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 buildings—the 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 vacuum—dispatching 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.
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 administration—the first one—an 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 guards—Rod 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 best—O’Neal—was available. But they took three mature, solid citizens—John Wallace, Walter McCarty, and Dontae Jones—two of whom are out of basketball entirely, and one who oughta be.
And then let’s fast-forward three years to a more recent and more public draft disaster. Mention the name Frederic Weis and any basketball fan worth his Air J’s will conjure up that Olympic moment of a seven-foot-tall stiff getting dunked over by Vince Carter. The Knicks obviously scouted the European leagues—home of real players like Pau Gasol and Tony Parker—about as well as the CIA covered Afghanistan. But having made a mistake, Van Gundy made the situation worse by hard-assing Weis as if he were a college player. “Don’t like it here? Go play in Europe” might work with John Wallace, but to Weis that didn’t sound like a threat so much as an invitation. So they wasted a midround No. 1 draft pick on a player who’ll never play for them. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for “Sky” Walker.
The Salary Cap With their television deal, the luxury boxes, and Spike Lee at courtside, the Knicks are by far the richest team in the league. But the NBA’s hard cap completely blunts the team’s financial edge. The league’s cap stands at $42.5 million, and the Knick payroll is $85.2. This season, they’re paying Larry Johnson and Luc Longley even though they’re retired, and they’re paying Mark Jackson, Shandon Anderson, and Howard Eisley even though they might as well be. But it gets worse. The Knicks are so heavily committed to long-term contracts to Houston and others that they could be capped out well into the first Jeb Bush administration.
What’s the solution for this team? It’ll take more than GM Scott Layden’s working the phones to acquire the other Marc Jackson. The Knicks need to start over. Trade Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell. Trade Marcus Camby. Assassinate Mark Jackson. (But commissioner, how can he count against our salary cap if he’s dead?) Do anything and everything to clear cap room. Sure, the team will stink for a year or two. All the better to snag a few high lottery picks. When they get that cap room, they have to hold out for a great young big man. Like Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett, both of whom can become free agents after next season. Offer him more than money. Sell him banners in the rafters, Willis Reed limping onto the hardwood, Walt Frazier’s Rolls. Court him with a floor-length fur and a purple suede hat. Spun right, it’s gotta beat proximity to Walt Disney World. Then pair him with a dominant outside player like Lamar Odom (who’s also a free agent after next season) or, even better, Kobe (who recently turned down a contract extension) or Allan Iverson, both of whom could become available after 2003-04.
Does Scott Layden have the vision and guts to see this plan through? Let’s just say he’s not a wartime consigliere. A bigger problem is that team president Charles Dolan probably doesn’t have the stomach for a long, drawn-out rebuilding program. Let’s pray that Mr. Dolan takes a page out of his Ranger playbook. The NBA’s answer to Glen Sather is Laker architect Jerry West. He succeeded exactly where the Knicks have failed, clearing cap room to get Shaq. Using one of their foreign imports—Vlade Divac—to trade for Kobe. Securing a great coach. Then filling the rest of the roster with talented but cheap role players. Indeed, they could do worse than opening the bank and paying whatever it takes to lure Mr. West east. If that happens, there’ll be more reason to rejoice than winning the Ewing lottery. But know this, Knick fans: It’s going to get worse before it gets better.