Considering how consistently successful the New York Yankees were under the stewardship of owner George Steinbrenner during the final 15 years of his reign, it’s hard to imagine a time when the Yanks struggled as mightily as the latter-day New York Knicks. However, the decade of the 1980’s up through the mid-90’s represented a relatively dark time for baseball fans in the Bronx.
Although we now think of the Yankees as a flagship MLB franchise, it certainly wasn’t always that way. For the disappointing Yankee teams of yesteryear, spending exorbitant sums of money didn’t result in postseason success. Beginning in 1982, the Yankees failed to qualify for the postseason for 13 straight seasons.
The Yanks made headlines for all the wrong reasons during this drastically disappointing stretch. Steinbrenner devolved into a caricature, his misdeeds landing him on the back page of the New York tabloids almost daily. Ruling as an angry despot with an iron fist, “The Boss” (as Steinbrenner came to be known) had his employees scurrying in fear.
This all came to an abrupt halt in July of 1990 when Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent launched an investigation which uncovered that Steinbrenner had paid $40,000 to a gambler named Howie Spira to dig up dirt on Yankee OF Dave Winfield (with whom Steinbrenner was feuding). As a result, Vincent took drastic action, banning Steinbrenner from the day-to-day operations of the Yankees organization.
Ironically, this allowed the Yankees, for the first time in a long time, to focus on developing their farm system, as opposed to relying on quick fixes and throwing excessive money at expensive free agents.
The Yanks began to sacrifice short-term, short-lived improvements for sustainable, long-term success. With ‘The Boss’ out of the picture, GM Gene “Stick” Michael (along with manager Buck Showalter) was finally allowed to patiently work his plan. Michael would sow the seeds that eventually blossomed into the epic dynasty that captured four World Series tiles in five years. And of course they have been a near constant in the postseason ever since.
Upon his return to the team in 1992, Steinbrenner’s desire to win had not decreased in any way; however, ‘The Boss’ did exhibit far greater patience and much greater willingness to listen to his sage GM. Steinbrenner would now allow himself to be talked into more prudent decisions. (The stories of Stick Michael convincing Steinbrenner not to trade away future stars such as Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera have become legendary.)
On the day Steinbrenner was suspended, he was anything but the beloved owner that was eulogized glowingly upon his passing in 2010. In fact, Steinbrenner was despised by many Yankee fans back in the 80’s and early 90’s.
However, the incredible success the organization enjoyed during the latter portion of his tenure as owner obviously changed popular opinion and public sentiment.
So, why on earth are we discussing the Yankees on a basketball site?
It’s because the current owner of the New York Knicks can learn an extremely valuable lesson from the late, great George Steinbrenner. Specifically, how an intrusive, hands-on owner took a step back and gradually changed his approach, which was essential in the evolution of the Yankee from league-wide laughingstock into a wildly successful flagship franchise.
Steinbrenner and Dolan are polar opposites in many, many ways. The Boss loved the spotlight and coveted the back page. Dolan, on the other hand, is a relative recluse who dodges any form of media attention as if it was a right hand from Mike Tyson. Not only would Steinbrenner speak with reporters on a daily basis, he would go out of his way to contact them personally in order to vent publicly. There were no secrets in Yankee universe. Conversely, the Knicks regime under Dolan has a hard-earned reputation as arguably the most closed-off organization in any of the four major sports.
Nonetheless, these two men are, in some important respects, very similar. Both inherited a fortune from their uber-successful fathers. In addition, they are both blissfully willing to spend whatever it takes to see their team win. Despite the obvious lack of success the Knicks have experienced since the Dolan took control of the team (just one playoff series win in fifteen years), the Knicks are among the league’s top spenders every single season.
Still, Knick fans are planning a protest next week on the steps of MSG in the hopes of forcing Dolan to sell the Knicks. Typically, when fans are angry enough to beg an owner to sell his squad, it’s because said owner is too cheap and refuses to put a competitive product on the floor.
This is certainly not the case in NYC.
Dolan has always been willing to go above-and-beyond in order to buy the best players. The issue has been he has often trusted the wrong people (such as Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas) to pick which players to pay for. And even when Dolan has hired smart, respected basketball lifers to call the shots (such as Donnie Walsh and Glen Grunwald) these men have been unceremoniously pushed out the door.
In recent years, as Walsh and Grunwald were brushed aside, Dolan seems to have become more and more hands on. By most accounts, it was Dolan who negotiated the blockbuster deal that sent four starters and multiple draft picks to Denver in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. Many have suggested Andrea Bargnani being represented by CAA played a very important role in Dolan approving that trade. It was also reported by numerous outlets that it was Dolan who ended up nixing a deal for Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, as Dolan became angered that news of the negotiations had been leaked.
As Dolan’s purported meddling in Knicks affairs has increased, the negative ramifications it has had on the roster have become more prominent. Similarly, the excessively restrictive media policy he enforces with an iron fist has been devastating to the franchise’s reputation around the league. Dolan needs to step aside and allow a trained professional clean up this mess, and eventually begin to rebuild the organization on a solid foundation.
Many Knicks fans have allowed a sense of hopelessness to sink in, and it’s hard to blame them. Clearly the NBA would have no reason to banish Dolan from the day-to-day operations of the team, as MLB had done with Steinbrenner nearly 25 years ago; but what if Dolan decided he’d adhere to a self-imposed exile? Is that what the Knicks need to snap out of this nightmarish rut they have been since 2001?
What if Dolan voluntarily agreed to do what was best for the franchise? This would mean stepping aside and ceding complete control to a respected, capable and competent general manager. Ideally, said GM would retain absolute authority regarding all basketball decisions, including the hiring of a new head coach?
There is an imposed limit (salary cap) on the amount of money an NBA owner can spend on players; yet there are no such limitations on what a team chooses to spend on its coaches and basketball executives. It’s hard to imagine the Knicks returning to respectability anytime soon, but with the team potentially looking at a boatload of cap space in 2015, there could be hope on the horizon.
Truth be told, last week, when this article was first conceived of, the rumors of Phil Jackson taking over in New York had not yet sprouted up. Of course the appeal of Jackson, and the 11 rings he brings to the table, is undeniably appealing. In many ways he is an absolute ideal fit, considering his strong will and impeccable pedigree, to lead a wholesale culture change within the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden.
However, there are also obvious causes for concern. Jackson will soon be 69 years of age and has battled serious health issues, which have impeded his ability to travel. Will Jackson be willing to commit 100% to what is undoubtedly a full-time job that requires exceedingly long hours?
Still, while Jackson would be a bit of a gamble considering that he’s never held a similar position before, it seems well worth a roll of the dice. As the upside of having a qualified basketball mind calling the shots for the Knicks is self-evident.
However, at the end of the day, this is all about Dolan. Jackson, or any other respected executive tasked with rebuilding the Knicks, will only be as successful as Dolan allows them to be. If there is a power struggle, the guy who writes the checks will always win. In order for the Knicks to take significant strides forward, Dolan has to move out of the way and fade into the background.
Back in the summer of 1990, it seemed extremely unlikely that Steinbrenner would one day be adored and venerated by Yankees fans as he approached his 80th birthday. Could Dolan’s reign ever result in such respect and adulation? The only way may be Dolan willingly taking a far less intrusive role in the day-to-day operation of the organization he owns.
NBA Daily: Deadline Dilemma In Toronto
After winning the 2019 NBA Championship and losing Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors have defied the odds, winning 30 of their first 44 games this season — but Drew Maresca argues that conceding this season in hopes of building an even stronger future roster is the smarter long-term move.
The Raptors have overachieved in a ridiculous way in 2019-20. They were +700 to repeat as NBA champions prior to the 2019 free agency period, according to the Draft Kings.
Immediately after Kawhi Leonard fled West, the Raptors’ odds grew to +2200 to repeat – tied with the Celtics, who just lost Kyrie Irving, and the Nets, whose best player was set to miss the entire year. And yet through 44 games, the Raptors are third in the Eastern Conference with a 31-14 record and only one-and-a-half games behind last year’s pace (32-12).
But what’s in a record? There’s more to unpack than just wins and losses, especially when success has almost certainly been redefined in a city that just experienced its first NBA championship ever. So a logical test is how well you’re playing against the crème de la crème. And in that regard, the Raptors haven’t fared too well. Including their home win against Philadelphia on Wednesday night, the Raptors are still only 7-12 against winning teams with a net rating of minus-37 in those 19 games.
Very few teams would be terribly upset to be in a similar situation as the Raptors. In fact, most teams would be thrilled to be third overall in their conference. But the Raptors are barreling toward an interesting decision: embrace the opportunity to continue to gain playoff experience (and additional playoff revenue) or expedite a miniature rebuild. This writer’s thoughts on the matter are well documented in our 2019-20 Toronto Raptors Season Preview and our recent Atlantic Division – buyers or sellers piece. But let’s officially build a case supporting the Raptors trading some of their veterans in an attempt to add assets prior to the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
The Raptors’ most valuable trade chip is also their longest-tenured player – starting point guard, Kyle Lowry. Lowry is 33 years old and experiencing a career resurgence after taking a back seat to Leonard last year. Lowry is averaging a near career-high 37.1 minutes per game, in which time he’s scoring 20 points per game – more than he’s scored since 2016-17 — and dishing out 7.5 assists.
But Lowry is probably the last guy the team wants to move. He’s a fan favorite and has been with the team for eight consecutive seasons; Lowry is currently third overall for games played in franchise history. But if they chose to dangle Lowry on the trade market, they would certainly get a good amount of interest from teams like the Lakers, HEAT, 76ers and maybe even the Jazz and Nuggets. What interested parties would offer is an entirely different story, but it would have to be pretty aggressive to get the Raptors to part with their franchise player.
But there are other guys who make more sense in a trade.
There’s Marc Gasol, their soon-to-be 35-year-old center. Unlike Lowry, Gasol is not experiencing a career renaissance. He’s missed 12 of their 44 games, with down years in scoring (7.8 points per game compared to his 14.7 career average), two-point shooting (44% compared to his from 49.7% career average) and rebounds (6.4 rebounds compared to his 7.6. career average). But he still has a good amount of utility in him. After all, he leads the Raptors in defensive plus/minus, per Basketball Reference – something that he’s prided himself on throughout his career and an attribute that would be a welcomed addition to most contenders.
There’s also Serge Ibaka, their 30-year-old sometimes-starting, sometimes-backup big man. Ibaka is actually outpacing career averages in scoring (14.9), rebounds (8.4) and assists (1.3). Ibaka is still widely viewed as an above-average and versatile defender, and the fact that he’s shooting 37% on three-pointers makes him all the more valuable to teams like the Boston Celtics – who lack a true big man who can stretch the floor.
Gasol and Ibaka’s standing in Toronto is especially vulnerable since both will enter free agency this summer — whereas Lowry signed an extension last year that runs through 2020-21, when he’ll make $30.5 million. The Raptors could choose to keep Gasol and/or Ibaka, but either or both could walk without returning any assets as soon as this July. Further, the team is unlikely to break the bank for either considering they’ll have to make a generous offer to retain soon-to-be free agent guard Fred VanVleet – who is having a breakout season, averaging 18.7 points and 6.7 assists per game while shooting 38.8% on a career-high 6.9 three-point attempts per game. VanVleet is only 25 years old and fits alongside Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and the team’s young role players like Norman Powell far better than Ibaka or Gasol.
As it stands, the Raptors have about $85 million in salary commitments for 2020-21 with $3.8 million in a player option (Stanley Johnson) and another $1.5 million in a team option (Terence Davis). The cap is projected at $116 million with the luxury tax kicking in at $141 million. They can (and should) invest between $20 and $25 million per year in VanVleet, which brings them up to about $110 million. If negotiations begin creeping north of $25 million per year, the Raptors will have to make concessions elsewhere if they hope to retain VanVleet – Ibaka would theoretically be among those concessions since he’ll probably be looking for at least one more generous payday. It’s unclear what Gasol would seek in a new contract.
All three of the aforementioned Raptors have at least one thing in common – they are the only three Raptors born before 1990. So whether they like it or not, the Raptors have turned their roster over quickly and effectively to the extent that they have a talented young core with the framework of a contender in the making.
All three veteran players can definitely continue contributing for at least the remainder of this season – and to varying degrees, well beyond it. But their impact will be more profound on a contender looking to add quality veterans. And despite what their record tells us, that’s just not the Raptors right now.
Instead, the Raptors are a team in the very fortunate position of being able to reload relatively quickly around a blossoming young core. Yes, they’re significantly better than average, but which would you prefer: a team that qualifies for the conference semifinals in 2019-20 or a team that loses in the first round of the 2019-20 playoffs, but adds additional assets — some of whom help the team remain competitive for years to come?
Granted, dislodging Lowry from Toronto requires a monster offer and would result in at least some backlash; but neglecting to trade Gasol and/or Ibaka is likely to result in one or both leaving to pursue more money and/or additional championships – neither of which can the Raptors offer. The Raptors and team president Masai Ujiri have made bold moves time and again. There is no reason to hold off on moving either Gasol and/or Ibaka before Feb. 6 – and if a sweetheart offer comes in for Lowry, then him, too.
Regardless, the Raptors are fairly well set up for the future, so it is unlikely that this move (or lack of it) is analyzed too aggressively in the future. And also, there is certainly a fine line between being opportunist and greedy. But trading one, both or all veterans allows the team to add additional assets to a cupboard that already looks pretty well stocked.
And it’s probably one of the final opportunities to add talent before their core takes its final form — and if that form results in future championships is partially dependent on how the Raptors proceed before the 2020 trade deadline.
NBA Daily: Raptors’ Thomas Patiently Perseveres
It took a tight family, two years in Spain and a broken finger, but Matt Thomas’ chance to showcase his shooting on the biggest stage might be finally just around the corner.
Matt Thomas’ long-awaited break was disrupted by a more literal break. After the shooting guard spent two years impressing in the Liga ACB in Spain, Thomas’ first season with the Toronto Raptors was supposed to be his chance to prove himself NBA-ready.
And as the Raptors suffered injury after injury in November, that chance looked like it could grow into a full-blown role, if only on a temporary basis.
“He’s shown he can play at this level, where we can come out there and run stuff for him and he can do work,” Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s a really good team defender; he’s much better defensively than maybe people give him credit for.”
Instead, Thomas joined the walking wounded with a broken finger, the first injury to force him to miss extended time in his professional career.
“Anytime you’re injured, it’s hard,” Thomas said. “As a competitor, I want to be on the court, especially we had so many injuries. There was a big opportunity on the table for a first-year guy like myself.”
Thomas had hit 14-of-26 threes at that point, 53.8 percent, already arguably the best shooter on the Raptors’ roster, albeit in limited minutes. The Iowa State product was making the most of his break until his break.
He had waited for it since finishing his four-year career in Ames and Thomas seemed on the verge of reaching the NBA right away in 2017. He spent that Summer League with the Los Angeles Lakers, knowing the Raptors were keeping a close eye. In time, though, Valencia beckoned, a tough decision for someone exceptionally close with his family. Up until that point, the closeness had been as literal as figurative, with Iowa State a four-hour drive from Thomas’ hometown of Onalaska, Wisconsin.
“I wanted to spread my wings and get out of my comfort zone a little bit,” Thomas said of his two years in Spain where he averaged 13.3 points and shot 47.2 percent from deep. “The distance is tough. The time change is the other thing. It’s a 7-to-8 hour time difference, so you really have to coordinate when you’re going to talk to people.”
That was frustrating for a brother intent on keeping up on his sister’s college career, now a senior at the University of Dubuque. Moreover, it was an even bigger change for a family that had been tight-knit since Thomas lost his father in fifth grade.
Thomas’s mother, brother and sister did manage to visit him in Spain, but watching games stateside is obviously much easier. At least, in theory. When the Midwestern winter dumped five inches of snow on the highways between the Target Center and his hometown about 2.5 hours away, that recent trek to see him became that much tougher.
Nonetheless, about four dozen Thomas supporters filled a section above the Raptors’ bench. They were most noticeable when Nurse subbed in the sharpshooter with just a minute left in the first half.
“It’s special because I have a really good support system,” Thomas said. “I’ve had that my entire life . . . It’s just really special to have so many people make the trip, especially given the weather conditions. I was talking to one of my cousins from Iowa; he was driving 30 on the highway. He got here in six hours, it would normally take maybe three.”
If anyone could understand that Midwestern stubbornness, it would be Nurse, himself from just four hours south of the Twin Cities. When asked why his fan club was not as vocal as Thomas’, Nurse joked his was stuck “in a snowdrift somewhere in Carroll County, Iowa.”
It might not have been a joke.
Nurse did not insert Thomas just to appease his loyal cheering section. The end of half situation called for a shooter — he had gone 7-of-18 in his four games after returning from the broken finger. Of players averaging at least two attempts from beyond the arc per game, Thomas leads Toronto with a 46.7 percentage.
“It’s too bad that he was one of the guys out when we had everybody out because he could have logged some serious minutes,” Nurse said. “Now he gets back and everybody’s back and he kind of gets filtered in.”
That close family, that time in Spain, that broken finger and now that filtering in have all been a part of Thomas getting a chance to prove himself in the NBA.
If he has to wait a bit longer before seeing serious minutes, so be it.
The Raptors did, after all, give him a three-year contract. He has time on his side.
Who The NBA’s Top Road Warriors?
Jordan Hicks takes a look at the teams boasting the top-five road records in the league and breaks down what makes them so good away from home.
Winning in the NBA is not easy by any means — but a victory on the road is almost more valuable than one at home. Maybe not as far as standings are concerned, but road wins are harder to come by in the league. Being able to get victories away from home can shoot your team up the standings faster than anything else.
Each year there are new teams that impress. Whether it’s expected franchises such as those led by LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard — superstars with historically great track records, rosters that must do so to meet lofty expectations. But there are always surprise newcomers such as the Miami HEAT or the Dallas Mavericks, too. Either way, a large chunk of those aforementioned team’s success relies heavily upon their ability to get wins on the road.
Who are the best road warriors this year? What teams are posting the highest records away from their home cities at the halfway point? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the top five teams in that realm, plus points to certain reasons they may be finding success.
No. 1: Los Angeles Lakers (19-4)
This first one should come as no surprise. For one, they are led by LeBron James. Secondly, they are co-led by Anthony Davis. Do you even need a third reason?
Listen, everyone thought the Lakers would be good. But did anyone think they’d be this dominant and click this fast? Honestly, high-five if so. But it’s not just those two that are doing all the work. Players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are thriving, Dwight Howard is having a mini-resurgence, Kyle Kuzma is playing for his roster spot and Rajon Rondo is still dishing dimes at a high rate – though not as high as King James.
LeBron is averaging 26 points, 10.9 assists and 8.4 rebounds on the road, almost a triple-double. Davis is just behind scoring-wise at 25.9 points and almost a double-double with 9.2 rebounds. Kuzma is shooting 47.2 percent from the field and scoring just over 15 a game and, most surprisingly, leading the team in plus-minus at a plus-7.1.
With multiple road-wins against the Mavericks — and one each over the Miami HEAT, the Utah Jazz, and the Denver Nuggets — what’s not to appreciate? The Lakers appear to be the clear front runner in the Western Conference and their impressive road record is a large reason why.
No. 2: Milwaukee Bucks (18-4)
On top of the road-win totem with the Lakers sits the Milwaukee Bucks. They’ve been every bit as dominating as the Lakers, which is helped, in part, to the much-weaker bottom of the Eastern Conference. But this by no means is a knock on their talent level. Just like the Lakers are the current kings of the West, the Bucks are dominating the East.
Giannis Antetokounmpo appears ready to secure his second consecutive MVP award. He’s even more dominant than he was last year and he’s finally shooting the three at a respectable clip.
While Antetokounmpo’s numbers seem to be pretty steady overall when compared to his road numbers, Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton both see a bump in production when playing away from their home arena. Although the Bucks have an insanely-impressive point differential of plus-13.8 at home, it dips to just plus-11.4 when they play on the road. This is a true testament to their consistency as they travel.
The Bucks appear to lack the road-win resume that the Lakers bolster, but with solid wins against the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets, they can clearly take care of business against evenly-matched opponents.
No. 3: Dallas Mavericks (14-5)
By far and large the biggest surprise this NBA season has been the Mavericks. A few smart people probably had them penciled in as a surprise eighth-seed, but it’s almost a guarantee no one had them in as a playoff lock as early as December.
The reason they’re playing so well? Luka Doncic. He’s only half an assist away from averaging a triple-double on the road and he’s scoring more to boot. In fact, the Mavericks are averaging just 115.1 points at home compared to a whopping 118.6 on the road.
What’s even crazier is the fact that Dallas’ offensive rating while on the road not only leads the NBA — it’s over four full points greater than the Lakers at No. 2. The gap between them and second place is as big as the space between Los Angeles and the eleventh-ranked team.
The Mavericks boast quite the slate of road wins including the Nuggets, Lakers, Bucks, Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. Yes, you read all those names right. One thing is for certain, the Mavericks will be a nightmare for whoever has to play them in the playoffs – regardless of seeding.
No. 4: Toronto Raptors (14-7)
You would think that after Kawhi Leonard’s departure that the Raptors would have slightly folded, but they’ve almost picked up right where they left off. Sure, Leonard’s absence was going to leave some sort of void, but it’s amazing just how well Toronto has fared this season.
They boast the second-best road defense with a rating of 102.7, just behind the Bucks. They also have the fourth-best net rating away from home.
The three-headed monster of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry has been as effective on the road as it has been at home. Thanks to the ever-improving play of Siakam, Toronto should comfortably find themselves with home-court advantage come playoff time. They might not have what it takes to repeat as champions, but they’re absolutely going to make life tough for whomever they end up facing.
Solid road wins against the Boston Celtics and Lakers certainly look impressive on the resume, but they’ll need to continue to improve as a unit if they want to make any noise in the playoffs.
No. 5: Denver Nuggets (13-7)
The Nuggets are having an interesting season. Gary Harris hasn’t been playing well at all, Jamal Murray hasn’t been turning heads either, but Nikola Jokic is still feasting on any opposing center thrown his way.
The biggest surprise so far? The stellar play of second-year rookie Michael Porter Jr. He’s only averaging about 15 minutes per game but, on the road, he’s scoring 8.3 points per game on 56 percent from the field and 51.6 percent from three. His NBA sample sizes aren’t quite big enough yet, but it’s becoming more and more clear just how good he’ll become.
Despite no one else on the roster improving much from last season, the Nuggets still find themselves in the upper-echelon of the Western Conference — and their stellar road play is a major reason. With solid road-wins against the Lakers, Mavericks and Indiana Pacers, the Nuggets are primed to finish the second half of the season strong. If Porter Jr. continues to improve and see expanded minutes, Denver could turn into a real threat out west.
All the teams on this list have been pretty impressive up to this point in the season, but there is still a long way to go. Will the Bucks or Lakers get dethroned as the road warriors of their respective conferences? Only time will tell.
But if one thing is certain in the NBA, road wins are no “gimmes,” regardless of opponent. The above teams all deserve their rightful spot on this midseason list. How many will remain come April?