The owner has set the bar.
James Dolan, making the media rounds to defend his use of facial recognition technology at his venues, gave an endorsement to team president Leon Rose but made clear there’s an expectation for the Knicks.
“We fully expect to make the playoffs this year,” Dolan told WFAN in an interview Friday. “That will definitely be a benchmark.”
Dolan added injuries to Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson could alter that goal, but progress is essential — even if a championship is unreasonable.
“It would require some players to make huge jumps in their skill levels and how they’re playing. And that’s probably unrealistic,” Dolan said. “But also there’s trades. I always think we have a shot. I think we still have a shot now. I think our expectation should be that the team makes the playoffs.”
With Rose hiding from the media and coach Tom Thibodeau only addressing aspirations in cliches, Dolan’s interview was the first time anybody on the Knicks has acknowledged a tangible goal.
But it won’t be easy. The East is stacked with at least five teams, maybe six, that can claim championship aspirations. The Knicks (27-23) are currently seventh in the Eastern Conference, which no longer guarantees a playoff spot. Heading into Friday’s games, they were just four games up on the 11th-place Bulls. They’re also just three games behind the fourth-place Nets, who the Knicks face Saturday in Brooklyn.
It’s worth noting that Dolan has a policy of only raising ticket prices year-to-year if the team makes the playoffs. The Knicks failed last season after rising to the 4th-seed in 2021, their first playoff appearance since 2013. The Knicks have made the playoffs just five times since 2002 and never advanced past the second round.
Dolan hired Rose in 2020 on a reported $8 million salary, making him one of the league’s highest-paid executives. As a longtime agent with no experience running an NBA franchise, Rose was pitched as a conduit to obtaining stars through his connections.
The Knicks still don’t have a superstar and Rose’s 2021 free agency was a disaster, but Brunson’s signing this summer was a hit.
“Yes. Absolutely [Rose has done a good job]. Why did I bring Leon on? I’ve been doing this now for 20-something years. In my experience with the NBA, there’s things you can do as an owner,” Dolan said. “You can create an environment where you give them enough money to do their job. Give them more money than they need to do their job. You can stay out of the way, which is usually the best course of action. But you do end up picking the one guy who’s going to make all the strategy, who’s going to execute for you. And I picked Leon because I believe, after you look at the NBA and the game that we play, that the team with the best talent wins. Then you want a guy who gets you the best talent, and I believe that Leon Rose is still the best guy.”
A chunk of Rose’s tenure will be defined by not acquiring Donovan Mitchell in a trade this summer despite lengthy negotiations with the Utah Jazz. Dolan said he didn’t interfere, although he might’ve 10 years ago when he was more meddlesome.
“My attitude has changed,” Dolan said. “Every new owner comes in thinking they’ve got the answer on how to make the team as successful. Not to disparage my fellow owners, there are franchises out there with owners over the last few years, you can look at new owners who have come in, who have thrown in a lot of money, etc. And they’re not doing as well as they thought. You really got to leave a lot of this strategy to the guys who have dedicated their lives and their careers to that.”
Dolan, for some reason, has resisted hiring experienced executives with proven success. His previous team presidents, both disasters, Steve Mills and Phil Jackson, never ran a basketball operations department. He hired the experienced Donnie Walsh at the urging of then-commissioner David Stern, and fired him after three seasons.
Rose is the latest neophyte hire and it seems he needs to make the playoffs to satisfy the owner.