Leadership in Suits: Grading the Knicks front office so far

There’s a right way to rebuild, and there’s a wrong way. In this four-part series, Mike DeStefano will look at four main components - leadership in uniform; leadership in suits; development of individual talent; and development of culture - that can help us evaluate how the Knicks are progressing.

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Mike DeStefano continues his four-part series on the main components that can help us evaluate how the Knicks are progressing. Read Part I here. Let’s dive into Part II.

Part II – Leadership in Suits

The importance of this component goes without saying. Every organization that puts a good product on the floor has strong leaders in the front office and on the sideline. It’s why the Celtics most recent rebuild lasted exactly thirty seconds, and why the Sixers went from, “The NBA needs to do something about this” to “Sh**, the Atlantic Division is suddenly STACKED” in just a few short years.

As with any organization, it starts at the very top. Say what you want about James Dolan, but history shows that he’s willing to spend, and recent history suggests that he’s willing to stay the hell out of the way.

Beneath him, we’ve got the two-headed monster of Steve Mills and Scott Perry; beneath them, Fiz; beneath him, a top notch staff of assistants that includes four former NBA players and two guys with NBA head coaching experience.

This group from top-to-bottom is well-respected around the league and has done a nice job turning this team around in the most important ways:

  1. The front office has stuck to its plan – they’ve held onto draft assets; they’ve taken calculated low risk chances on young talent (yielding multiple payoffs); and they are prepared to be opportunistic if the right deal presents itself.
  2. Any team Pat Riley has ever been associated with plays hard. Fizdale’s impact on the Knicks in this regard has been nothing short of transformative. They come with heart and toughness every night. It’s been decades since we could say that.
  3. Guys have bought in. This is more than just the heart and work ethic referenced above. Example: a couple of weeks ago, Emmanuel Mudiay took Trey Burke’s starting spot. Burke’s role in the rotation was precarious at best. Both of these guys are fighting to secure their futures in the League. Yet when Mudiay dunked on Garrett Temple’s face in Memphis, no one was happier than Trey Burke. Big deal – it’s because he’s back in the rotation and got the assist. Keep watching the clip. The guys who lost their minutes to the Mudi-Trey tandem? They’re going nuts on the bench. It takes a special type of leader to get competitors – guys fighting for minutes, reps, reputations, money – to support each other this much, so credit Fiz & Staff for doing a masterful job in this regard.

So this component gets an A, right? Not quite.

First, I’m a hard grader. Deal with it.

Second, from the outside looking in, fans are seeing some mixed messages. Contradictions. These are the sorts of things that, if they persist and build (cue the melodrama), could erode a franchise from the top down:

“I want to get up and down the court.”  The Knicks are 19th in pace.  Last year they were 15th, and the year before, playing in the archaic Triangle Offense, they were 17th.

“I want to share the basketball.”  And, I want to have an unselfish ballclub just like [the Knicks’ championship teams].”  These Knicks are dead last in assists per game, according to ESPN Stats and Info. And while assists, or lack thereof, aren’t necessarily indicative of selfishness, the dismal numbers combined with the amount of bad/forced shots taken on a regular basis would suggest they are not playing unselfishly.

“There’s not going to be anybody that dominates the ball for us … One-second hold.  If you can’t get it done in one second, get off it.”  Trey Burke is 16th in the entire NBA in average seconds per touch (according to NBA.com) at over 5 seconds per. Allonzo Trier is third among rookies who’ve played at least 15 games at almost 4.5.

“But none of that will start without us being a great defensive team.”  25th in Defensive Rating (worse than last year) and 24th in opponents’ PPG. To be fair, Fizdale also talked about being more aggressive defensively – more deflections, more steals. They are up in both steals and opponents’ turnovers per game.      

“Everything is about, ‘You keep what you kill.’”  In other words, minutes will be earned.  For the most part, leadership has enforced this.  Whoever’s playing the best will play.  But what did Dotson do to lose his spot to Hezonja, who’s been playing bad at best?  Is it something that’s happening at practice?  Were the Knicks low-key disciplining Dot for something?  Is it political?

“We’re not putting all our stock in wins and losses right now…”  This year is all about player development, right? RIGHT?

*Stats below are based on the 5-game stretch immediately prior to Detroit last night*

ELDER KNICKS MPG FUTURE KNICKS MPG
Tim Hardaway Jr. 37 Mitchell Robinson 13
Enes Kanter 32 Kevin Knox 16
Trey Burke 27 Allonzo Trier 20
Frank Ntilikina 21

We know numbers like these can be misleading. There are so many variables at play here. For example, Mitchell Robinson fouled out of a game in 9 minutes. He, alone, is the reason he didn’t more run that night.

But:

  • Those ELDER KNICK MPG are significantly above their season averages. Two of them will not be on the team next year.
  • Those FUTURE KNICK MPG are below season averages. All of them, assuming Trier signs a multiyear deal when he gets converted, will have guaranteed contracts next year.
  • In the New Orleans and Memphis games, Kevin Knox played a TOTAL of 16 minutes. Frank Ntilikina played a TOTAL of 27. That’s 43 minutes combined. Over two games.
  • Enes Kanter played 41 minutes by himself against Memphis.
  • Damyean Dotson isn’t present in the chart above. As alluded to earlier, he hasn’t been in the lineup. Four consecutive DNPs prior to Detroit. He is also under contract next year.

Granted, I’m writing from an outsider’s perspective. I see what fans see. I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. I hear the press conferences and read interviews; I pay close attention to the front office’s plans and the staff’s basketball philosophies; and then I look for it all to manifest in their actions.

Some things take time – we understand that – but some things should be evident immediately. The front office made a concerted effort to get younger – youngest in the league – and more athletic, so why are we still playing at such a slow pace? Every basketball player has the ability to pass the ball and move without it, to play unselfishly and keep the offense from stagnating, so why aren’t they doing it? These aren’t talent issues, so what’s the explanation? Why have the organization’s leaders said one thing only for the world to see another?

Whatever the reasons may be, the Knicks are in a good place regardless. For all my criticism, Mills, Perry, and Fiz have done a fine job thus far. Fans who think they’re f***ing everything up are blinded by their decades of Knick misery. Fans who think they’re infallible and have operated perfectly are blinded by premature excitement that we’re finally back on a path to contention. They’re not failing, but they still have work to do if they want that A.

Part 1: Leadership in Uniform – C

Leadership in Suits – B+

The big things are in place. Patience, eyes for talent, and the blossoming of a culture predicated on athleticism and a never-say-die attitude. Some might say I’m nit-picking with the criticism above, but if fans can see them, Kevin Durant can see them.  Other free agents can see them.

Hopefully, the staff is operating with enough transparency at practice, in film study, and on the sidelines that these contradictions don’t exist to the players. Dotson told Rebecca Haarlow yesterday that Fizdale had been very communicative about the DNPs, which is important. And all the players, even the ones struggling for PT, seem engaged and enthusiastic when they’re on the bench, so my guess is outsiders like me make a bigger deal out of this stuff than they do.