NBA in Threes Bonus Take: James Dolan needs to slow his roll

NBA New York Knicks James Dolan (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
NBA New York Knicks James Dolan (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

James Dolan is apparently poised to jump the gun again only 10 games into the New York Knicks’ season. Why he needs to accept that the Knicks need to be bad  for a while before they can be good and how hiring Ujiri wouldn’t work in any case

According to, James Dolan is planning to pursue Masai Ujiri when his contract with the Toronto Raptors expires after the 2021 season. Frank Isola of The Athletic, who has been covering the New York Knicks for many years is sited as the source of the information (subscription required).

My immediate thought upon reading this news was, “Here we go again!”

Now don’t get me wrong, Masai Ujiri is going to do incredible things wherever he works. That’s just who he is. It’s what he does. It’s how he rolls.

As a Toronto Raptors fan, I, of course, understand that the loss of Masai Ujiri would be a huge blow for the organization. It’s the last thing I want to see happen. But in terms of why my eyes immediately rolled back into my head when I read about Dolan and the Knicks pursuing him, that has nothing to do with it.

Here we go again relates to the fact that once again James Dolan is trying to jump the shark. Back in August, I wrote the first a four-part series on the Knicks chronicling all the terrible decisions and cultural toxicity that have caused them to be frankly the laughingstock of the NBA for the last 20 years.

One of the issues that have typified Dolan’s time as owner of the Knicks is a pattern of constant turnover in front-office and coaching positions. It can be easy to lose track from one season to another, let alone over two decades. To put it into perspective, the Knicks have had 29 coaches (including in interim capacities) and 20 executive stints since 1947. Thirteen of those coaches and nine of those execs have had their tenure during the 20 years since Dolan became the Knicks’ owner

  • Executive, Ernie Grunfeld – 1991-1999
  • Coach, Jeff Van Gundy – 1996-2002
  • Coach, Don Nelson – 1996-1996
  • Executive, Dave, Checketts – 1999-1999
  • Executive, Scott Layden – 1999-2003
  • Coach, Don Chaney – 2002-2004
  • Executive, Isiah Thomas – 2003-2008
  • Coach, Herb Williams – 2004-2005
  • Coach, Lenny Wilkens – 2004-2005
  • Coach, Larry Brown – 2006-2006
  • Coach, Isiah Thomas – 2007-2008
  • Executive, Donnie Walsh – 2008-2011
  • Coach, Mike D’Antoni – 2009-2012
  • Executive, Glen Grunwald – 2011-2013
  • Coach, Mike Woodson – 2012-2014
  • Executive, Steve Mills – 2013-2014
  • Executive, Phil Jackson – 2014-2017
  • Coach, Derek Fisher – 2015-2016
  • Coach, Jeff Hornacek – 2017-2018
  • Executive, Steve Mills – 2017-2019-Appointed Interim GM when Phil Jackson was fired; Hired as President when Scott Perry was announced as new GM
  • Coach, David Fizdale – 2019 – possibly to not too distant future

Think of it in terms of building a house. What happens if every few months, the homeowners decide they want to change the floor plan? Or, maybe every couple of weeks, they change their minds about the finishes and fixtures they want. What if, every once in a while, the owner decides that they don’t like the current foreman on the job and insists on having a new one to come in and work with all of the same laborers? This is essentially what has been happening within the Knicks organization for years now.

Going into this season, I knew that the Knicks had added some promising young talent to their roster including drafting rookie RJ Barrett, who in my opinion is in his first of many successful seasons in the NBA. There’s potential on this New York roster; real potential for the first time in a number of years.

Although the Knicks are sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and are tied with the Golden State Warriors for the worst record in the NBA, there are a lot of good things about this team. I don’t think this is a team that should be evaluated based solely on their early-season record. I don’t even think this is a team that should be evaluated based on whatever record they have at the end of the regular season in 2020.

Things have happened for the Knicks already in this early season that represent steps in the right direction. On November 1st, the Knicks outrebounded the Chicago Bulls 63-38 and RJ Barret put himself forever in the NBA history books with, undeniably, elite company.

The Knicks’ 2-8 record also doesn’t tell you that they were leading in the 4th quarter of four of their first five losses. Yeah, it’s crappy, but it’s also to be expected. Young teams are terrible at closing games with leads. That’s just facts.

Their record also doesn’t tell you that they’re a tough, determined, gritty, won’t-back-down team; that they’re developing an identity for the first time in many years. And it’s an identity that is perfect for New York City.

The reality is, the Knicks need to be bad before they can be good. This is a concept that James Dolan seems to have absolutely zero ability to comprehend. The man has no patience. It’s all about instant gratification. It’s getting to the point where I feel like Dolan’s name could be used as a verb.

To Dolan all over it – to make hasty, uninformed decisions based solely on the immediate future with an apparent inability to consider the long-term ramifications.

NBA teams don’t get to go from a franchise-worst 17-65 season to being a competitive team over the course of just one offseason. That simply isn’t the way it works. This seems like it should be common sense, doesn’t it? So where is Dolan getting the idea that everything needs to be blown up only 10 games into the season?

The apparent answer to that question is Knicks general manager Steve Mills. According to an ESPN report, Mills has sold Dolan on the idea that their roster is competitive, right now, as is. The fact that Dolan can’t look at his team compared to the rest of the Eastern Conference and come to the conclusion that Mills’ assertion is wildly unreasonable just adds to the mountain of evidence suggesting that Dolan doesn’t know crap about basketball.

This roster has the potential to be competitive in the Eastern Conference without a question. Will they be competitive this year? No, they won’t. But that’s okay. That’s exactly how it should be. Might they be competitive next year? Well, that’s harder to say.

One commonly known fact among NBA fans and professionals alike is that when developing young players consistency is key. But already only a few weeks into the season the groundwork is being laid for David Fizdale to be relieved of his coaching duties. No matter that he’s responsible for the early development of the team identity I mentioned earlier.

And why? Because Steve Mills has convinced James Dolan that the problem isn’t with the roster so who else could there be to blame? Dolan’s lack of patience and inability to let a situation breathe and develop on its own is ultimately the reason why even if he was able to get Masai Ujiri, it still wouldn’t work.

Dolan and Ujiri’s approaches to basketball are diametrically opposed. Dolan is all about right now. Ujiri is known for not making hasty moves. Dolan has never demonstrated even the hint of an ability to evaluate any situation holistically and that is why the Knicks are doomed as long as Dolan is in charge.

First of all, Masai Ujiri has made the culture of the Toronto Raptors as much of a priority as their winning games and there’s no denying how successful that approach has been. Winning doesn’t make an organization internally solid. Good people with high characters do that. Consistent success requires both winning and positive culture. That didn’t happen overnight.

It took years of smart, considerate, fully analyzed roster choices. And who they let go was just as important as who they brought in. Building a “culture of winning,” as Ujiri refers to it isn’t a matter of hiring the right person. It’s a process and it took Ujiri more than a few seasons to get it just right. It also required a willingness to take chances on players that no one else was even looking at. Nothing about Dolan’s history suggests that this is something he’s interested in doing.

I think right now when Dolan pictures Masai Ujiri all he can see is the championship. He’s literally being distracted by all the shiny things associated with the Raptors right now. He’s not thinking about what it took; the years of good decisions and development.

He is not thinking about all of the first-round playoff exits; the years of being a playoff team that had never won a seven-game playoff series; the multiple sweeps in the playoffs. All he can see is what’s right in front of him right now and that has always been Dolan’s greatest weaknesses as an NBA owner. I mean, you saw the list above, right?

But as impossible as I think it is that Ujiri would ever want to work for the Knicks, let’s play a game of hypotheticals for a moment. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I wake up in an alternate universe tomorrow and somehow Masai Ujiri has taken a job with the Knicks. Here’s how I see it playing out in an absolute best-case scenario.

Masai Ujiri would show up and do what he does. His abilities to helm an NBA franchise are not and never will be in question. The Knicks would get a little bit better. But the question is, do we believe they will get better fast enough that James Dolan can just sit back and appreciate the progress? I wouldn’t put my money on that possibility at any odds.

I’d be shocked if Dolan’s patience lasted beyond two seasons without a playoff appearance. And with the Knicks current roster, I think that is a safe minimum timeframe. And even that is in a vacuum where I’m only considering how they might be able to develop their players. This scenario doesn’t take into consideration moves and development by the other 14 teams in the Eastern Conference, who are also trying to get better.

But I’m willing to take this hypothetical even a few steps further since we are, after all, talking about an alternate universe. I mean, come on, what good is an alternate universe theory if you’re not going to push the limits?

Next. Minnesota Timberwolves: Andrew Wiggins’ hot start shouldn’t be a surprise. dark

So let’s say in this alternate universe, James Dolan has a little more patience than he has in this reality. Would he be willing to put up with all the years of playoff disappointment the way that Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment did? Does he have the long-term vision to take a deep breath and trust that the person he hired to do the job can, indeed do the job even if it’s taking longer than he would personally like?

Uh, did I mention the list of executives and coaches above?