Can't Catch a Break?
An expedited tip off for the 2020-21 NBA season will hurt the Knicks chances more than any other team in the league...and it may be exactly what they need.
News & Notes
The NBA is targeting December 22 for the start of the 2020-21 season that will likely feature 72 games, no All-Star festivities, and will finish before the 2021 Olympics. Much more on this below.
Former Knick Amar’e Stoudemire is joining Kyrie Irv-, er, Steve Nash’s coaching staff in Brooklyn. Godspeed sir.
With the draft three weeks from Thursday, it’s about to get really crazy out here, so please be advised to take everything you hear - in this space and otherwise - with several grains of salt. That said, I heard from a league source that Patrick Williams, the FSU freshman who already appeared to be the draft’s late riser, may be climbing even further than people expect. There’s a strong chance he’s gone before the Knicks select at 8.
Proud to announce that today’s episode of the Knicks Film School Podcast is the 250th since I began the show two years ago. It’s been quite a ride, but I think the best is yet to come. Check it out here or subscribe anywhere fine podcasts are found.
I went back and forth with KFS intern and current Fordham freshman Kris Pursiainen on the Strickland about fandom now vs in the stone age, as well as our most desired, most feared and most probable draft outcomes.
Can't Catch a Break?
The NBA may not be perfect, but if they are one thing above all else, it is pragmatic.
It seems like we’ve heard for months now that the priority for next season would be to get as many fans safely back in arenas as possible. At one point, it looked like that might be a worthy goal - one that would help the league rebound from a season in which it lost nearly $700 million dollars from regular season games not played, to say nothing of playoff gate receipts and concessions.
That reality no longer exists. The desultory ratings have made it clear that the NBA must keep its prime time events - the postseason and finals - in the mid-April through mid-June sweet spot that it can dominate. There were surely other factors at play in the decrease in eyeballs glued to screens, but those were out the league’s control for one reason or another. When they decide to tip off their season, on the other hand, is most certainly in their purview.
That leaves the commissioner with no choice but to make the 2021-22 season and beyond his number one priority. Waiting around for a widely distributed (and willingly taken) vaccine would not only jeopardize next season’s television ratings much in the way this year’s were, but create a cascading effect that would bastardize future seasons as well. This was always a dicy risk; now it’s one whose odds no longer make the bet worth wagering.
That’s why, while it hasn’t been officially announced, I’m counting on Santa delivering NBA basketball as an early Christmas present on December 22. Why then and not Martin Luther King Day four weeks later? Let’s do some math:
If the league condenses the season as much as possible - roughly a game every other day - that means they need five months to fit in 72 games plus play-in games, and then another two months for playoffs. A December 22 start leaves them crowning a champion on July 22. The Olympics start on July 23.
That would obviously rule out players who competed in the Finals - and maybe even the conference finals - from heading to Japan, depending of course on how long of a training camp the Olympics coaches required (Pop held a two-week camp before two weeks of exhibition games ahead of the 2019 FIBA World Cup, but one would think this could be condensed).
An MLK Day start, even with 72 games, would all but guarantee that sending NBA players to the Olympics is out unless they wanted to send a team exclusively of non-playoff participants (Team USA Point Randle Fever - CATCH IT!).
The bigger issue may be players who want to play for other countries. No one else seems to be making a big deal of this, but I can’t imagine that Adam Silver is looking forward to conversations in which he asks the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic or Nikola Jokic to possibly forgo representing their country in favor of the playoffs. Remember: any proposed restart needs to get NBPA approval.
Postponing the start of the playoffs to accomodate the Olympics would even further derail the 2021-22 season, not to mention give an unfair advantage to anyone who had a chance to rest instead of compete, so take that off the table as well.
Maybe there’s a way around these issues, but the signs all seem to be pointing to NBA basketball being back less than two months from right now. What would a 72-game season look like in which reduced travel was the top priority?
The Athletic’s John Hollinger proposed a possible schedule were each team played their divisional opponent eight times and each inter-conference team that was outside of their division three four apiece, with no out-of-conference games. An adjustment to this format would have three games per outer-division, intra-conference opponent, and then 10 games against randomly selected out of conference foes.
Either way, it would seem to make sense that the divisional games would occur towards the earlier months to reduce travel during the portion of the season when a vaccine isn’t yet readily available. This would also make it easier to pull off miniature pseudo-bubbles. For example, the Knicks could start off with a two-game series in Philly, then head north to face off against the Newark Raptors for two, and finally return to MSG for a four-game home stand against the Nets and Celtics.
If this situation or something similar comes to transpire, I’d argue that it could have a more detrimental effect on the Knicks’ prospects of winning than that of any team in the NBA, and create the perfect environment for a season where the final record is not a top priority. Why? A few reasons:
The Celtics, Nets, Raptors and Sixers currently have the 5th, 6th, 8th and 12th best championship odds for the 2020-21 season, respectively. I wrote something to this effect last week, but it bears repeating: Chris Paul or no Chris Paul, the Knicks will not be favored in any of the games they play against these squads unless one of their stars is sitting out.
(And if we assume that Chris Paul has some say over where he ends up - news flash: he does - do you really think he wants to join this roster that will now have to play 32 games against elite or near-elite competition?)
And that’s a lot of games. In a normal year, the Knicks play 24 percent of their schedule against their own division. In the proposed scenario, it increases to 44 percent.
If a substantial portion of NBA’s early schedule is division-heavy, New York would almost certainly have the worst record in the league after that stint. Only the Kings, who share a division with the Lakers, Clippers, Warriors and Suns, would be outmatched nearly as much.
With very few or no fans at games, James Dolan doesn’t have to worry about packing the World’s Most Famous Arena. Perhaps that changes Leon Rose’s calculations in building out the roster, if even just a bit.
As Jeremy and I spitballed on the pod a week ago, Rose is the President of Basketball, not simply the GM. In a normal season, he has to concern himself with putting a product on the floor that fans will want to pay good money to watch. In this season? Maybe not so much.
That still leaves TV, which hasn’t been doing so hot.
The Knicks on MSG set it’s record high for ratings earlier this decade with the Linsanity-fueled 2011-12 campaign, which saw them draw a 3.30 average. That dropped to 3.12 during the 54-win campaign a year later, and has been in decline ever since. In 2017-18, which began with a healthy KP, they drew a 1.45, followed by a 0.9 in ‘18-19, and then as of February 11 last season, a 0.85.
Here’s the good news: lest anyone be tempted to suggest that a few more wins will get the numbers back up, they have last season as contrary evidence. The Knicks were averaging a 1.05 on February 11 of 2019, at which point their record was 10-46, as opposed to 17-37 at the same point last year. If anything, the data suggests that the Knicks will get a natural bump next season from the “hope factor” provided by a new regime with a new coach and a new plan, as they did when they were unabashedly tanking two years ago.
Would a star player like Paul or Russell Westbrook, or a notable rookie like LaMelo Ball, materially change things? Maybe, but we’ve seen evidence to suggest otherwise as well. KP’s rookie year was arguably the most exciting time post-Linsanity/12-13 that the team has had this century, and yet it only provided a mild 15 percent bump (1.76 to 2.02) over the first 34 games of the previous season. That came despite a respectable 15-19 record, whereas they were 5-29 a year prior.
There are other reasons this shortened campaign with few fans likely points to a worse Knicks team. Organizations will be more cash strapped, meaning they will have a greater incentive to salary dump bad contracts onto teams with cap room like the Knicks. I’ve already reported their desire to get more future assets in the coffers, and this would only seem to grease those skids. Future assets are great, but they don’t help in the present.
New York might also have more money to take on those deals than they thought. With so much uncertainty, free agents may not be as keen on switching teams as the otherwise would, perhaps instead opting to stay put on a one-year contract. Imagine deciding on switching teams on November 23 and then having to uproot and fly off to training camp before the pie is cleared from the Thanksgiving table. The turnaround time will be that fast.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the Knicks will have been off for close to nine months before training camp kicks off in early December. We’ve heard that Tom Thibodeau’s best quality is that he has his teams better prepared and more ready to go than any coach in the league, but will that really be able to take hold this season? The bubble teams may wear down as the season goes along, but to start out at least, they figure to be far more ready than the Knicks and the other seven teams that didn’t make it to Orlando.
The writing is on the wall. Leon Rose can and should make every effort to improve this basketball team, but he’s been given a Golden Ticket to be able to do so on responsible terms. Absolutely no one will blame him if the Knicks get off to a terrible start given the stacked deck they’re likely to face. Then, while they’re picking up steam in the second half of the year, the bubble teams will be starting to tire. The “Knicks are on the rise” narrative heading into the 2021 offseason writes itself. It’s the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card.
This season can and should be about making New Yorkers buy in to this franchise in a real and sustainable way once again, even if that process is messy and occasionally unwatchable to start out. His priority has to be the same as that of Adam Silver: get things right for 2021-22, with any positives coming next year considered icing on the cake.
That’s it for today! See everyone tomorrow for another edition. #BlackLivesMatter #VOTE