Tag Archives: New York Knicks

This System Is Broken

Well, this stinks. Being a Knicks fan on the day of the NBA Draft stinks.  Being a Knicks fan on any day stinks, but on the day of the NBA Draft it stinks worse than most other days.

The draft is supposed to offer a chance for renewal, yet it never seems to renew the Knicks. It’s not hard to look at recent draft results and see numerous errors the Knicks made which prevented possible opportunities for renewal. We drafted Frank Ntilikina over Donovan Mitchell and Bam Adebayo, drafted Kevin Knox over Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and, going back a bit further in time, drafted Iman Shumpert over Jimmy Butler.

Sure, the Knicks have made lots of mistakes. No duh, as the kids say.

Even so, as terrible as the Knicks have been at drafting – or at, well, anything – their dismal performance is not entirely their fault. The Knicks are, dare I say, victims. They’re victims of a broken system, which has been giving other teams an unfair advantage.

The draft is the means by which incoming talent is distributed across the 30 teams in the NBA. To some degree, it is set up to put the best talent on the worst teams. That’s why the teams who qualify for the playoffs aren’t eligible for the Draft Lottery. At the same time, the draft is set up to avoid giving too big of a reward for losing. That’s why there’s a weighted Draft Lottery, instead of simply assigning draft order in reverse order of finish, as the NFL does.

It all sounds good in theory. But it’s not working.

The randomness associated with bouncing ping pong balls has led to a few teams getting disproportionately lucky, thereby defeating the purpose of the system. To see the problem, let’s look back at the past 30 years. With 30 teams in the league, we can do some easy math if we look back 30 years. Over that period of time, each team has won an average of 1 championship, and has won the draft lottery an average of 1 time. Looking at the list of NBA champions, we see that only 11 teams have won in the last 30 years. (Spoiler alert: the Knicks are not among those teams.) The Bulls and Lakers have each won 6, the Spurs 5, the Heat and Warriors 3, the Rockets 2, and each of the Raptors, Mavericks, Pistons, Celtics, and Cavs have won once. Fair enough. None of this necessarily means there’s a problem with the draft. It just means that having Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, or Kawhi Leonard gives you a tremendous advantage. I have no problem with that.

Looking at the list of lottery winners, though, we see a clear problem. Namely, we see that this random-by-design system has given a very small number of teams a tremendous advantage. In the last 30 years, the Orlando Magic have won the lottery 3 times – yielding Shaq, Chris Webber, and Dwight Howard. The Cavaliers have won the lottery an absurd 4 times – yielding LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Bennett, and Andrew Wiggins. Yes, Anthony Bennett wound up being terrible. That doesn’t prove that the system is working; it proves that the Cavs were fortunate enough to botch the #1 overall pick and still have fallen into enough assets that they could recover.  Seven teams have won the Lottery twice – the Sixers, Clippers, New Orleans (Pelicans / Hornets), Wizards, Bucks, Timberwolves, and Bulls. And, nine teams have won it once. That list includes Charlotte, Houston, the Nets, Trail Blazers, Raptors, Warriors, Suns, Spurs, and Celtics (who won it in 2017 and traded the pick to the Sixers). Adding that all up, only 18 of the 30 teams have won the Lottery over the last 30 years.

That leaves 12 of the NBA’s 30 teams who haven’t won the Lottery over the last 30 years. If those 12 teams had been consistently very good, then perhaps this system could be defended.  If that were the case, we could conclude that those 12 teams didn’t need an infusion of talent to make them good enough to advance the overall goal of competitive balance in the league. To be sure, some of those 12 teams have been very good for most of the 30-year period we’re looking at – including the Lakers, Mavs, and Heat. The fact that the Lakers haven’t won the Lottery during a period of time when they had Shaq, Kobe, and LeBron doesn’t establish that anything’s wrong with the Lottery system. The Mavs and Heat rode the careers of Nowitzki and Wade to sustained excellence for a long while. No problem there. The Pistons haven’t been consistently good, but they hung a banner during the previous 30 years. That still leaves 8 teams who have won neither the Lottery nor a championship: the Hawks, Jazz, Kings, Pacers, Thunder (Sonics), Nuggets, Grizzlies, and, of course, the Knicks.

I know that I’m just a slow dude with a blog that only three people read, but nonetheless I know enough about the game to see that this ping-pong-ball-based system isn’t giving us a fair distribution of talent. I see better possible ways of distributing incoming talent, assuming that the goals are to (1) maximize the league’s competitive balance, while (2) disincentivizing losing and minimizing the possibility that randomness winds up awarding a small number of teams nearly all of the time. For example, how about a rule establishing that when a team wins the Lottery, it’s ineligible to win the Lottery again during any of the next 5 years? That would have covered the Magic’s back-to-back wins in ’92 and ’93, as well as the Cavs landing the top pick in 3 of the 4 years from 2011-2014. It also would have prevented the Timberwolves from landing the top pick this year. Or, what about a rule establishing that when a team wins a championship it’s ineligible to win the Lottery during the next 5 seasons? That would have covered the Bulls winning the Lottery in 1999.

Reversing those unearned advantages would almost certainly not have been enough to make the Knicks respectable. It’s hard to imagine what would have had to happen to achieve respectability for the Knicks. Even so, it’s clear that they’ve suffered from an unfair system. Our own inability to imagine a world where the Knicks are competitive shouldn’t prevent us from imagining a better system for the league to use when it distributes incoming talent.

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For reasons I didn’t understand, as time has moved closer to the Draft Lottery on May 14th, I’ve found myself caring deeply about the Knicks, regularly hoping they land Zion Williamson, and thinking about how I want them to approach the offseason. This invisible gravitational pull to the Knicks is unfamiliar, because, after spending many years of my life as a passionate Knicks fan, I’ve been disinterested for just about 20 years, with a brief interruption when Carmelo Anthony made them relevant for a short while. I’ve been too busy for too long to find time to watch a team that brings me no joy. And the Knicks, for a long time, have brought me no joy. Yet, as the Draft Lottery has gotten closer, I’ve found myself caring. And May 12th helped me understand why.

The appropriate place to start this story is in 1984. I was seven.  And the Knicks were terrible.  I mean terr-a-bull. But, I loved them.

One of the quirky features of the house I grew up in was that my closet connected to my parents’ closet.  So, if you opened my closet door, you could take two steps and be in their closet, and then take two steps more and be in their room.  This quirk allowed me to get from my room to theirs without walking across the top of the staircase. This meant that if they put me to bed and went downstairs, I could walk into their room and turn on the TV.

I had some kind of strange inclination to inflict pain upon myself, so I would take advantage of this opportunity to sneak into their room and watch the Knicks, during a time when the Knicks were terrible.

And, in case I wasn’t clear the first time, I mean they were terr-a-bull.  Have you heard of Pat Cummings? Rory Sparrow?  Ken “The Animal” Bannister?  You haven’t?  That’s my point.

Terrible.

This intentional infliction of pain upon myself was destined to end badly, and end badly it did.  One night when I was watching, the Knicks got beaten so convincingly that I couldn’t help but cry hysterically.  It’s my earliest memory.  Literally.  The first clear memory that I have of my childhood is of a night when I snuck into my parents’ room to watch the Knicks, and the Knicks lost so badly that I couldn’t help but blow my own cover crying so loudly that my parents heard me and learned what I had done. I remember watching.  And I remember crying.  And I remember thinking “If I keep crying, they’re gonna hear me.  And if they hear me, they’re gonna know I’ve been sneaking in to watch TV. But I don’t care. The Knicks are just so terrible, and it isn’t fair. They need to know that it just isn’t fair.”

The next thing I remember was a few months later.  I was in my living room, watching TV in the daylight, not getting myself into any trouble.  It was May 12, 1985, and I was nervously watching the NBA Draft Lottery.  I remember when the Knicks were revealed to be the winner, landing the rights to Patrick Ewing.  I remember tossing the couch pillows up to the ceiling.  Remember jumping up and down. Remember screaming and throwing my arms up in the air.  Remember slapping my father five in celebration.

Twelve years later, on May 12, 1997, my father passed away.

Given that I have so few vivid memories from before May 12, 1985 – literally, just that night of watching the Knicks after bedtime and getting myself into trouble, and maybe one or two others – those two days are the bookends of my memories with my dad.  May 12, 1985 and May 12, 1997.

Lots of those memories – I mean lots – involve basketball.  Playing basketball.  Talking about basketball.  Arguing about basketball.  Watching basketball.  Specifically, watching Patrick Ewing and the Knicks.

I remember watching on Christmas Day at my aunt and uncle’s house, when the Knicks were down by 25 points to the Celtics.  I remember my uncle saying “if the Knicks win this game, I’ll eat my hat.” And I remember Patrick Ewing leading them to a victory.  Physically unable to eat his hat, but wanting to be a man of his word, I remember that my uncle said he’d take us to a fun Knicks game.  I remember going with him and my dad (and maybe my brother? He was 6 at the time, and I’m not sure whether he joined us) the night they retired Earl Monroe’s jersey. I remember watching with my dad during the crazy night of the OJ car chase. (My dad was the only person I knew who, as the OJ trial was happening, was regularly talking about the holes in the prosecution’s case.  But I digress.)

For the rest of my life, I’ll have exactly twelve years of memories with my dad: May 12, 1985 – May 12, 1997 (putting aside that one memory of my night spent crying about the Knicks).  Patrick Ewing is right in the middle of many of those memories.  I’d like to think I’d have great memories with my dad even if that draft lottery had gone a different way.  But, thankfully, we’ll never know.  What we know is that one moment on May 12, 1985 changed my beloved Knicks from terrible to competitive, and gifted me twelve years of good times watching with my dad.

Now, as we move on from May 12, 2019, the Knicks are as terrible as they’ve ever been.  My kids are aware of their existence, but they’ve shown almost no interest in watching with me. Starting to develop a skill for manipulation, they’ve very recently figured out that they can avoid going to bed at bedtime by saying “but Daddy, I want to watch basketball with you! Can I stay up for just a few more minutes watching basketball?”  (I don’t know whether to be proud, or angry.) But, in terms of real interest in watching basketball, there have been hardly any genuine signs. And any interest in the Knicks specifically has been almost non-existent. Until a few days ago, that is… when there were highlights of Zion Williamson on TV… and I asked them to come watch… and I told them that he might be a Knick one day soon.

And they said “That would be cool! He looks like he’s good, and it would be cool for him to be on the Knicks!”

Yeah.  That would be cool.

So, I’ll put on my Patrick Ewing shirt for good luck.  And I’ll cheer for the Knicks to get Zion.  And I’ll actually be disappointed if they don’t.  But, either way, I’ll eagerly wait for July 1st, caring about what the Knicks do with their cap space in a way that I haven’t cared about what the Knicks do for a very long time. And I’ll be disappointed if they don’t land two quality players who are capable of making them competitive.

I’m quite sure that I’ll find plenty of things to enjoy doing with my kids over the years, regardless of whether the Knicks win the Draft Lottery, or sign a superstar.  I don’t want to be overdramatic about it. The future of my relationship with my kids does not depend on the Knicks catching a break at the Draft Lottery, or being able to use their cap space on two stud players.

But, a competitive Knicks team to watch with my kids as they grow up?  Yeah.  That would be cool.

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