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's like playing a slot machine without the coins. ESPN.com is running a virtual sneak preview of the LeBron James draft lottery, and it doesn't paint a pretty picture for Knick fans. A total of 93 times I clicked on the play button, and 91 times the virtual Ping-Pong balls gave the Knicks a pick in the bottom half of the lottery. On the fifth try, the Knicks lucked into the second pick, and a shot at Darko Milicic. On the 52nd, New York won the third pick, and a chance at Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony. Finally, on the 94th try, the stars aligned, and the Knicks cashed in their 1.8 percent chance to put LeBron James in blue and orange.
The real problem? This exercise was just about as much fun as the Knicks have been this season. You don't get the opportunity to use the word moribund often, but that describes the state of the Knick franchise to a T. Sure, they're one player away from the playoffs. They're also two playersShaq and Kobeaway from a championship. And they don't have a single young player who has a chance to become anything other than a career backup. This storied franchise hasn't been at such a low point since the days of Lonnie Shelton and Glen Gondrezick.
Have Don Cheney's Knicks underachieved? Hardly. Pat Riley or Red Holtzman couldn't have squeaked more than 40 wins out of this team. Allan Houston has quietly proven why he's one of the best non-clutch shooters in the league, averaging 25.1 points after the All-Star break of this black hole of a season, dropping the two quietest 50-point games in the history of the league. Latrell Sprewell? The upholstery on his boat got ruined. His hand got broken. His salary was garnished. But did he pretend that Scott Layden was P.J. Carlesimo? No. Sprewell played tough workman-like hoops, ratcheting up his assists (4.5 per game) to compensate for his scary bad shooting (.405). Charlie Ward even resisted the temptation to try to achieve peace in the Middle East.
All the truly bad stuff happened before the season started. You'll remember the draft day trade that shipped Marcus Camby and the pick that would turn into Nene Hilario to the Nuggets in exchange for Antonio McDyess. The Great Hilario has morphed into Amare Stoudemire Lite, averaging a quiet 10.6 points/6.2 rebounds/1.9 assists for the Nuggets as they make their run for Lebron. And Camby has been the Marcus we all know and remember, averaging 7.0 points and 7.6 rebounds in only 21 minutes of let's-get-to-the-lottery playing time. Add Camby and Nene to Don Cheney's roster and the Knicks probably snag the last playoff berth in the East.
As for Antonio McDyess, you couldn't have expected that he would shatter his kneethe smart money bet on a season-long bout with chronic tendinitis. But even when he's healthy (and he's hardly been healthy this millennium), McDyess, like Sprewell and Houston, is exactly the kind of player that championship teams run away from. He's a tease, a tweener, a guy who can make an All-Star team in a good year, but isn't really a bona fide All-NBA super freak. The Lakers don't have any of these tweeners; neither did the Bulls or the Rockets. You end up paying a guy like McDyess or Houston franchise-player moneyand remember, under the NBA's hard cap, Kobe Bryant is no more expensive than Houstonbut you don't get franchise-player production.
You'll note that one of those legitimate franchise players is coming on the open marketMr. Tim Duncan of the Western Conference-leading Spursbut the Knicks have neither the cap room nor the vision to lure him to the Big Apple.
Which leads us to the real problem: the folks who are running Madison Square Garden. The key to success in the NBA is that pesky vision thing. It's about seeing David Stern and that silly little basketball-shaped trophy and squinting real hard and deciding who you can envision holding it up while wearing your uniform. Is it Allan Houston? Tim Duncan? LeBron James? Scott Layden is the only person in America who can squint and see Shandon Anderson spraying cheap champagne on Travis Knight.
Layden's bosses at Cablevisionthis means you, Charles Dolanare doing to the Knicks what they did to the Rangers, milking a once proud franchise dry. Without the guts to rebuildcan't do it in New York? Tell the Yankeesor the resources to truly contend, Dolan has led the Knicks to the precipice of a long, expensive, veteran-laden slide toward NBA purgatory. He's right up there with Mike Brown, Peter Angelos, and Donald Sterling among the worst owners in sports. And with Cablevision's balance sheet using Larry Johnson's contract as a way to explain their losses to shareholders, things are likely to get far worse before they get better.
What about that other basketball team, the one on the YES network? The Nets faced many of the same problems that the Knicks did. Their biggest off-season acquisitions turned out to be busts. Dikembe Mutombo broke his hand and missed the bulk of the season. Rodney Rogers has been a non-entity. And Chris Childs quietly White Castled his way out of the league.