Five shots flubbed from close range in the final 5.9 seconds. A 90-88 Garden loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, a team that entered the game with the second-worst record in the NBA and a 1-11 mark on the road. Hell, if the Knicks sink any lower than they did on the night of December 20, they’ll be running their plays in the 34th Street subway station.
Welcome to the end of a 14-year run of respectability. As the ‘Bockers struggle, everything seems to be unraveling faster than the seams in Clarence Weatherspoon’s shorts. The team has lost its identity. Its “sellout” streak may be alive, but the number of empty seats keeps growing. The front office seems as clueless as the offense.
So throw away those ugly orange towels and start lowering your expectations. Here are eight reasons why, despite some preseason prognostications, these Nix have no chance of contending for the Eastern Conference title:
•Allan Houston is more stuporstar than superstar. The Knicks, essentially bidding against themselves, gave Houston a $100.4 million, six-year contract this past off-season. This for a one-dimensional jump shooter who (1) isn’t even among the league’s top 25 scorers this year, (2) ceased taking the ball to the hoop two seasons ago, (3) plays inconsistent defense (Washington’s Richard Hamilton scorched him for 34 points in December), (4) traditionally wears down after the All-Star break, and (5) refuses to accept a leadership role.
Where have you gone, Dick Barnett?
•Marcus Camby is too fragile. He sat out the first 14 games with plantar fasciitis in his left foot and has said, “I know I won’t be pain-free the rest of the year.” When Camby plays great, the Knicks usually win, and his hustle, enthusiasm, and exclamation-point dunks energize teammates and fans. But he’s injury prone (60 games missed in three-plus seasons in New York), he doesn’t have a signature move or inside game, and he is proving too frail to bang bodies with the elite centers.
•They don’t have a high-quality point guard. At age 36, Mark Jackson has lost more steps than a wooden staircase infested with termites. Charlie Ward has a chronically bad knee, he can’t defend quick point guards, and he isn’t skilled at breaking down a defense in the half-court. And backup Howard Eisley is actually a shooting guard. No wonder the offense bogs down and is rarely fun to watch.
A suggestion: Play Houston and Sprewell together in the backcourt—turnover-phobic Jeff Van Gundy never had the patience to give the pairing a real chance. A six-week trial is in order.
•Nobody wants their players. The Knicks have no post-up threat or inside presence, but forget about improvement through a major trade. Camby isn’t thought of as highly around the league as he is in New York. No other franchise will take on Houston’s contract, and previous attempts to deal Ward have resulted in feeble offers in return.
The Knicks’ most tradable commodity is Sprewell, who also happens to be their marquee star, leading scorer, and premier showman.
•Their “brain trust” suffers from brain lock. The geniuses in the corporate suites have somehow managed to simultaneously put together the NBA’s oldest roster (average age: 30.2 years) and highest payroll ($85 million). Among General Manager Scott Layden’s dumber moves have been overpaying Houston, selecting Eric Chenowith, Donnell Harvey, and Lavor Postell in the past two drafts, and filling the roster with retreads like Jackson, Weatherspoon, Eisley, Shandon Anderson, and Felton Spencer.
•They’re burned out and psyched out. “The Knicks’ style of play—grind it out and win on the last possession—is very demanding,” says NBC analyst Bill Walton. “Their seasons are also long, with playoff games every year, and that takes a physical toll. You see it now in their play.”
On top of that, the team’s lack of size has created self-doubt. Houston has called the lineup “overmatched,” and Sprewell has ripped management for not acquiring some bigger bodies.
•Van Gundy will be missed. For all of his self-flagellation and dourness, Van Gundy was a damn good strategist who got the team to overachieve its way to the NBA Finals in 1999. A master of preparation and motivation, Van Gundy was passionate and tireless, and those traits were reflected in his clubs. He won with defense and intensity, something the ‘Bockers have yet to display under low-key Don Chaney.
•They’ve lost their swagger. Not that long ago, the Knicks would shove a trash-talking rival over the scorer’s table just as soon as answer him back. The orange-and-blue left foes black-and-blue and collected fines as though they were groupies’ phone numbers. Then the tough guys—Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley, John Starks, Chris Childs—departed. Only Kurt Thomas remains. Consequently, ball handlers who once feared being imbedded in the hardwood now drive the lane with impunity.
Childs once punched Kobe Bryant in the face and then invited the Laker megastar to visit his hotel room and resume the battle. Contrast that with Sprewell, who, in a game against the Houston Rockets last month, responded to a shot in the stomach from Kenny Thomas by cocking his fist and doing nothing. Sprewell even shook hands with Thomas afterward.
Diehard fans had to be shaking their heads while thinking how a Mason or Oakley would have staged a Rocket launch, sending Thomas sailing toward the 300-level seats. None of which, by the way, would have been empty.