Building the Perfect Beast

Reconstructing the Knicks Around Three of Their Stars

The recently demoted Ernie Grunfeld would probably be the first to say that the job of Knicks GM is a lot harder than it looks. And although it's difficult to fathom that anyone could have racked up the NBA's highest payroll while assembling such an all-star line up of underachievers, there are few simple answers for a team as rich in talent as it is lacking in identity.

Just ask No. 1 Knick fan Spike Lee. Although his courtside perch seems like the perfect vantage point from which to cook up an antidote to the peculiar illness that has taken hold of this team, Lee seemed stumped when asked to play GM during halftime of Friday's game against Charlotte. "I don't know," Lee said, elbows perched, shoulders hunched, and head hung in his familiar pensive pose, "This is a tricky market. You can't scrap the whole team like Chicago. People pay too much money for these seats."

Lee, like Grunfeld, was reluctant to pass judgment on the team because of the limited time that they have had together. Although he agreed with the conventional wisdom that the up-tempo playing style of young guns Marcus Camby and Latrell Sprewell has clashed with what he called Patrick Ewing's "half-tempo" game, Lee hasn't given up hope that Spre could be the Knicks' magic bullet.

"We haven't even seen what he could do. That was just flashes," Lee said after Sprewell put up 12 points in a first-half explosion of baseline acrobatics.

For whoever gets the unenviable task of cleaning up after Grunfeld, building around Sprewell is one option. But Spre's fuse won't truly go off until he gets some teammates who can help him spark it. And doing the unthinkable—dumping Ewing—would be the only way to truly allow Sprewell to light it up. Although unloading the costly and crochety Ewing would be no easy task, it would make room for bad-boy-on-the-mend Chris Webber. Webber may have a thing or two to teach Sprewell about rehabilitating his image both on and off the court. While the jury is still out on Webber's character, his production on the floor has been much more consistent than his former Golden State teammate's (a league-leading 13 boards per game to go with 20.1 points). Two talented young head cases could be a toxic combination without a hardcore point guard to run the show. Seattle's Gary Payton has the right blend of bravado and maturity to keep Spre and CWebb in line. More important, Payton will carry the ball with authority, allowing Sprewell fewer opportunities to turn it over or take wild jump shots in crucial moments. Miami forward P.J. Brown would be a good addition to this mix; he won't present any chemistry problems, and his toughness in the lane will cure some of that yearning for Charles Oakley. Both Brown and Payton would uphold the Knicks' defensive legacy, blocking and stealing blue streaks, while Webber and Sprewell would add a new twist to scoring in transition—the alley-oop passes and coast-to-coast drives. At small for ward, Phoenix rookie Pat Garrity—a poor man's Tom Gugliotta—would complement this squad nicely with his solid shooting touch (better than 50 percent on the season so far) and without getting in the way down low.

If we ignore Spike and put Spre on the block, the Knicks could take the nice-guy route and rebuild around the sweet-smiling, sweet-shooting Allan Houston—just add the right assortment of strength and floor leadership to maximize his production. It seems Houston will never blossom with Ewing and Sprewell around, but the hope is that another cast of characters could bring out the best in him. Since Cleveland may be looking to up their tempo next year, they may give up the power of Shawn Kemp for the quick ness (not to mention fitness) of Camby and Sprewell. Kemp could combine down low with another effective nice guy, Vlade Divac. With those two on the posts, Larry Johnson could be kept on at small forward to exploit the finesse of his newly sleek figure, and his propensity for kicking the ball out to Houston. With that front line, Allan would be freer to roam, keeping a sharp eye out for passes from the Knicks' new point guard, Mookie Blaylock. The veteran Blaylock has most of the skills and none of the ego of other good point guards. Houston needs direction, but he would disappear in the shadow of self-promoting superstars like Stephon Marbury and Jason Kidd.

Or the Knicks could stick with their stodgy old standby, Patrick Ewing. The right cast of characters would have to pick up Ewing's slack—when he's tired or injured or getting into a fistfight with Jalen Rose—without marginalizing him. A team should be built around Ewing on the urgency theory. There is no time to fool around developing Camby's spindly talent to the tune of Ewing's creaking joints. The equally championship-desperate Charles Barkley is a much better partner for Ewing down low. His round mound can soak up some of the blows under the basket and he'll be available after this season. And since Barkley and Ewing don't know much about getting it done, Scottie Pippen better come along for the ride. Along with a myriad of other contributions, Pippen would bring ball-handling back to the turnover-prone Knicks. With Pippen to set the tone and clean up any messes, a low-cost, low-profile, low-maintenance point guard is all that's necessary. Sherman Douglas fits that mold; besides, he wants to come back East. And since we're talking instant championship, veteran two-guard B.J. Armstrong, who'd come pretty cheap these days, would be a wise addition to the backcourt. Like Pippen, he's excellent as a spot-up shooter, or handling the ball.

 
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