If you’re like me, this week’s been bleak for you as a Knicks fan. While last night’s win against the Warriors was a comforting pick-me-up like an iced Dunkin coffee on a sweltering day 1, the Knicks’ organizational dysfunction is still very much a topic of conversation.
Alan Hahn had a well-thought out thread yesterday, illustrating the Knicks’ lack of a plan and the need to throw out the old guard and start anew. What Hahn said wasn’t revolutionary but it got me thinking about what successful teams do look like. Enter: the New York Yankees, less than two days removed from signing one of the best pitchers in baseball, Gerrit Cole.
It would seem inconceivable to compare the Yankees, a model for perennial winning, with the Knicks, an example of consistent losing. We learn more from our failures than we do from our successes, but if the Knicks continue to not learn from what’s gone wrong, the least they can do is look at an organization that’s had plenty go right. What can we learn from the Yankees that can be applied to the Knicks?
The Yankees have an elite front office, fantastic coaching, and excellent talent. The Knicks, uh… don’t? The MLB and the NBA are structured differently. One sport has unlimited spending from a theoretical standpoint while the other has a soft salary cap. Baseball teams have more team control over players, who earn next to nothing in the minors and then receive a low salary until arbitration a few years later. Rookie scale contracts for first round picks in basketball are guaranteed for two years and then have two options before the player is free to hit restricted free agency. Baseball has a 40-man roster and basketball has a 15-man roster 2. And perhaps most importantly, most player development in baseball is done in the minors, away from the public eye. There’s far less patience in the NBA. It is, quite frankly, apples to oranges.
The Yankees have not finished a season under .500 since 1992. Their worst stretch of seasons since then were from 2013 through 2016, which resulted in a combined winning percentage of .525 (340-308). The nine Yankees who played the most games in 2013 were Robinson Cano, Ichiro Suzuki, Brett Gardner, Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, Chris Stewart, Eduardo Nunez, Jayson Nix, and Travis Hafner. If you don’t follow baseball, imagine the 2013-14 Knicks but even older, with less talent, and yet still better than they were because of superior coaching.
Then in the 2013 and 2014 free agencies, the Yankees panicked and committed big money to ultimately undeserving players like Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Chase Headley. Relatively speaking, the team failed. It’s not a coincidence that the team under-achieved while having only one starting-caliber player under the age of 30 during those two years. The Yankees set the Major League record for most injured players in a single season last year despite sporting a .636 winning percentage. Of the nine players who appeared in the most games, seven were younger than 30. Not only were they good, they made a combined $34,894,500. For comparison’s sake, John Wall won’t appear in a game this season and is making $38,199,000.
It’s one thing to have young talent, it’s another thing to have young talent that is good. The Yankees’ motto last season was “Next Man Up” because players filled in without skipping a beat. 2013 and the three following seasons were so bad for the Yankees because the team didn’t have young talent, good or bad. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman overhauled the analytics department and it became among the best in baseball. Only one of the Yankees’ best players was drafted by the team and is still making far less than he’s worth, and that’s Aaron Judge. Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino were signed as international prospects and Gleyber Torres was acquired in a trade. Throw in deals that weren’t sexy like Gio Urshela, Luke Voit, and Mike Tauchman, and you have starting-caliber players acquired for next to nothing. It’s like being a general manager of an NFL team and Bill Belichick tells you he wants one of your players. Maybe that player is more valuable than you originally thought.
Now compare that to the Knicks’ talent, which is more young than it is young and good. Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, and RJ Barrett, the team’s three most recent first round picks, are all shooting below 40% from the field. If these players don’t get developed to their fullest potential, the entire season preceding their respective draft date was a waste of time. Fortunately, baseball doesn’t operate that way.
For the Knicks, of course, it starts at the top. The Knicks need their Brian Cashman. And for all the flack Cashman gets for the Yankees winning “only” one World Series since 2001, Knicks fans would slaughter the innocent if it meant a) one championship, b) 15 postseasons in 19 years, and c) a winning record every year. Cashman’s proved that finding cheap, young talent is how to build an elite nucleus. The Knicks can’t find talent in free agency so they must build through the draft and make trades. The closest the Knicks can come to the Yankees is doing what the Yankees did in 2016: punting on the season and using those assets to keep building.
The Yankees don’t sign the players they’ve signed without money and talent already on the roster. They learned at a certain point that players peak, and spending over a hundred million dollars on players who aren’t shelf stable is a recipe for disaster. That’s why acquiring talent through trades has been so pivotal for the Yankees. The Yankees’ projected starting lineup for 2019 featured four players acquired via trade.
Only two of the Knicks’ 15 players were acquired in a trade: Dennis Smith Jr. and Ignas Brazdeikis. What’s more, Brazdeikis only technically counts since the Knicks traded for the Sacramento Kings’ pick as opposed to trading for him from Sacramento specifically. The Knicks have yet to make a trade where they receive an impactful player moving forward. The most recent player they acquired with the longest staying power? Lance Thomas. And with all due respect to this site’s dear leader, if Lance Thomas is the most consistent piece acquired via trade that you’ve had since Carmelo Anthony, you’re gonna have a bad time.
So, yes, the Knicks are a long way from being the Yankees in free agency, and that’s okay. The Yankees use their money, talent, and history to attract stars, something that is lacking with the Knicks. The Knickerbockers must find the best way for them to build – history tells us that’s through the draft but the trade market has also long been neglected.
To Hahn’s points, the Knicks need to use their vast resources to hire the best. That’s exactly what the Yankees did, and the decision to hire the best is coming to fruition now on the field as opposed to mostly just off it. The Yankees were ripped to shreds for not signing stars like Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Patrick Corbin, and more. They struck when the right time presented itself. One day, that will be the Knicks. The team must first get their Brian Cashman.