By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
It was the space aliens. The same extraterrestrials responsible for the otherwise inexplicable popularity of Mariah Carey, Bill O'Reilly, and Carrot Top. Sometime during the NBA pre-season, while we were all watching the Yankees and one another for symptoms of anthrax, these alien visitors switched our two local basketball teams. Turn on Fox Sports, and tell me those are really the Nets, banging, running, knocking down the open J, leading the Eastern Conference, good enough to get their fans a-dreamin', but probably not good enough to extend the season into June. Flip to MSG. Those can't be the Knicks, confused, dispirited, leading the league in running away from picks, going through the motions toward Lotteryland. The only things that are the same are the buildingsthe Meadowlands deader than Jimmy Hoffa, the Garden celebrating its 6914th consecutive sellout. It's what you might call a conundrum.
I remember the day that the Knicks drafted Patrick Ewing. Actually, I remember the trip to the doctor the next day to find out I had a stress fracture in my big toe from jumping up and down on the hardwood floors in front of my television as Dave DeBusschere opened the envelope. It hardly hurt at all. Because the Georgetown goliath (remember the "Patrick: Kan U Reed Dis?" signs?) was going to be the second coming of Bill Russell, the rock upon which the Knicks would build a second dynasty, and make us forget Willis and Clyde and Dollar Bill.
It was just a tease. And now, for the first time since the beginning of the Ewing Era, the Knicks' season is over in January. Don't be fooled by a fluke win over the Bucks; there's no hope in sight. No, this isn't like the team of three years ago, which fought through a period of transition to make the playoffs and ultimately the Finals. That was a team that took advantage of a power vacuumdispatching a Toronto team on the way up and Miami and Indiana teams on the way down. For a few weeks, Allan Houston played as if he had a heart, Latrell Sprewell as if he had a brain, and Marcus Camby as if he had courage. But don't be fooled. It won't happen again. This team is built around three fatally flawed players. No, this is a team in free fall. The only question is how long before they hit bottom.
The past decade of Knick draft picks (with their spots in the draft), along with players that the team passed over or could have easily traded up for:
Jerrod Mustaf (17)
coulda had: Jayson Williams (20)
How do these Knicks stink? Let me count the ways. They're the oldest team in the league. They're the smallest team in the league. And they are the GNP of a developing nation over the salary cap. And while he must share some of the blame with the space aliens, let's give Jeff Van Gundy some credit, too. If Das Übergeek had stayed around and soldiered out the season, the Knicks would probably be a half dozen games better now, and the tabloids and talk shows would be talking about a chance at getting the sixth seed in a very weak Eastern Conference. But by bailing on his dream job, he made the rest of us face reality: This team sucks, and Red Holtzman, Red Auerbach, or Redd Foxx couldn't win a championship with these guys.
So how did the Knicks end up in the rat-infested basement? This is a team built for the Bush administrationthe first onean old-school organization in the worst sense of the word. They've failed to deal with the two most important forces that determine a franchise's destiny in the modern NBA: the draft and the salary cap:
The Draft Remember the last time the Knicks landed in the lottery? It was 1986, the Jesus and Mary Chain was pounding out of your new CD player, and the Knicks drafted Kenny "Sky" Walker. Too bad the refs made him dribble in games. And things haven't gotten any better since.
Probably the best players the Knicks have drafted in the past 15 years were a pair of borderline point guardsRod Strickland if you like yours explosive and surly, Charlie Ward if you like yours dull and God-fearing. Not the kind of legacy you build a championship on. The draft has changed, but the Knicks seem not to have noticed.
Quiz time. Who are the three most valuable noncenters in the league? Kobe Bryant. Tracy McGrady. Kevin Garnett. Notice a similarity. Not one of them spent a day on a college campus. Straight-outta-high-school players, like the studs mentioned above, as well as Jermaine O'Neal, Darius Miles, and Rashard Lewis, have been disproportionately successful compared to their college-bred brethren. And, at least until last season, they've been relatively cheap in the draft. Rewind five years. Young Mr. Bryant was the 13th pick in the 1996 draft. That year the Knicks owned the 18th, 19th, and 22nd picks in the draft. I somehow think that Ernie Grunfeld could have packaged that variety pack of picks, plus perhaps a serviceable vet, to move the Knicks up five slots to where they could have taken the Steak Man. Or at least one slot where the NBA's second bestO'Nealwas available. But they took three mature, solid citizensJohn Wallace, Walter McCarty, and Dontae Jonestwo of whom are out of basketball entirely, and one who oughta be.