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September 21, 2017

Reshaping The Knicks: Agility Plus Intuition Required

Everything starts with a strong foundation, the Knicks’ new general manager writes, but flexibility is crucial, too.


(Photo: Rebecca Taylor/MSG Photos)

At first blush, the NBA is a league of stars, big and strong, flashy long-range shooters, high jumpers, everyone moving at breakneck speed. It may seem at times like a game celebrating the individual over team, a giant skills competition.

That, however, is an illusion.

Peel back the veneer, and you’ll find something else, a game where none of that razzle dazzle stuff happens without someone emerging from a crowd under the boards to pull down a hard-fought rebound, without players who can read the whole court and find the open man, without a group hungry to play stalwart defense.

Thirty years in basketball, along the coaching lines and in the front office, have taught me that these ideas are timeless. Now, having just become Knicks GM, I’m convinced they are the foundation for long-term success.

There are no shortcuts. Reshaping the Knicks as a championship contender will be a step-by-step process, and along the way, the plan will demand patience, as our young core of Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Willy Hernangómez, Frank Ntilikina and Ron Baker mature.

But allow me to add a twist.

I don’t view my job as an either-or proposition. A general manager  especially in today’s world of free agency and player movement  must always have his antenna up for all possibilities. That requires a kind of agility mixed with intuition.

For instance, a free agent may come along who, you calculate, will give you a boost but doesn’t fit your long-term strategy. So you pass on him.

But let’s say there’s a player we’ve identified from the beginning, and he comes our way earlier than expected. And let’s say that his presence will help us develop our young players even more. That might be the moment to act.

Indeed, as time goes by, a solid foundation will actually help you be more flexible, readier to seize upon an unexpected opportunity.


Learning From Struggle

People have told me I’m a good listener, an instinct honed over three college coaching jobs and as an executive in the NBA with Detroit, Seattle, Orlando and Sacramento. My father, Lowell, deserves most of the credit. He was an All-American collegian who moved from professional football to the broadcast booth and into business, always blazing many trails for African-Americans.

I was impressed by the way my father gave of himself, managing to see each person he encountered as an individual. He was kind, but always direct. Perhaps people see a trace of that in me.

Knicks players and coaches will find that I am demanding and yet empathetic. Most people overcome adversity to achieve success, and I try to appreciate the player’s perspective. Playing quarterback in high school in Detroit, I was blindsided and suffered a compound fracture of my right arm. I can still recall the pain, and I have a screw in there as a souvenir.

If there was a watershed moment for me during that time, it was that injury. It made me more empathetic, and it actually made me a better and smarter basketball player.

For one thing, it made me better with my left hand, and overall it spurred me on to work on my body more rigorously, to understand the importance of strength.

More profoundly, years later as a college coach, when I was recruiting and developing young men from all different backgrounds, I could recognize the struggles and obstacles they were confronting. I suppose I became wise for my age.


A Contest of Wills

From the beginning, I’ve been around a lot of people with good basketball minds. Growing up, there were always coaches and people smart about sports coming in and out of the house, invited over by my father. And I’ve gleaned so much from the coaches, scouts and other general managers I’ve had the opportunity to work with in the NBA. Their wisdom on how to bring a group of young men together has stuck with me.

The Knicks team I envision is filled with players who lift one another’s game — a goal that animated the discussions I had with Knicks president Steve Mills both before and after I came aboard.

Talent is crucial, but talent without will won’t get you far. If my team’s makeup is to attack all loose balls and win that battle more than our opponent, only then will I be satisfied. That’s the kind of club I want to construct, the sort of team I’d pay to watch.

I want us to set a standard. I want us to put our stakes in the ground and say, “this is our culture.”

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