Do the Knicks Deserve a Mulligan?

Posted on May 28, 2007 by

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William Rhoden penned a column last Friday in The New York Times entitled “Poor Decisions? Knicks Deserve a Mulligan.” Rhoden argues in this column that the Knicks penchant for making bad decisions have left the team with a roster in salary cap hell. Too many bad contracts have resulted in a team unable to make any significant roster changes for at least two years. This means two more years of losing for the richest franchise in the NBA. Given the prominence of this team to The Association, Rhoden argues that David Stern should allow the Knicks to dump contracts and move itself under the salary cap. Then the Knicks would be able to make the moves necessary to bring a contender to The Big Apple.

Okay, if you’re not a Knicks fan, this argument may strike you as silly. Why should Stern suspend the rules so that one team can get better? After all, sports are a zero-sum game. If one team gets better, others must get worse. So another way of looking at this is to ask why Stern should suspend the rules to reduce the fortunes of teams outside New York?

If we approach this problem from the perspective of a profit-maximizing league, Rhoden’s argument might make some sense. On average a win increases a team’s regular season gate revenue by less than $300,000. But in New York, this same win increases the gate by more than $500,000. Wins are thus worth more in New York, and if the league was looking to maximize the value of wins it would make sure that the Knicks won more and teams located in Minnesota or Atlanta won less.

Of course teams do not split regular season gate revenue, so increasing wins in New York only benefits the Knicks, not the other members of the Association. One could argue that the Knicks generate a larger national TV audience than a team like the Spurs (although I would need to see some data to confirm this hypothesis) and therefore it would benefit the league to put a winner in New York (since TV money is shared by the league).

Although one can question whether the league truly benefits from having a winner in New York, it’s not clear that Rhoden’s plan would actually lead to more victories for the Knicks. The Knicks, as Rhoden noted, already have the league’s largest payroll. And they have been among the league leaders in payroll and revenue for some time. Despite this advantage, the Knicks are losers.

In the Winter, 2007 issue of the Yale Economic Review I authored an article (noted prominently on the cover) examining why the Knicks are such losers. My argument should be familiar to readers of The Wages of Wins. It should also be familiar to those who read The Wages of Wins Journal, where as the following list of posts illustrate, the Knicks are a frequent focus.

Larry Brown or Isiah Thomas?

Pinning Your Hopes on Eddy Curry?

Isiah Thomas Discovers Role Players

The Knicks and Team Chemistry

Addition by Subtraction

Another Knicks Story

Eddy Curry is a Star?

Do All Injuries Hurt?

The Curry Scoring Illusion

Time to Play Balkman and the Genius of Isiah

In the Yale Economic Review I noted that scoring is over-valued in the NBA. Whether we look at free agents salaries or the coaches voting for the All-Rookie team, we see that scoring is the one factor that dominates player evaluation. Consequently scorers are expensive and teams have to limit their employment of such players.

Isiah Thomas – the Knicks general manager and coach – is blessed with a very large payroll. Consequently he did not have to limit his employment of scorers. For the 2005-06 season the Knicks had an abundance of expensive scorers – Stephon Marbury, Eddy Curry, Maurice Taylor, Jalen Rose, Jamal Crawford, and Quentin Richardson – and a Hall of Fame coach in Larry Brown. But these scorers were not able to produce very many wins, and the coaching of Brown could not change that fact. In the end, this team of scorers failed miserably.

In the past two drafts the Knicks have added David Lee and Renaldo Balkman, two non-scorers who can produce wins. So it’s possible that Isiah has learned a lesson, although his talk of “team chemistry” suggests otherwise.

If Isiah has learned nothing from past experience, taking away his salary cap woes will solve nothing. Isiah will simply take his new money and purchase another collection of scorers. On the other hand, if some learning has taken place, Isiah could quickly build a winner in the Big Apple.

Of course, we again come back to the point made earlier. It’s not clear that non-Knicks fans should care to see the Knicks win. And given that Stern represents all 30 franchises, he may have a tough time explaining why the rules should be suspended for Isiah Thomas and the Knicks.

– DJ