It was time for the draft’s 23rd pick. The Knicks were on the clock. “We need Quickley, get Quickley,” William Wesley repeated, over and over and over and over. Wesley — the ubiquitous
It was time for the draft’s 23rd pick. The Knicks were on the clock.
“We need Quickley, get Quickley,” William Wesley repeated, over and over and over and over. Wesley — the ubiquitous consultant/adviser/star-whisperer/power broker whose reputation has earned him the moniker “World Wide Wes” — had joined the Knicks as an executive vice president and senior adviser in June and had spent the months since pushing Kentucky guard Immanuel Quickley at every turn. He knew that the Boston Celtics, picking at No. 26, had worked out Quickley and come away impressed. He was worried they’d steal his guy. He wanted the Knicks to pounce.
Others in the war room weren’t so sure. The team’s scouts had a handful of players ranked ahead of Quickley, who was widely projected as a second-round pick. Brock Aller, the recently hired vice president and chief strategist, believed if the Knicks were going to reach for a player, they should at least trade back a few slots.
Sitting at the front of the gym in the team’s Westchester County practice facility, team president Leon Rose, a former agent hired a few months earlier and presiding over his first draft, took it all in. The group had conducted a dry run the previous night, with Aller calling out hypothetical trade offers to help Rose prepare (“Isn’t that your job to answer?” Rose would occasionally joke). So far, the draft had gone according to plan. The Knicks had scooped up their primary target, Dayton big man Obi Toppin, at No. 8, with Rose visibly thrilled when the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team rumored to be interested in Toppin, passed on him at No. 5. Now Aller, who’d been working the phones all day, told Rose he had a deal lined up with the Minnesota Timberwolves — they were willing to swap picks 25 and 33 in order to move up to 23.
The group went back and forth. Wesley grew louder and more animated. The clock approached zero.
“Let’s do the trade,” Rose said. He fumbled a couple times as he tried unlocking his iPhone to call in the deal. There were about 10 seconds to spare.
Wesley had entered the night giddy, FaceTiming friends and passing out key lime pies from a bakery he loves in Margate, N.J. But now he was furious. He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. His face twisted into a frown. He stood up and paced around the room.
“Coach says we need shooting, Quickley’s the best shooter,” he said out loud, referring to Tom Thibodeau, who due to the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols had to participate in the draft via Zoom. Wesley joined Walt Perrin, the team’s assistant general manager, Aller and Rose for a huddle at the front of the room. Wesley kept pushing his case. Finally, Rose relented. A few minutes later, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that Quickley was being selected with the 25th pick.
Five months later, Quickley has proven to be a revelation. “The steal of the draft,” former Memphis Grizzlies executive John Hollinger wrote in a column for The Athletic. His presence has helped the Knicks—a team that has won just one playoff series this century, that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013, that before the season was pegged by oddsmakers as the favorites to finish last—entered Rose’s first All-Star break with an 19-18 record, good for fifth in the East.
Quickley’s not the sole reason the Knicks are playing their best basketball in nearly a decade. But the back-and-forth that led to his selection is telling. No moment over Rose’s first year at the helm better represents his vision.
The Knicks’ decision last winter to hand Rose the reins surprised many around the league. He was one of the NBA’s most respected agents, a person with fans throughout the league. “One of the smartest people the Knicks have had in years,” an NBA source with close Knicks ties said. But still, running a basketball team — especially the Knicks — is a different sort of job that requires a different set of skills. Many wondered how Rose would approach this new terrain as he tried to succeed where so many others have failed.
So far, he’s played his cards close; he hasn’t held a press conference since taking the job (and along with Wesley, Aller and Thibodeau, declined through the Knicks to be interviewed for this story) and doesn’t do much talking off the record, either. But take one look at his hires and you can identify what Rose has decided to rely on most.
He and Wesley have been close friends for more than 30 years. Aller grew close to Rose while working for the Cavaliers and to Wesley when the two lived in Detroit. Thibodeau was Rose’s longtime client and, as he said during his introductory press conference, “[Rose and Wesley have] been involved in just about every major decision that I’ve made.”
Aller, Thibodeau and Wesley each boast different skills. Wesley’s the relationships guy. Aller’s all about asset management. Thibodeau can squeeze an NBA win out of D-III roster. Rose’s bet is that by combining their skill sets, by leveraging Wesley’s connections and Aller’s strategic thinking and Thibodeau’s willingness to sell his soul if it meant he’d win that night’s game, by creating a system of checks and balances and then having Rose filter it all before making a final call, this group can rebuild the Knicks.
It’s an ambitious plan, but also a dangerous one. How often will Rose be able to say no to his friends? And how much clashing can these friendships endure?
The good news for Knicks fans is that, based on interviews with more than a dozen NBA sources, all with different connections to the Knicks, it appears that Rose has successfully threaded these needles.
For a front office that for years has struggled with infighting, especially among its last regime when those loyal to now-former team president Steve Mills often clashed with those brought in by general manager Scott Perry, this is a major step. Even if the process hasn’t always been smooth.
The Knicks entered the offseason with more than $40 million in cap space, one of the largest numbers in the league. But how to utilize that space became a subject of tension between Thibodeau and Aller.
For Thibodeau, a Connecticut native and former Knicks assistant, the job was a dream come true. It’s one of the reasons he was interested, despite, as he put it during his introductory press conference, “When you see your [net rating from the previous season] is a minus-6.54, you realize there’s a lot of work.”
“But Thibs is two types of people,” a longtime friend said. “The person who says something in the lead-up, and then the person who becomes consumed with getting things he wants to help him win games.”
It didn’t take long for Thibodeau to begin angling for roster upgrades.
“I think, as a head coach, the only thing you want is a voice,” he said in September. “I’ve known Leon and Wes for a long time, so they’ve asked my opinion on a number of things. Doesn’t mean that they’re always going to do what I ask them to do, but I think there’s a trust factor there.”
He pleaded for Rose to offer long-term deals to free agents such as Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris and Bogdan Bogdanovic. He wanted to trade for Derrick Rose, a longtime favorite of his. He thought RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson could potentially be flipped for seasoned veterans. Initially, he was hardly sold on Julius Randle, according to a colleague.
“There’s no rebuilding or long term with Thibs,” a former colleague said.
Aller, however, wanted to do exactly that. He thought the Knicks should target second-tier veterans like Austin Rivers and Alec Burks with one-year deals — and then during the season try flipping them for future draft picks. He wanted future cap space preserved. He believed current cap space should be used to harvest other team’s poor contracts in exchange for additional picks.
At times, meetings with Thibodeau and Aller grew heated. Thibodeau would even mock Aller and call him “Hinkie” (a reference to Sam Hinkie, architect of the Philadelphia 76ers “Process”). Some around the team found this tussling strange. It’s one thing for a group that’s been together for years to debate the organization’s direction; it’s another to have this kind of philosophical disagreement among new hires brought in by a team president, who, in theory, during interviews would have shared his plan.
“Leon’s communication isn’t always great,” a second person with close Knicks ties said. “He can be hands-off.”
Despite Thibodeau’s pleas, the Knicks left most of their cap space unused. They signed Rivers and Burks and Nerlens Noel to one-year deals. They didn’t give out long-term contracts or trade away any young players or chase the aging Russell Westbrook after he requested a trade. They took veteran big man Ed Davis from the Timberwolves, flipped him to the Utah Jazz — and received one future second-round pick on the front end and two on the back. Rose handed Thibodeau a roster that entering the season was $8 million below the league’s salary floor, believing that his longtime friend could mold it into a group that competed every game.
Wesley’s preferences presented similar problems.
“When Wes said ‘we,’ people weren’t sure if he was referring to the Knicks or Kentucky,” one NBA source said, referring to his longtime friendship with Kentucky coach John Calipari. Wesley would direct all sorts of conversations back to the school. Prospects from other programs — they weren’t tough enough to handle Kentucky. NBA stars who had played for Duke, like Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson — Kentucky hadn’t actually wanted them. When conversations centered around players not connected to the school — or Creative Artists Agency, where he and Rose had worked — he’d often close his eyes.
Wesley participated in some calls while driving. He went on all sorts of tangents, once making the group listen to the Jay-Z song “Empire State of Mind” because he had played it during the private pre-draft workout for Kevin Knox. One time he changed his shirt on camera, revealing his bare chest to the group.
Before long, Wesley made clear which prospects he wanted to see wearing Knicks uniforms. There were players he liked, like Oregon’s Payton Pritchard, Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey and Memphis’ James Wiseman. He loved Nick Richards, an All-SEC center from Kentucky who was pegged by evaluators as a late-second round pick, and would often direct conversations back to him. He pressed for the team to consider taking Richards at No. 27. He was also a huge fan of Toppin and Florida State’s Devin Vassell, both of whom had signed with CAA.
But the player he seemed to crave most was Quickley.
“He pushed him like crazy,” an NBA source said.
Wesley would call on analytics staffers during meetings to offer proof of Quickley’s shooting prowess. Some of the Knicks’ scouts expressed concerns about Quickley’s struggles as a freshman. Wesley countered that it was because Calipari is tough on point guards, and that Quickley’s sophomore rebound showed his resolve.
Some scouts said they didn’t believe Quickley could create off the dribble.
“You’re crazy,” Wesley would reply. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”
Rose, however, rarely tipped his hand. Aside from occasionally pushing back on criticism directed at some of his favorites, like Toppin and Vassell, he spent most of his time listening and asking questions.
“His job is to sort through different opinions from different people and make the best decision,” one rival executive said. “It certainly seems like he’s doing that well.”
In September, the Knicks convened at their training center for an off-season minicamp, the team’s first official gathering since the NBA shut down the previous March. It was Thibodeau’s first time being around Randle. He came away impressed.
“He’s a pro’s pro. He’s in great shape,” he said. “He’s willing to work and do anything that you ask. Having that type of leadership is important for our team.”
The regular season began three months later. The Knicks dropped their first two games, but won five of their next six. They’ve been in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff picture ever since. Some of their success is fluky. They’ve played an easy schedule. They’re just 2 ¹/₂ games ahead of the 11th-place Atlanta Hawks. Their opponents are missing an unusually high percentage of 3-pointers. Toppin has struggled.
But there are also plenty of signs of progress. Thibodeau has transformed the defense into the league’s second-best (by defensive rating), a 21-spot jump from last season. He’s entrusted Randle with the offense; in turn, Randle put together his first All-Star campaign. “He’s turned into an All-NBA player, he’s been a terrific leader,” Thibodeau said recently. Barrett, after a seesaw rookie season, has improved in nearly every statistical category and looks like a long-term keeper. Thibodeau, playing him nearly 34 minutes per game, appears to agree.
Quickley, meanwhile, is averaging 12.2 points in fewer than 19 minutes and shooting 38 percent from deep. Wesley, it turned out, was seeing something others weren’t — or at the least operating with information that others didn’t have, and, just as importantly, on draft night he had Rose’s ear.
Combine all this with the nine first-round picks the Knicks own over the next seven years, and the $60 million or so they can create in cap space this summer, and you can spot a light at the end of the tunnel.
Still, in February, Rose decided to make one more move, a gift for Thibodeau, trading for Derrick Rose. Some on the outside worried that the addition of a guard might eat into Quickley’s playing time. It has. But also: In the 119 minutes the two have shared the floor, the Knicks have thrived. The pairing, despite being strange on the surface, has turned out to be one of the Knicks’ most potent, outscoring opponents by 38 points, an example of the team’s future and present working in concert.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA reporter and the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman.
This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Yaron Weitzman