Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The New York Times Don't Make the Man

[Insert Jayson Blair joke here.]

I never thought I would quote the BeeGees for any reason, but it makes sense after reading their post-season NBA awards, including this little nugget:

"WORST EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR Chucky Atkins might say it was Kobe Bryant. But in general manager circles, the joke is that Atlanta's Billy Knight should be named executive of the last two years. Knight wanted draft picks to rebuild his team up from the basement, but in the process he traded Rasheed Wallace to Detroit at the deadline last season. And he traded Antoine Walker back to the Celtics at this year's deadline, while agreeing to waive Gary Payton, who rejoined the Celtics without ever leaving. While the Hawks are languishing, the Pistons and the Celtics are in the playoffs."

The author of this nugget, Liz Robbins, shouldn't have to look any farther than her own borough to find the worst GM in basketball. Isiah Thomas has assembled a high-priced team of mediocre players with long term contracts. The Knicks are going to be bad for the foreseeable future because they're not quite bad enough to get a great draft pick, but they're not good enough to win anything. More importantly, they have no cap space for the foreseeable future, which is a crime in New York, which is one of the most attractive places to play in the NBA.

Knight, on the other hand, understands rebuilding far better than Thomas does. While Thomas was busy destroying the CBA and mishandling the Indiana Pacers, Knight was laying the groundwork for the Memphis Grizzlies' emergence. (Don't be fooled by Memphis' eight seed. If they were in the East, they'd be as good as any of the playoff contenders, save Detroit and Miami.) Knight did so by building the right way. The team was terrible, but he resisted quick fix solutions and relied on the Draft to build a young nucleus. Now, Memphis is a more attractive place for a free agent.

Robbins suggests that Knight should have held onto Wallace and Walker. Huh? First of all, the team wouldn't have won with those guys because they aren't top players. They are successful as second or third fiddles on their current teams, but even if the Hawks could have kept them both, they wouldn't be much better than a marginal playoff team, not unlike the Knicks last year. In any event, keeping Walker or Wallace is pie in the sky dreaming because Wallace was not going to re-sign with Atlanta and Walker was only going to do so for far more money than he's worth.

Instead, Knight got a mid-first round pick for Wallace, the pick that became Josh Smith. He also got a first round pick for Walker, which could ultimately be a lottery pick if the Celtics don't make the playoffs next year. He got Al Harrington for Stephen Jackson, whom the Hawks weren't going to keep anyway. He's also kept the team's cap space so they can throw oversized contracts at the young big men on the restricted free agent market this year. He's basically building the same way that the Bulls built: suck for several years, draft well, and then build a young nucleus around which a fan base (and free agents) can rally.

In a few years, when the Hawks are starting something like Harrington, Smith, Childress, Chris Paul, and Tyson Chandler (all G-d-willing), all in their mid-20s in the second half of this decade, and the Knicks are rolling out Starbury and Jamal Crawford along with seven undersized power forwards, we'll see who did a better job building a team.

The key to this whole scenario is Knight making good draft decisions and not overpaying for the wrong guy, which he nearly did for Erick Dampier. The Josh Childress selection is looking better and better, especially if he develops a jumper over the summer. The Josh Smith selection was terrific, especially for the middle of the first round. If Knight can replicate that Draft success, then the Hawks are on the road to success, no matter what the New York Times says.

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