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 players—Shaq and Kobe—away 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 knee—the 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 money—and remember, under the NBA’s hard cap, Kobe Bryant is no more expensive than Houston—but you don’t get franchise-player production.
You’ll note that one of those legitimate franchise players is coming on the open market—Mr. Tim Duncan of the Western Conference-leading Spurs—but 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 Cablevision—this means you, Charles Dolan—are doing to the Knicks what they did to the Rangers, milking a once proud franchise dry. Without the guts to rebuild—can’t do it in New York? Tell the Yankees—or 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.
And despite that, the Van Horn-free Nets turned in a carbon copy of last season. Wins in the low 50s, an Atlantic Division title, a shot at the Eastern Conference title, and most likely a one or two seed in the playoffs.
The secret to Byron Scott’s success? Dee-fense. If anything, the Nets are more athletic on defense, with Kenyon Martin doing his best Dennis Rodman imitation (that’s a compliment), and Richard Jefferson clamping down on opposing twos and threes in a way that Van Horn never could. That translates into the league’s second-best defense, behind only Detroit’s, and a best-in-the-East point differential of 5.6.
That said, understand that the difference between first and eighth in this tightly bunched Eastern Conference is a mere nine games. And the Nets’ likely playoff opponent, the newly Paytonized Bucks, are entering the playoffs on a modest 6-1 roll. The X-factor, both short- and long-term, is of course Jason Kidd. The balance of power in the East—and perhaps in the league—depends on how he sees the floor in the next couple of weeks. If he can repeat his freakish performance from last spring (19.6 pts/8.2 reb/9.1 assists) the Nets could again come out of the East and snatch a single moral victory from the Lakers before getting squashed like bugs. But they’re also an errant pass or two away from an early exit from the playoffs. And if that happens, expect a similar exit from the free agent Mr. Kidd to the under-the-cap Spurs. Yup, it’s all about the vision thing.