What If...Isiah Never Ran the Knicks?
Spoiler alert: it couldn't have been worse.
Good morning! We’re a little more than a week away from the opening of training camp, which means we’re coming to the end of the Summer of Mailbag. I have a few goodies left, including today’s “Ask Macri,” which is one I’ve been saving for a while. That, plus News & Notes, comes your way right now…
🗣 News & Notes ✍️
🏀 The Knicks roster is full.
After officially signing Ryan Arcidiacono on Saturday and reportedly agreeing to terms with Svi Mykhailiuk on Sunday, the Knicks now have the maximum 15 men on their roster in addition to two-way players Trevor Keels and Feron Hunt and Exhibit-10 signee DaQuan Jeffries. They have two more training camp spots open at the moment.
From the outside looking in, there would seem to be greater significance to the moves in and of themselves than the players who were inked. Arcidiacono is a practice body, someone who competes hard and seems good for a locker room. Mykhailiuk, a former 47th overall pick of the Lakers who has spent parts of the last four seasons with LA, Detroit, Oklahoma City and Toronto, is a slightly higher upside swing, but only barely so. If he gets meaningful minutes for the Knicks this year, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.
More notable is the fact that the Knicks felt comfortable filling their final two open roster spots with a little bit more than a week to go before training camp. This obviously doesn’t preclude them from completing trades in the meantime, but given that both contracts are at least partially guaranteed, if the Knicks needed to complete a 2-for-1 deal in which they took back an extra player, they’d have just unnecessarily lit some money on fire.
Again: don’t rule anything out. Maybe they’re still engaged in talks, and who knows what might shake out if another big trade gets completed elsewhere. But if I were a betting man, this weekend’s moves would have me far more comfortable wagering that this is the roster we’re going see at the opening of camp a week from tomorrow.
🏀 Ian Begley dropped an eyebrow-raising article on Friday morning. Regarding whether we’ll see more time for the younger players this season, Begley had this to say:
Will the Knicks try to balance minutes of veterans and young players? Or will they lean toward veterans, as they did in the first half of 2021-22? Most of those questions are unanswered at the moment, but there is an expectation that Immanuel Quickley will get an increased role early on in 2022-23, per people familiar with the matter.
This is especially interesting in light of the Donovan Mitchell trade talks, primarily because the Knicks reportedly felt comfortable adding Quickley to RJ Barrett at the last minute if it meant getting the deal across the finish line, but also because it’s hard to imagine a Knicks team with Mitchell (and, presumably, Derrick Rose and Quentin Grimes) also finding significant minutes for IQ.
Mitchell, of course, is now in Cleveland. New York is left to make the best of the situation, and after Quickley’s flourish to end last season, it stands to reason that the Knicks may see him as having one of the higher upsides on the current roster. After the All-Star break, IQ was one of four guards to play at least five games and maintain per-36 minute averages of at least 20 points, six rebounds, six assists, and two made threes, joining Luka Doncic, LaMelo Ball and James Harden.
Does that mean a true 6th man role for the former Wildcat, potentially ahead of Derrick Rose and whichever of Evan Fournier and Quentin Grimes doesn’t start? We already saw Derrick Rose average nearly 27 minutes off the bench for the Knicks in the ‘20-21 season, so we know Thibs has it in him to run his subs for long stretches of the game.
But that team also had Elfrid Payton as the starting point guard, whereas the Knicks now have over $100 million invested in Jalen Brunson. Even so, it’s easy to see Quickley playing around half the game, and even more if and when Rose misses time. I’d set the over/under at 23.5 minutes (and nervously take the over).
What If...Isiah Never Ran the Knicks?
It’s been a while since I’ve tackled a good old fashioned “What If” this summer, and it feels like as good a time as any to do so. So let’s have some fun with today’s “Ask Macri,” courtesy of Neil:
I’ve been a Knicks fan and followed them semi-religiously since the early 80’s and have seen many many missteps along the way. So my question is: over the last 20 to 30 years (add or subtract as you wish), what have been the best/worst moves this franchise has made? Meaning trades, draft picks, front office, coaching, etc.
The second part of the question pertains to the worst move: if they didn’t make that misstep, what would the likely outcome have been? By that I mean, for example, if they traded up an grabbed Curry, would he have been a great Knick or would he have been traded when he was having the ankle issues? If they drafted Spida, would he have blossomed or sat in the bench and rotted away? The examples are many - SGA, Lowry, etc.
Thanks so much for the question Neil!
First things first: I’m going to try to stay within the bounds of reason. So, for example, I can’t say that not trading up for Curry was the worst move the franchise has made because who knows whether that was ever on the table. Would the Warriors have traded down if the Knicks, say, gave up three future unprotected picks? Yes or no, the resulting timeline is so vague as to be beyond analysis1.
Second parameter: I’m setting time frame at 22 years. Why 22? Because we’re less than a week away from the 22-year anniversary of the Ewing trade, a move that serves as a great “before & after” dividing line for this sort of question. I also already pondered “What If the Knicks Never Traded Patrick Ewing” a couple summers ago because it’s often thought of as the moment it all went wrong for the Knicks, but based on my forecasting at least, I don’t think that’s the case.
I’ve also wondered whether giving Carmelo Anthony a no-trade clause was subtly the worst move of the post-Ewing era, and while I came up with a dandy of a potential future outcome had they not given him one, I think that was probably a bridge too far. Saying that was the worst move of the last 20 years was more likely a product of some lingering angst I had towards Melo that I’ve since gotten over (you heard that correctly, Andrew Claudio!)
If we’re counting all moves, including the hiring of front office people, it’s pretty obvious that the worst decision of the last 22 years was the hiring of Isiah Thomas. I think there should be some consideration to a few of their recent draft errors, with Frank Ntilikina over Donovan Mitchell and Bam Adebayo (an under-discussed “What If”!) being the most egregious.
But as Jeremy, Andrew and Benji discussed on a pod earlier this summer, how much of a difference would a better draft pick in 2017 or 2018 (the Knox year) have made with Steve Mills at the helm? If Phil was indeed fired for the Melo/KP stuff as has been reported, we should presume Mills still gets the gig as POBO. Do we have confidence he could have built a winning team around Donovan and KP? Or Bam and KP?
I might tackle that question later in the summer, but suffice it to say I’m less confident in that outcome than I am in literally any outcome in 2003 that didn’t involve Isiah. Back, back, back we go…
…to December 22, 2003. That’s the official date of Thomas’ hiring.
At the time, the Knicks were mired in the absolute worst kind of purgatory. Not only were they a middling team coming off a 37-win campaign, but they were boring, and worse, old. The most minutes played by someone under the age of 29 in the 2002-03 season was the 1041 that went to Michael Doleac2. After him, it was the great Lee Nailon (405 minutes), followed by the immortal Travis Knight (287 minutes).
The backbone of the team outside of an about-to-break-down Allan Houston was comprised of Charlie Ward, Kurt Thomas, Clarence Weatherspoon, Othella Harrington, Shandon Anderson, Howard Eisley, the remains of Antonio McDyess, and as a final "fuck you, Knicks fans" on Layden’s way out the door, Keith Van Horn, who was acquired in a four-teamer for Latrell Sprewell in what is perhaps the least defensible pre-Bargs trade of my lifetime. This wasn’t just the most meh team in Knicks history; it’s right up there with the most meh teams in the history of basketball.
In walks Isiah to shake things up and get the festivities started. This wasn’t like a college kid who brings a keg to a high school party; this was Tony Montana bringing a briefcase of coke to a convent of nuns playing Parcheesi on a Tuesday night. He wanted to gut renovate the roster so fast that he didn’t bother to hire a proper construction company - he just doused the thing in gasoline and lit a match. The ink wasn’t even dry on his contract before he began, dealing Weatherspoon to the Rockets a week after he was hired. A week later, the Marbury trade. Within a year, the entire roster that ended the 2002-03 season was gone.
I don’t know which of Thomas’ trades was the most detrimental. If we’re being honest, you could talk yourself into each of them being defensible if they’re analyzed in a vacuum, one by one. On top of that, he made some downright great moves as well: getting two firsts by taking on Malik Rose from San Antonio, drafting David Lee, offloading Kurt Thomas for the Nate Robinson pick and Q-Rich, and trading 37-year-old Antonio Davis for Jalen Rose and a first rounder, all in the span of less than a year.
But he played so fast and so loose across the board that these margin moves never had a chance to germinate. In burning down the house, he took out the foundation as well. As a result, the Knicks under his watch were a mish-mash of talented guys without anything holding the core together. His attempt at injecting cohesion from above was to hire Larry Brown, which backfired in such spectacular fashion that players from that team still recount the horror stories to this day. His last gasp was to coach the team himself, and when that failed, he was finally, mercifully relieved of all his duties.
In total, the trades of Isiah Thomas cost the Knicks any semblance of flexibility or hope for years after he departed the franchise, to say nothing of the organization’s reputation being left in tatters3. It wasn’t just trading away two future firsts for Stephon Marbury; it was delaying one of those picks seven years into the future, without protection, while taking on two players whose combined salary accounted for 62 percent of the salary cap. One of those two players, Penny Hardaway, was more shot than Houston and his balky knees.
This trade, by itself, was nearly a franchise killer, and it happened 14 days after Thomas was hired. After that, the very concept of salary cap space went bye-bye, leaving only two paths remaining: the draft, and more trades…except meaningfully building through the draft was out as well, since it became abundantly clear that Thomas would wheel and deal picks to an absurd degree, especially for back then.
Sure, he recouped some draft equity later and nailed a lot of those picks, but he also burned the parachute that’s supposed to save you if things go wrong. More than that, he never gave himself a real chance to do what he did best: mine talent in the draft. Take the Marbury trade. No one talks about the ‘04 first rounder Thomas gave up there because it turned into Kirk Snyder, but Josh Smith, Jameer Nelson, Kevin Martin, Tony Allen, Delonte West and the one and only J.R. Smith himself all went within the next 10 picks.
That left making more trades as Zeke’s only means of improvement, and on October 4, 2005, Thomas pulled off what is arguably the single most detrimental trade in the history of the franchise.
The eventual haul for Eddy Curry included the NBA’s 44th all-time leading scorer, LaMarcus Aldridge, as well as 2014 Defensive Player of the Year and two-time All-Star, Joakim Noah. The subtleties of the transaction make it even worse. Tim Thomas, who was Isiah’s return for Van Horn and would go on to start for the ‘06 Western Conference Finalist Phoenix Suns, was a throw-in in the trade. As for Curry, he was immediately handed a six-year, $60 million contract. He played 74 total NBA minutes over the second half of that deal.
The trail of tears goes on…Jerome James, Steve Francis, Renaldo Balkman, Jared Jeffries…it’s all just so bad. Even his last move - Francis and Channing Frye for Zach Randolph - while defensible from a value perspective was so symbolic of the “worry about today, to hell with tomorrow” ethos that left the franchise in need of an even greater overhaul when Thomas left than the day he got there. Isiah’s run with the Knicks was the ultimate Ponzi scheme, except unlike Bernie Madoff, Thomas’ jig was up in less than five years.
What alternative paths could have been taken? And would it have mattered with Dolan as the owner? Here’s the funny thing where that second part is concerned: JD seemed to be more or less hands off both during Isiah’s run and Layden’s before it. It was only later, when his first decade of ownership had gone so poorly, that he started to meddle in basketball ops.
So who could he have hired to run the team instead of the Cheshire Cat? It was way too early for either Masai Ujiri or Sam Presti, and a tad too soon for Daryl Morey. Danny Ainge had been hired as GM in Boston about six months earlier, otherwise that would have been an interesting option. The most likely name I can imagine, assuming Thomas was off the table?
That’s right: the Zen Master, a little more than a decade before he eventually took the reigns.
When Layden was canned, Jackson was in the midst of his first final season as Lakers head coach. After a year hiatus, he returned to LA for a second stint, but after losing the 2004 Finals in June, he was out of a job.
If Dolan thought he had a chance to convince Jackson to run the Knicks as a combined Head Coach & President of Basketball Ops, would he have waited to hire a permanent replacement for Layden so he could have a shot at Jackson? I say yes, especially since there were no other obvious options.
How might that have gone? Phil’s biggest problem was trying to learn the job on the fly and trying to coach from on high, but I bet both of these birds would have been killed with the same stone: he simply would have coached, and having to tend to those responsibilities, would have hired a solid right hand man to handle the day to day front office work.
Who knows who that would have been, or how it would have gone, but Jackson could sure as hell still coach, and I wonder if him doing so would have gotten the Knicks in the running for Kobe when he requested a trade from the Lakers following the 2006-07 season (or, for that matter, for Shaq in 2004).
Unfortunately, we’ll never know. As for the other part of Neil’s question - the best move the franchise has made - part of me wants to say that it was hiring Isiah’s replacement, Donnie Walsh. His tenure was far from perfect (I’ve criticized the haste with which he shipped Z-Bo and Jamal Crawford out of town, as opposed to allowing them to potentially build up some additional value in D’Antoni’s system), and his grand scheme of landing LeBron ultimately failed, but I’ll always wonder what would have happened had Dolan not butted into the Melo trade talks. If nothing else, Walsh got them back from the brink of abyss to respectability and even beyond that before he gracefully left with the impeccable class he’s known for.
I’ll go a different direction though: I think signing Jalen Brunson will clearly become the answer to this question in short order. I don’t pretend to know how things will turn out this season and beyond, but I’m confident in this: any good that transpires will have Brunson at the heart of it. He’s going to be a great Knick, and I can’t wait to watch him suit up4.
Either way, I hope the list of things in consideration for “best Knicks move” will be a lot more robust over the next 22 years than it was for the last 22. At the very least, the list for worst moves can’t possibly be as long.
Or so we hope.
The biggest “What If” that falls under this umbrella for me: What if the Knicks never let Pat Riley go to Miami? After reading Chris Herring’s Blood in the Garden, I’m not sure there was anything New York could have done to keep Riley, but reasonable minds may differ on that one.
As if the Anucha Browne Sanders trial and verdict wasn’t bad enough, it continued to be the gift that kept on giving nearly a decade after the fact.
Other contenders: signing Jeremy Lin, drafting David Lee at 30, drafting Immanuel Quickley at 25, trading for Derrick Rose (the second time), drafting Mitchell Robinson at 36, and signing JR Smith as an unrestricted free agent in 2012.