The Only Way Up is Down

It’s the most wonderful time of the year
With the vets not excelling
And everyone telling you the end is neeeeeeeeeeeear
It’s the most wonderful time of the year

It’s the crap-crappiest season of all
With some December beatings and the season’s fleeting
Randle please pass the baaaaaaaaaaaall
It’s the crap-crappiest season of all

There’s allowed coast to coasting
Knox defense for roasting
And several DNPs for Zo
There’ll be plenty of stories
And tales of the glories of
Ewing’s Knicks long, long ago

It’s the most wonderful time of the year
There’ll be some players going
And we’ll soon be knowing
If Fizdale’s still heeeeeeeeeeeere
It’s the most wonderful time
Yes the most wonderful time
Oh the most wonderful time
Of the yeeeeeeeeeeeear

Ah, December, the month that seemingly always breaks the Knicks. New York hasn’t survived December without either a losing season or some sort of skid for six years. It doesn’t appear this year will be any different.

Here we are, a quarter through the season, with the Knicks at 4-16. Since the 2000-01 season, 83 teams have posted a winning percentage of .300 or worse as of December 1st. Of the 83, only four qualified for the playoffs: 2003-04 Miami Heat (.294), 2010-11 Philadelphia 76ers (.278), 2004-05 New Jersey Nets (.200), and 2004-05 Chicago Bulls (.167). That’s a whopping 4.8 percent. The Knicks have played 20 games thus far, whereas those four teams played between 12 and 18 during their respective seasons. Their winning percentages after game 20 were .250, .300, .350, and .250, respectively. This means that no team in this current millennium has made the playoffs after having a .200 winning percentage or lower at the conclusion of the 20th game of their season.

You knew the Knicks weren’t going to make the playoffs this year, so why even discuss it? Well, this isn’t an annual obituary eulogizing another lost season. This is about a brand new season, one that is all the more competitive, if the front office allows it: the race to the bottom so a top-five pick is guaranteed. 

If you’re a dissenter of such an idea, your argument is likely “The draft lottery is a crapshoot,” “The draft is a crapshoot,” “Losing is immoral,” “Tanking isn’t proven to win a title,” and/or “There’s still time.” We’ve been so entrenched in the to-tank-or-not-to-tank debate that I don’t need to lay out all the pros and cons of gunning for the league’s worst record. Call it semantics but selling off pieces and giving the kids who were drafted more minutes does not constitute as “tanking” to me. There was a clear strategy to improve upon last year, and while that hasn’t happened record wise, changing course doesn’t necessarily mean a tank will ensue. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what it’s called, so long as it happens.

So why the emphasis on securing the worst record in the league? Talent can be found all over the board, but historically speaking, superstars are drafted in the top-five of the draft. Last season was unprecedented: The top-three in MVP voting (James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Paul George) were originally drafted third, 10th, and 15th, respectively. Nikola Jokic came in fourth place and was drafted 41st overall. Kawhi Leonard, the best player in the NBA last year when healthy, was originally drafted 15th.

Should you wish to declare the regular season MVP as the best player in the league 1, here’s the list of the winners’ draft slots going back to the 1976 NBA-ABA merger: 15, 3, 4, 7, 7, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 13, 9, 15, 15, 5, 1, 1, 1, 1, 13, 3, 13, 3, 1, 1, 5, 3, 3, 1, 1, 3, 1, 1, 1, 1, 5, 5, 12, 1, 5, 1, and 1. In case you couldn’t tell, the mode of this set is 1, while the mean is 4.37. And if we’re to take away Julius Erving from this set because he was drafted in the ABA and not re-drafted in the NBA like Moses Malone was, that number comes down to 3.85. Either way, both averages fall in the top five of the draft.

If you look at Odds Shark’s website, they are taking bets on the top 14 MVP candidates. Eight of the 14 went top five, seven of the eight went top three, and four of the seven went first overall. Since 1976, every NBA Finals matchup featured at least one star player who was once drafted in the top five. That shouldn’t come as a surprise but it shows how important drafting in the top five is. Of the 43 NBA champions, only two lacked a true star drafted in the top five: the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics and the 2019 Toronto Raptors. 20 of the last 24 conference champions featured at least two former top-five picks playing prominent roles on the team (21 if you count rotation player Tony Battie on the 2008-09 Orlando Magic). 

And look at the net ratings! Three of the top-five best net ratings belong to teams with more than one top-five pick. Eight of the top-15 net ratings feature teams with multiple former top-five picks on their roster2. Additionally, six of the top 10 offenses feature at least two former top-five picks. It’s early, yet four of the 10 best offenses and three of the six best net ratings last season featured these types of players3.

Now, the Knicks do have RJ Barrett, who was drafted third overall this past year. While Barrett looks quite promising, we simply don’t know what his career will be. If you have the opportunity to continue drafting top-five talent, you’re maximizing your odds, historically speaking. Of course, the only way to ensure a top–five pick is obtained is by finishing with the worst record.

Maximizing your odds at a top-five pick is crucial. We all know how up in arms fans were when Tim Hardaway Jr. hit a big shot against the Orlando Magic in 2015, all but guaranteeing the Minnesota Timberwolves the best odds at the first overall pick (which they received). Because in the event that the Knicks do fall in the lottery this year and wish to trade up to the top three, trading from five is a lot more valuable than from six, seven, or eight.

Let’s also evaluate the teams with similar records to New York. The Memphis Grizzlies must trade their pick to the Boston Celtics if it falls outside the top six, so you best believe they’ll be gunning for a bottom-two record to ensure they keep their pick. And with Ja Morant on the mend, the Grizzlies are likely to endure more losing without him than with him4. The Golden State Warriors should see some more wins once D’Angelo Russell and Stephen Curry return. The Atlanta Hawks will see an improvement once John Collins returns from his suspension.

Interestingly enough, the Knicks have had the 19th-hardest schedule of the season. The Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Grizzlies, and Warriors rank first, third, fifth, and sixth, respectively, in hardest schedules to start the season. The remainder of December is rough for New York: Of the team’s 13 games, seven are against teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today. Of the team’s 31 games before the trade deadline, 19 are against teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today.

The Knicks are at the mercy of the market. We talk about December 15th but there’s no guarantee any player is gone that day. New York can’t force a trade if there aren’t suitors and the front office can’t create bidding wars if multiple teams aren’t involved. And you can bet that the Knicks aren’t going to bench Marcus Morris or Taj Gibson to increase the odds of losing games and reducing the chances of possibly falling too far in the lottery.

Maybe a sell-off won’t affect New York’s record anyway. FiveThirtyEight predicts the Knicks will finish with the worst record in the NBA, with the second-worst team being the Charlotte Hornets, who would finish nine games ahead of New York! And yet, the 10 worst teams in the NBA are separated by 3.5 games. The six worst teams have lost anywhere from two to 10 consecutive games in a row. The margin for error is remarkably slim right now, and while that can change, it’s better to get close to locking up the worst record and win a few games at the end of the season like last year’s Knicks than to be bad-but-not-the-worst, tank your last 10 games of the season, and come up short like last year’s Cavaliers.

Sometimes fate needs to be forced. Knicks fans have been burned far too many times to not be risk-averse. That’s why it’s so important for the Knicks to control the little bit that is actually in their control, and that’s finishing with the league’s worst record. Two 33-win teams got lucky last year with the New Orleans Pelicans having a six percent chance at getting the first overall pick and the Grizzlies having a 6.3 percent chance at getting the second pick. Any team in the draft can move up, but would the Chicago Bulls and their fans call a 22-win season, where they finished with the “fourth-best” record in the league and wound up with the seventh pick, a success? There’s no way to have a definitive answer right now but the extremely early signs are no. And that is my chief concern for the Knicks. If you’re going to be bad for an entire season, ensure that that season ends with a top-five pick.

I went into this season hoping for steady progress. I wanted to see an improvement in the young players, and while the team’s exact number of wins and losses didn’t matter so long as there was tangible improvement, there was no excuse to go backwards. We’re a quarter through the season and the Knicks are two games behind where they were last year. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that there’s no room for half measures. The Knicks were too good to be bad and too unlucky to get a great pick in 2016-17 and 2017-18. Then 2018-19 rolls around and the team rips the band-aid off mid-season. The same must happen again this year. And while nothing significant will happen until December 15th at the earliest anyway, consider this a PSA on how holding on to players who simply won’t be in New York long term could hurt the Knicks in the present, the near future, and the long term future.

I’m confident that the Knicks can find a quality player in the draft no matter where the team is slotted. Yet I don’t want a quality player – I want a star. And if you can find that star who will go lower than five, you can draft him at six or trade down. We don’t need another Stephen Curry situation. We don’t want to be too far out of reach to trade up for an elite prospect. However, history is a strong indicator that multiple top-five picks is a recipe for success.

Securing multiple top-five picks isn’t a fad. The Knicks have never moved up in the draft lottery. It’s about time we realize the best we should hope for is to not move down as far as possible. Is it cynical? Perhaps, but the new lottery odds support it as well. Securing the worst record in the league reduces those odds while giving New York the best chance at a top-five pick and that’s integral to the long term success of this team.

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