as Dolan is there, we probably won't see conventional tanking. Actually, we won't see anything conventional at all. Because when it comes to the Knicks, tradition is about aberrant confidence in the unconventional, and that's just the way James Dolan likes it.

 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

*All statistics current as of March 12 and from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted. 

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