Who's Really to Blame for New York Knicks' 2-Decade Mess?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistNovember 12, 2019

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 4: Owner James L. Dolan of the New York Knicks smiles at the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on January 4, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Over the last 20 seasons (including this one), the New York Knicks have an abysmal .402 winning percentage. That, of course, ranks dead last in the NBA.

It probably shouldn't have been all that surprising that this campaign is off to a bad start. Beyond the inexplicable offseason and questionable coaching calls to be addressed later, bad basketball is just the Knicks' organizational DNA at this point.

In the same two-decade span, they're 22nd in points per 100 possessions, 30th in points allowed per 100 possessions and 30th in simple rating system (point differential combined with strength of schedule). That says roughly the same thing as the winning percentage, but it also underscores another point: Over a large enough sample, it's hard to point to anything this team has done well on a basketball court.

"We aren't happy where we are," team president Steve Mills said Monday, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. "This is not where we expected to be. ... [James Dolan] still believes in the plan that we put together."

The comments came in the wake of New York falling to 2-8 after a 108-87 home loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, another team that was forecasted to be at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

In a later report, Wojnarowski and Malika Andrews cited a "league source close to management and the coaching staff" who expected head coach David Fizdale to be the "fall guy."

And Fizdale may feel some of that pressure.

"I live in that sense of urgency," he said, per Wojnarowski. "I don't need anyone to speak to give me a sense of urgency. I'm not cruising through this thing acting like I've got a bunch of time to get a team together."

Then there's Dolan. Mills and Fizdale haven't been around for the entirety of this 20-year stretch.

Dolan has.

So while the organization devolves into the finger-gun scene from The Office, Dolan is probably the most obvious scapegoat.

☕netw3rk @netw3rk

If a team sucks for a couple of years, maybe that's on the coach. If it sucks for five or six years, that's on management. If it sucks for 20+ years that's on the person hiring the managers. https://t.co/ALfFKS4VAd

Beyond the hirings, Dolan has a history of reported meddling. Just to name a couple of examples: It was he who insisted, according to ESPN's Baxter Holmes, on Carmelo Anthony playing small forward when he should have been a 4. And according to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, he interfered with former Knicks president Phil Jackson's personnel decisions.

In 2017, Dolan insisted he would be more hands-off.

"It's all Phil [Jackson]. It's all Steve [Mills]," he said of who runs the Knicks, per ESPN's Ian Begley. "I'm working on my music; they're working on the basketball team."

If that's true, the shift didn't help. New York is still bad.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 28:  New York Knicks owner James Dolan reacts to Kevin Knox #20 of the Knicks falling at his feet as he watches an NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors from his front row seat on March 28, 2019 at Madison Square Garden Cent
Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

But that's limited to the results on the basketball court (pretty important in a basketball league, I know). Financially, the Knicks are still doing rather well.

"Forbes today announced its annual valuations of the National Basketball Association's 30 teams," Forbes reported in February. "The New York Knicks remain in the top spot for the fourth consecutive year. The team is now worth $4 billion, an 11% value increase from last year."

Pushing for Dolan's exit may be natural for fans and media who follow the team closely. But that level of economic success would be tough for anyone to walk away from. And finding that success while being bad at the whole basketball part of the equation might make it tough to muster any motivation to be better.

Still, seats are likely getting hot in New York's head coach and front-office carousels. 

In the last 20 years, the Knicks have had 12 head coaches. They've had seven top decision-makers in the front office. Most of the tenures went disastrously. 

The laundry list of coaches includes Jeff Van Gundy, Larry Brown, Mike D'Antoni, Mike Woodson, Derek Fisher and Jeff Hornacek, just to name a few. Woodson is the only one to have a 50-win season for New York in the last 20 years. Van Gundy and D'Antoni are the only two others with winning seasons for the Blue and Orange.

Stability does not appear to be the modus operandi.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 06: Head coach David Fizdale of the New York Knicks reacts while playing the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena on November 06, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. Detroit won the game 122-102. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowl
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Giving Mills and Fizdale more time to figure things out might be in order, if for no other reason than to avoid the cliche about doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. But there are certainly reasons to wonder about the performances of both.

For months (maybe even years), the summer of 2019 was pinpointed as the one in which the Knicks would turn things around. They'd have the cap space to sign Kevin Durant, who would surely be smitten with the mystique of New York and Madison Square Garden.

After they traded All-Star Kristaps Porzingis to create the necessary cap space, the headline signings wound up being...Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson and Marcus Morris. All power forwards.

"I didn't grow up with the Knicks being good," Durant told HOT 97 (h/t Chris Bumbaca of USA Today). "Well, I remember the Knicks being in the Finals, but the kids after me didn't see that. So the brand of the Knicks isn't as cool to them as, let's say, the Golden State Warriors or even the Lakers or the Nets now. The cool thing right now is not the Knicks."

"I thought about it, yeah," he added. "It's just a thought. I didn't really do any full analysis on the Knicks."

Years of losing may have taken the Knicks out of the superstar market. And that makes Mills' job harder, though it doesn't excuse a Bartolo Colon-level whiff.

Mitchell Robinson is good. It's probably too early to say with RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina. Beyond that, the roster Mills has assembled is a mess. That, of course, makes Fizdale's job harder than others around the league.

But he's not blameless, either.

Josh Lloyd @redrock_bball

There is not one person in the world, Fizdale included, who can explain or rationalise his minutes distributions

Fizdale's rotations, or lack thereof, are a microcosm of the Knicks' general issues. There's no consistency. Young players in need of developmental minutes can't settle into regular roles. One may have a week in which he has rotation minutes in one game, spot minutes in another and a "Did Not Play—Coach's Decision" in a third.

Perhaps experimenting with lineups is understandable for a team with so little talent. But at a certain point, a commitment to youth probably needs to take place.

If you squint hard enough, you can see the makings of an interesting team a few years down the line. Robinson is a rim-running and -protecting weapon, especially if he figures out how to stay out of foul trouble. Barrett has shown some playmaking chops on the wing. Knox is shooting the lights out this season. Ntilikina still has potential as a multi-positional defender.

WASHINGTON, DC -¬ OCTOBER 7: Mitchell Robinson #23 of New York Knicks high-fives RJ Barrett #9  of New York Knicks against the Washington Wizards during pre-season on October 7, 2019 at Capital One Arena in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ack
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

A coach with a proven track record as a talent developer would make sense with this roster. Trading the vets who signed deals that made little to no sense for more long-term prospects and assets would help, too.

This team needs to be grown organically. And the organization should approach the necessary rebuild the way small markets have had to for decades: by building a strong foundation through the draft and pouncing on good trades when they present themselves. The days of hoping a superstar free agent will save everything in one summer need to be over.

That kind of vision isn't something that can be established by a coach or a front office on their own. That starts at the very top. And while there's plenty of blame to go around for this 20-year mess, the bulk has to fall on Dolan.

He's the common thread.


All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference.