The Boss Speaks

Leon Rose's first public comments in a while got the attention, but today we turn to the words of a different family boss as New York opens training camp.

Good morning, and HAPPY OPENING DAY OF TRAINING CAMP!!!

We have a jam-packed edition, and I want to get right to it, but first, it’s been a while since I offered a deal on a full subscription to this newsletter. What better day to change that? First things first: subscribe today to get your Knicks Film School Newsletter every weekday for just $4 a month or $40 a year:

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OK, enough promotion…let’s get to the news.

🗣 News & Notes ✍️

🏀 New York’s braintrust, consisting of President Leon Rose, GM Scott Perry and head coach Tom Thibodeau, spoke to select members of the media on Friday. Aside from the flowery language that usually emits from these things (and there was no shortage of that, which we’ll get to shortly), there were two important pieces of news:

Every Knick is vaccinated. This means that no player on the roster will have any restrictions playing in any NBA arena, which is more than guys like Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins can say. There’s no way to view this as anything other than a competitive advantage that other teams may not have, especially given the apparent widespread skepticism of the vaccine that remains throughout the league. In less encouraging news…

Mitchell Robinson still isn’t fully back. Robinson has still not been cleared to play following the fractured foot he suffered back in March, and his injury rehabilitation was described as a “work in progress.” When asked about his contract situation (detailed extensively in this space last week), Rose was coy in his response:

It’s interesting to note here that earlier on Friday, Ian Begley went to Zach Lowe’s podcast and said it seemed like the Knicks were prepared to let Mitch enter unrestricted free agency. As I always say, Begley is a wise, wise man, and he doesn’t say anything out of turn. Don’t expect an extension signed anytime soon.

As far as the rest of the presser, there was talk of culture and credibility and laying a foundation and all sorts of other pleasantries. The difference between this and the many, many preseason pressers of Knicks past is that this regime can actually sit up there and say this stuff with a straight face. They’ve earned that right.

Lastly, Leon Rose spoke about toeing the line between expedience and patience:

We’re gonna be aggressive as far as knowing what’s going on and as far as being on top of things and looking at opportunities. But at the same time, we’re gonna be prudent and disciplined in decisions that we make.

This line of thinking was predictable enough. I did find it interesting, however, that Thibs made sure to point out that “now we have an All-Star,’’ and that “hopefully we can develop another one, or another guy can make that jump.”

Maybe it’s just me, but ever since Randle made the All-Star team, I’ve viewed the accomplishment as an important carrot for prospective suitors around the NBA, and it seems like Thibodeau is thinking along the same lines. All-Stars want to come play with other All-Stars, after all. As for Rose’s talk about opportunistic aggression, I suspect his consideration will be a simple one: if we trade for a star, can we still be a contender with what’s left over after the deal?

This may seem simplistic and reductive, but prudence has been the exception, not the rule in New York for a long time before Rose arrived. Basic or not, the approach is a sound one. Here’s hoping the execution - both in developing that talent and in the decision-making process to follow - is equally as sound.

🏀 The Knicks signed the final member of their training camp roster on Friday, inking Wayne Selden Jr. to a camp deal. That gives them 20 players under contract, which is the maximum allowed in camp.

Seldon joins M.J. Walker as someone who impressed the team in Vegas enough to get an invite, although given how many roster spots seem set, and with Dwayne Bacon seemingly battling Luca Vildoza for the final one, the odds that either guy sticks around are long.

🏀 The Ben Simmons situation in Philly continues to deteriorate. An Athletic report over the weekend noted that several key members of the roster were set to fly to LA in an attempt to convince Simmons to report to camp, only to be told “don’t waste your time.” This car wreck is still the best show in town.


The Boss Speaks

Today, the Knicks will officially open training camp in a season that has been 20 years in the making.

Why 20 years? Because it’s been about two decades since this organization could look at themselves in the mirror and say “Yeah, you know what? We belong here.”

‘Here’ is right smack dab in the middle of the conversation about teams who can really wreck some havoc in the league in the coming years. 2012-13 was a special season, but the average age of the key members of that team never did bode well for an extended run. This feels different - like last year really does have a chance to be Chapter 1 in an extended text.

They’re not there yet, but they’re closer than they have been in a long time, and maybe a lot closer than people think. A glorified crew? Nah…the Knicks are a family.

Speaking of family, on Friday, one of the most important families in the history of television will make a big screen debut that itself has been two decades in the making. That’s when The Many Saints of Newark premiers in theaters nationwide and on HBO Max, and when many of us diehard fans will be transported back to our comfort zone of guns, gansters and gabagool.

Given the cosmic symmetry of the week ahead, what better way to kick things off today than by taking an early, big picture look at this Knicks season through the eyes of the greatest television character in the history of the medium.

Take it away, Tony…

On Givens…

Tony: Sil, break it down for 'em. What two business have traditionally been recession-proof since time immemorial?

Silvio: Certain aspects of show business, and our thing.

Defense wins championships. It was true in the glory years of the late 60’s and early 70’s and it was almost true when Ewing roamed the paint. If Tom Thibodeau has anything to say about it, it’ll be true once more.

But in a league where the seven highest offensive ratings of all time were achieved last season, is defense still recession-proof?

That depends. The Bucks just won the title in part because they finally realized that the Suns had no answer for Giannis if Giannis was going to do Giannis things, but they also held the league’s 7th best offense to eight fewer points per 100 possessions than their regular season average over four consecutive Finals wins. The resulting offensive rating - 108.2 - would have placed Phoenix below the 25th ranked Timberwolves last season.

On the flip side, last year’s Knicks were proof positive that all the nifty defense in the world can’t overcome a limp offense come playoff time. Just like the mafia needed to modernize over the years, from controlling alcohol to monopolizing waste management to holding no-show jobs at the Esplanade, the Knicks front office knew they needed to step up their game on the offensive side of the ball. More on that in a bit.

First and foremost though, the backbone of the team needs to remain solid, even with the loss of Bullock and the lack of any strong, veteran wing defenders after RJ Barrett.

Can they do it? The evidence says yes. Last season’s 4th ranked defense, combined with the continued defensive futility in Minnesota, is more proof that whatever issues the Wolves experienced during Thibs’ tenure probably weren’t his fault. If Thibodeau could milk an 11th-ranked defense out of the 2014-15 Bulls, with Aaron Brooks, 34-year-old Mike Dunleavy and 34-year-old Pau Gasol playing over 6500 combined minutes, he should be able to keep New York in the top 10, if not the top five.

On Forgiveness…

Tony: So, what step are you at now?

Chris: I did all the steps, except for the one where I'm supposed to go around and apologize to all the people I fucked over when I was using.

T: I think maybe you shouldn't do that one. You know, let sleeping dogs lie.

C: Yeah, that's what I was thinking.

We’ll never know how much of what happened between July 14, 2017, the day Scott Perry was officially hired as general manager of the New York Knicks, and February 4, 2020, the day his boss and co-decision maker Steve Mills was fired, was really Perry’s doing.

Steve Mills, it would seem, was in over his head. Perry was brought in to assist a businessman run a basketball team and could only do so much to help. Some of it was very good: successfully navigating the Melo trade, drafting RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, and perhaps most importantly, bringing Julius Randle into the fold. Other pieces of his tenure (Fiz, Payton, the overall construction and complexion of the 2019-20 team), not so much. We’ll never know how much more, if anything, could have been acquired for Porzingis if opening up cap space had not been such a major priority, but it’s becoming clearer by the day that avoiding paying KP the max showed some major foresight.

But one thing that can’t be disputed, and that hopefully won’t come back to bite the organization in the ass as they attempt to elevate from pretender to contender, is that the Knicks blew it by drafting Kevin Knox and then completely failing to develop him into so much as a rotation piece. Much of the responsibility no doubt falls on Fizdale, who reportedly pushed for Knox and then completely bumbled his progression as an NBA player, as it does on Knox himself, for obvious reasons.

But Knox ultimately goes down on Perry’s ledger. With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander already signed to a max, Michael Porter Jr likely getting one soon, and both Mikal and Miles Bridges in line to ink extensions for somewhere around $15-20 million annually, bypassing all four for a player who isn’t even worth his fourth-year salary was a massive, massive miss.

That being said, it’s time to let sleeping dogs lie…with Knox, and with any other mistakes Perry may or may not have been directly responsible for. Whether he’s actually Leon Rose’s consigliere or is little more than a foot soldier, Perry has been the general manager for the most dramatic Knicks turnaround in 30 years. He deserves to have all sins forgiven, regardless of how responsible he actually was.

No apologies necessary.

On the Benefit of the Doubt…

Tony: All due respect, you got no fuckin' idea what it's like to be Number One. Every decision you make affects every facet of every other fuckin' thing. It's too much to deal with almost. And in the end you're completely alone with it all.

For a guy who wound up winning his second NBA Coach of the Year award last season, Tom Thibodeau caught an awful lot of shit from Knicks fans.

Not that a COTY trophy means he was always right, or that he’s the long term answer. One look at the list of winners reveals as much.

But this franchise has had a tendency to chew up previously highly regarded individuals and spit them out as garbage, with any previous modicum of respect lost awash a sea of defeats (and, usually, embarrassment). Hubie Brown, Don Nelson, Don Chaney, Lenny Wilkins, Larry Brown, Mike D’Antoni, and in a different role, Phil Jackson are all former COTY winners who have come here and failed. Thibodeau was a former winner who came to a team with the lowest expected win total in the league, and all he did was win the damn thing again.

Were there decisions he wished he could have had back throughout the season and postseason? Almost certainly. The magic is in the work for coaches as much as players, and needing to work means recognizing imperfection. No coach is infallible.

But Thibs helped create a culture almost from scratch, and every decision he made, whether it turned out swimmingly (empowering Julius Randle) or horribly (sticking with you-know-who), contributed to that foundation.

This year will present a new set of challenges, and Thibodeau will no doubt receive criticism again if the Knicks somehow do not go 82-0. I just hope he’s earned a bit of the benefit of the doubt. It ain’t easy being number one, after all.

On Denial…

Tony: Oh come on…I do not want to fuck my mother.

All that being said…

Last season marked the latest in a long line of Thibs campaigns in which one or more of his players found themselves at or near the top of the league in minutes played. Whether he wants to admit it to himself or not, Thibodeau can’t help pushing the limits of his own players.

When those players are the not-yet-old-enough-to-drink RJ Barrett (2nd in the league in minutes played) and the brick shithouse that is Julius Randle…

…who led the league in court time by a solid margin, that’s probably not a huge deal.

But you can now add 31-year-old Kemba Walker and his iffy knee to that stable, as well as 32-year-old Derrick Rose for a full season, not to mention Mitchell Robinson coming off a foot injury that is apparently still not fully healed.

It sounds like they’re being overly cautious with Mitch, and even with Thibs’ quip about Walker during his introductory presser that “he’s playing,” I’d imagine they have a plan for him as well.

Still, the minutes police will be out in full force yet again1, and perhaps with good reason. Thibodeau has been handed one of the most talented offensive groupings of his career. If he can conquer his worst enemy - himself - he should be in for a fun ride.

On Family…

Tony: I called you here, 'cause I got something to tell you. From now on, I'm gonna rely on you more and more, 'cause you're the only one I can fully trust. Sil and Paulie... they're old friends, but you're one thing they're not.

Chris: What's that, T?

Tony: Blood. You're gonna lead this family into the 21st Century.

Chris: Well, Tony, technically we're already in the 21st Century...

[Tony looks at him, confused]

Chris: Forget about it. You won't regret this, T.

When asked about Obi Toppin at Friday’s presser, Thibs said the second-year pro is “in a completely different place right now. I think he learned a lot last year.” Thibodeau also raved about how Toppin was back in the gym mere days after last season ended and that he's been there every day following his stint in Vegas.

He also mentioned Immanuel Quickley as helping to set the tone for New York’s incoming picks with his equally impressive work ethic, but unlike Toppin, Quickley has far less to prove, having already shown he can be a force on a winning NBA team. Obi has a long way to go to get there.

That said, the signs are present. Take Summer League with several silos of salt, but it’s nonetheless encouraging that Toppin joined Patrick Williams as the only players to average at least 21 & 8, with Obi firing away from deep confidently at a not-terrible 35 percent clip. When taken with his steadier, calmer stint as last season wound down, it’s reason enough to be hopeful.

It’s tough to say that anyone backing up an MVP candidate has much pressure on him, but it’s tough to overstate the significance of Toppin being the first draft pick of the Leon Rose era, especially if you believe certain pre-draft reports that Rose himself handpicked Obi as his choice. New York needs someone on this roster to unexpectedly pop if they want to find themselves a star away from contention. Toppin is as good a bet as anyone.

Is he up to the challenge, or will Rose find him passed out and stoned in Tarrytown with the family dog wedged in the couch cushions beneath his ass? I’m betting the result will be far closer to the former, although based on what he’s shown so far, that requires a leap of faith.

On the Things That Matter…

Tony: When you're married, you'll understand the importance of fresh produce!

Last year’s regular season was like visiting to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant for the first time, absent any expectations whatsoever, only to wind up indulging in one of the great gastronomic experiences of your life.

The playoffs, however, were like the runs you experienced after you got home. The truth was revealed, and what seemed to be too good to be true ended up being exactly that.

In New York’s case, the stale produce came in the form of a lack of shot creation. As much as Julius Randle’s implosion contributed to the downfall, Reggie Bullock’s total inability to put the ball on the floor was just as significant of a factor. And we haven’t even mentioned that guy who’s now enjoying egg noodles and ketchup in witness protection…

In come Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, two players who should cure precisely what ailed the Knicks. Last year in Boston, nearly half of Kemba’s 3-pointers were unassisted, which ranked in the 77th percentile for his position league-wide according to Cleaning the Glass. Fournier ranked in the 88th percentile amongst wings when he was in Orlando, and then got the benefit of playing next to better shot creators with the Celtics, dropping down to the 53rd percentile.

But even that is worlds better than New York’s starting wings, both of whom ranked in the bottom third of the league, as 98 percent of their threes were assisted. Hopefully RJ takes a step forward in this area, and combined with New York’s two new additions and Randle (98th percentile in unassisted threes accounting for position, which was highest on the team), the Knicks will make life far more untenable for opposing defenses than they did against Atlanta in late May.

But just like Chris and Adriana never got around to tying the knot, best laid plans have a way of getting interrupted at MSG as often as they did in North Jersey. Thankfully, the new boss of this family has some experience injecting new pieces into a situation, as Thibs often dealt with roster fluctuation in Chicago and rarely skipped a beat.

Will things work out as well here, and can the Knicks make it two consecutive playoff births for the first time in nearly a decade? And what other factors loom large in deciding whether that happens?

Check back tomorrow for Part II of “The Boss Speaks” to find out.

🏀

That’s it for today! If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Mets, don’t forget to subscribe to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter

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We miss you already, Vork.