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Isiah and the Knicks

One of my favorite general NBA topics is Isiah and the Knicks.  There's just always so much to talk about.  

Recently, ClipperMax and I were talking NBA, and I was trying to explain the salary cap (bear in mind, he's 10).  I mentioned that a team like the Knicks doesn't worry about the salary cap or even the luxury tax; they just want to win games.  This struck him as hilarious.  "Dad ... (pause for effect) ... the Knicks SUCK!"

We've become inured to the sheer magnitude of the salary numbers over the years, but they are worth mentioning from time-to-time.  The Knicks team payroll is over $139M this season.  The salary cap is a little over $53M.  The Knicks are more than $86M over the salary cap.  To put that in perspective, only two other teams have an entire payroll over $86M.  So the Knicks are a wildly over-budget team over budget.  The luxury tax threshold is set at $65.42M.  They are almost $74M over the luxury tax threshold.  Removing Jerome Williams' salary from the dollar-for-dollar luxury tax (he was waived under last season's amnesty program), the Knicks will end up paying over $206M in player salary and taxes this season by my math.  (Insurance will cover part of Allan Houston's $20M.)  And of course there's the Larry Brown money.  

Their current payroll includes 5 players who no longer play for them, making over $62M combined (Allan Houston $20M, Jalen Rose $16.9M, Mo Taylor $9.75M, Shandon Anderson $8.5M and Jerome Williams $6.4M).  In other words, they are just beneath the dreaded luxury tax threshold, the thing that 90% of the teams in the league treat like a hard cap, JUST ON PLAYERS NO LONGER ON THE TEAM.  

Aside from young players playing under league mandated rookie contract scales, there is not a single player on the roster who is not overpaid, most by a wide margin.  (I'm including Kelvin Cato, whose making the veteran's minimum, because, seriously, he's Kelvin Cato.)  They currently have $73M committed to SIX PLAYERS for the 2008-2009 season (Marbury, Francis, Curry, Richardson, Crawford and James).  So unless they can trade one of those six for contracts that expire sooner (good luck with that), the SOONEST they can be under the salary cap is summer 2009 when Marbury and Francis come off the books.  And even then, they already have about $36M committed to four stiffs, I mean players.

This is what makes the waiving of Mo Taylor and Jalen Rose all the more amazing.  Expiring contracts are legal tender in today's NBA.  Waiving those players freed up roster spots for the Knicks, which Isiah used to sign Cato and ... nothing.  They still have a spot open.  According to Chris Sheridan in his chat last week, Isiah waived those guys "Because Jim Dolan told him he's not making any more deals like the Jalen Rose-Antonio Davis deal and the Steve Francis-Penny Hardaway/Trevor Ariza deals from last season."

But wait a minute.  I'll agree that trading an expiring contract for a BAD player (Steve Francis, Jalen Rose) is a bad idea.  Trading an expiring contract for a GOOD player (say, I dunno, Allen Iverson) is actually a good idea.  Did Isiah try to explain this to Mr. Dolan?  Does he even understand it himself?  And, as it happens, if you have those expiring contracts around, you have the OPTION of making trades.  If you waive those guys, you have Kelvin Cato.

Here's the other thing that I find astounding about the situation.  All of the ridiculous deals over the years (some of them Scott Layden's idiocy, some of the Isiah's) actually gave the Knicks an ongoing chance to improve, as there was always a big contract expiring.  Consequently, they had Penny Hardaway and Antonio Davis as bargaining chips last year.  Those things are valuable.  The Davis for Rose trade was actually quite shrewd - it netted a first round pick, and another expiring deal for this year.  If they'd kept Rose, they could have traded him straight up for AI.  If you want to cut somebody, cut Francis.  He has no value.  But by waiving Rose and Taylor, Isiah got rid of the one truly valuable asset the Knicks had.

And what is the goal at this point?  They can't possibly be serious about a salary cap strategy that's going to get them under the cap by 2009 can they?  Are they going to sit around and SUCK this bad for three seasons?  In Madison Square Garden?  In New York City?  They can't do that.  They have to try to get better, and that means trades or the draft.  Damn.  Screwed the pooch on both of those.  That's right - Isiah traded away what turned out to be this year's number 2 pick, and quite likely a very high pick next year, for none other than Eddy Curry.  I like Eddy Curry fine, but how many ways can you flush your team's future down the toilet?

So that's Isiah as a general manager.  What about Isiah as a coach?

Well, he's on pace to win more games than Larry Brown last season, but of course he's trying to win games, where Larry was just trying to prove a point.  I haven't watched the Knicks play this year, but Isiah was a dreadful coach in Indiana, and I have no reason to believe he's any different now.  

We do, however, know a little about his conduct in the Knicks-Nuggets brawl, and it was despicable.  It's hard to figure how Stern did not suspend him, when he warned Carmelo to stay out of the lane moments before Mardy Collins horse-collared J.R. Smith.  I mean, we're not talking about a 9/11 conspiracy theory here - you can read his lips on the game tape!  And then he basically says "They had it coming" in the press conference.  Real classy.

It's an interesting thing - great players don't usually make great coaches.  Most don't try.  Larry and Magic both coached briefly before they realized it wasn't for them.  Of 30 coaches in the NBA, most of them former players, only 3 ever made an all-star team and Isiah and Mo Cheeks haven't gotten serious consideration for coach of the year recently.  In today's NBA, only Jerry Sloan was a great player and a great coach, and he seems to be the last of a breed.  

I think it's because basketball comes easy to great players, and how do you teach someone to do something that comes easy to you?  On the other end of the spectrum, are the guys who simply worked harder than anybody else to get to where they were, and how do you coach someone who's not willing to work hard?

Isiah was a great player.  He won two titles with the Pistons, and that should have been his legacy.  But he's a bad coach, a monumentally bad GM, and by all indications, a bad person.  The Knicks are guaranteed to be a really, really bad team for the next 30 months at least, and it's all his fault.  At this point, that will be his legacy.