Another Knicks Story

Yesterday I told the story of Maurice Taylor, a player Isiah Thomas waived this summer. Today I thought I would tell another story about the Knicks – yes, another one – with a focus on the players Taylor is leaving behind.

Last year the Knicks spent more on playing talent than any team in NBA history. And the team only won 23 games.

What steps did Isiah take to fix this mess? First off, he fired the coach. Larry Brown, though, was probably not the problem. No, the problem was with the players Isiah assembled. Unfortunately, Isiah is reluctant to admit that his players are not part of the solution because these are HIS players. Every player employed by the Knicks has been hand-selected by Isiah Thomas himself.

Consequently the Knicks are bringing back basically the same cast again. His starting line-up – Eddy Curry, Channing Frye, Quentin Richardson, Steve Francis, and Stephon Marbury — were with the team in 05-06. The main reserves from opening night – Jamal Crawford, David Lee, and Nate Robinson – are also repeat offenders in the Big Apple. The team also brought back Malik Rose and Jerome James.

The only new faces are Renaldo Balkman, Jared Jeffries, Kelvin Cato, and Mardy Collins. What do these newcomers have in common? With the exception of Collins, all of these player’s are non-scorers. As noted this summer, Isiah did discover the importance of role players. Unfortunately, with Jeffries hurt, these newcomers combined to only play ten minutes on opening night.

Discovering role players does help, but one wonders if Isiah did enough to change this team’s fortunes. The Knicks are bringing back 10 players from a team that won 23 games. Can these players help Isiah meet the ultimatum of James Dolan – the owner of the Knicks – who said that Isiah had one year to fix this team?

A problem we have with answering this question is that we do not know what constitutes a fix. Do the Knicks have to be at least a .500 team?

If winning half your games is the goal, the Knicks will have to improve by 18 games. And recent history says that will be difficult. Since the 1993-94 campaign we see only 19 teams – out of a sample of 372 – manage to improve by 18 wins or more.

Typically these teams have added a major star. For example, the San Antonio Spurs in 1997-98 improved by 36 wins over the previous campaign. Much of this improvement was caused by the team adding Tim Duncan and getting David Robinson back from injury. In 2004-05 the Phoenix Suns improved by 33 wins after acquiring Steve Nash in the summer of 2004. And the New Jersey Nets improved by 26 wins when it added Jason Kidd in the summer of 2001.

Unfortunately for fans of the NBA’s most expensive team, no major star was added to this roster. No, Isiah is mostly playing the same hand Larry Brown played to such acclaim last year. And recent history tells us that outcome should be similar. Not one team, since 1993-94, who gained at least 18 games in the standings brought back as many as 10 players from the previous campaign.

The lesson this record teaches is that teams who want to change outcomes typically have to change the players. And this is because, unlike athletes in baseball and football (where we do see some inconsistency), basketball players tend to offer similar levels of productivity from season to season. Although the past is not a perfect predictor of the future in hoops, the link between past and future is strong enough to advise teams to avoid bringing back the same cast and then hope for dramatically different outcomes.

Isiah Thomas is clearly a student of NBA history, having created so much of it himself. It is this very history, though, that he will have to overcome as coach of the Knicks. For this team to be a winner in 2006-07 Thomas will have to coax wins from players who have never produced many wins before. Unfortunately, the general consistency we observe in NBA players suggests that Thomas the coach needed a bit more help from Thomas the general manager to turn this team around. Inviting the same players to return likely invites the same outcome in the standings. Only this time, that result might cause the Knicks to change both its coach and general manager.

– DJ

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