By David J. Cohen
It was a great feeling to cheer for the Knicks in the 90s. Even though the Knicks didn’t win a title during the period they produced competitive teams that captivated sold-out crowds at Madison Square Garden. In 1994 the Knicks reached the NBA finals and were led by G John Starks and C Patrick Ewing. In the shortened season of 1999 the Knicks enjoyed one of the most memorable runs in NBA playoff history. They became the first (and only) 8th seed to reach the finals. The floater by G Allan Houston with .7 seconds left in game 5 of the opening round against the Heat was pure magic and capped off one of the greatest rivalries in modern NBA history. Then in the conference finals, F Larry Johnson made a miraculous 4-point play in game 3 that propelled the Knicks into the finals. After that shot the Garden was visibly shaking as the entire crowd was jumping and screaming as one. To this day I have never seen fans as electrified in a celebration as they were after that play against the Pacers. In those days you were proud to be a Knicks fan.
After the 1999 season, things began to spiral downward. The Knicks hired Scott Layden as General Manager. Allan Houston received a max contract (which the Knicks are still paying), G Latrell Sprewell, the adopted hero of New York, was traded essentially for F Keith Van Horn. It was the end of C Patrick Ewing. F Larry Johnson retired and received a buyout of $28.8 million. It was the beginning of mediocrity. Every year the Knicks became more boring than the year before. The Knicks continued to accumulate overpaid players and waste draft picks. Somehow there was a playoff appearance one year, but no one cared. It got to the point where no one wanted to coach the team.
It seemed as if the Knicks hit rock-bottom. They could only go up from here. The only thing Knicks fans could cheer for was the firing of Layden. The Knicks needed someone to come in as general manager and find a way to change things and restore the grandness of New York Knick basketball. On December 23, 2003, corporate owner James Dolan (of Cablevision) answered the fans. Scott Layden was fired. The Knicks would return to competitiveness. The Knicks would be worth watching again. Isiah Thomas was hired as the new general manager.
The Knicks were already the league’s highest payroll, with most of the money going out to Houston, Van Horn, and guards Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson. During the press conference Thomas addressed the Knicks salary troubles: “We have to be a team that’s very unconventional and very creative in going out and getting players.” Thomas promised to bring the Knicks back to respectability. Instead he did something even more amazing. He made things worse.
Thomas has been very active as general manager, trading and bringing in many players. Most of these trades involved recycling old trash for new trash. Other players were traded by Thomas before utilizing their talent. C Nazr Mohammad is turning into a promising player in San Antonio. F Antonio McDyess has resurrected his career with the Pistons. F Trevor Ariza will follow suit in Orlando. By “unconventional and creative” Thomas meant more of the same: G Stephon Marbury, G Jamal Crawford, F Maurice Taylor, F Malik Rose, G Quentin Richardson, F Jerome James, G Jalen Rose and now G Steve Francis. A vast collection of overpaid has-beens, ball-hogs, and wash-ups make up the bulk of the current team. Oh wait, hiring Coach Larry Brown was supposed to fix everything, despite the fact that Thomas trades for the exact type of player Brown can’t work with. Brown couldn’t deal with a young Iverson; now you give him 3 replicas minus the heart and desire and expect things to work out. I’m not surprised he checked into the hospital the other day with chest pains.
Thomas was also hired to fix the payroll. Instead of trimming it down Thomas has ballooned it to nearly epic proportions. And subscribers of Cablevision services in New York wonder why their monthly cable bill continues to increase. The Knicks payroll this year is over $123 million, over $25 million more than the 2nd highest payroll and twice as much as the 8th highest payroll. Next year’s payroll is $125 million if the Knicks make no moves in the off-season and let F/C Eddy Curry go. By manufacturing this disaster Thomas has guaranteed the Knicks mediocrity into the next decade. There are some bright spots in young players like F Channing Frye, who represents an actual good draft pick made by the Knicks. However, when his initial contract expires he is sure to leave. With the Knicks future payroll they may have to decline a team option for him after next year if things don’t change. Then Frye can enjoy the NBA and have a productive career.
New York is the “Big Apple,” the “city that never sleeps.” It is arguably the sports capital of the east coast. It is without a doubt one of the cornerstones of basketball in the U.S. Rucker Park is in Harlem and represents an entire culture surrounding the game. It seems impossible for a basketball team in this city to sink so low that it becomes an afterthought. It seems impossible for a basketball team in New York to become so pitiful that it is on the verge of vanishing in the minds of its followers.
But that’s what it has come to. The Knicks are the worst team in the NBA this year and have no hope for the near future. Now tickets for Knicks games are more expensive and less desirable. The Garden now hosts to near silence as the few fans in attendance are scattered and embarrassed to show their Knicks colors (except Spike Lee). There is no pride in the team. For that matter, there is not much connection felt to the team compared to the past. New York is a city of entertainment and people who used to be season ticket holders have found more enjoyable things to do, like visit their in-laws. The fire of the fans has all but gone out.
The dreadful performance of the Knicks has taken its toll on everyone associated with the team. GM James Dolan, the man who had such high hopes for the Knicks when hiring Thomas, was interviewed Thursday and seemed worn-out. When asked about the state of the team, Dolan said: “We’re going to continue on with the strategy. I believe in the plan. I believe in the strategy. I believe in the guys who are executing it…I’m going to stick with it until we stop making progress.” He also said that this year was year 1 of a 3 to 4 year plan.
If 15-42 is progress and this plan is allowed to unfold the Knicks will just fall further into decline as a franchise. If change isn’t made: if the team isn’t gutted and rebuilt from scratch, the Knicks will be virtually extinct. All the glory and greatness of past teams won’t be able to save the state of this franchise. In the minds of the followers the Knicks simply won’t matter anymore. Now more than ever the Knicks need the savior Thomas was supposed to be in order to restore the mystique that was the New York Knicks.
If nothing changes and Dolan follows “the plan,” New York will turn into a city with NBA fans wandering in search of a team to rescue them from the nightmare that was the Knicks. Then the New Jersey Nets will finally move to Brooklyn.
-Knicks salary cap
-Hiring of Isiah Thomas