Wednesday, August 29, 2007
NBA Preview: The Knickerbocker Chronicles, Part 1 - Remembrance of Knicks Past
A confession: Among all pro sports franchises that I don't have a genuine rooting interest in (i.e., all but three), I find the New York Knicks the most ceaselessly fascinating. In part this stems from their inimitable and spectacular dysfunction, which might honestly be unmatched in all of professional sports over the past five years. The Knicks have spent more money in this period than any team in NBA history (in fact, the relative payroll disparity between the Knicks and the rest of the League
is one of the highest in all of sports), yet have put teams on the court that are profoundly, embarrasingly worthless; as far as I know, this is unprecedented.
This fascination also stems from the fact that I lived in New York for seven years and witnessed firsthand the team's descent into disgrace. And "disgrace" is not too strong a word, as I've honestly never seen a team so universally reviled by the local sports media (and by extension the fans) as the Knicks have become in New York. They hate Marbury; they hate Isaiah; but most of all they hate Jim Dolan, the batshit-craziest owner in all of sports. Watching the tabloids' day-to-day vitriolic war on all things Knicks is a truly awesome experience.
Lastly--and this stands as a second confession--this fascination stems from the fact that for a good deal of my childhood, I actually did root for the Knicks, at least when they weren't playing the Celtics. When I first became a true, die-hard basketball fan, sometime around middle school, the Celtics were uninspiring at best, suffering the death of Reggie Lewis, wheezing through the Dino Radja years, drafting Jon Barry over Latrell Sprewell, Acie Earl over Sam Cassell, Eric Montross over Eddie Jones. All this was pre-Pitino, mind you; that dark chapter hadn't even begun. I was drawn to the Knicks partly because I had relatives in New York and they were the second-most accessible team to me, but also because let's face it, those Knicks teams were crazy in the best possible ways. John Starks would shoot 1-for-19 one night, then drop 45 points the next, and still find time to fragrantly break Kenny Anderson's wrist in between. Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley blurred the line between pro ballers and WWF villains. Their point guard was none other than Glenn Rivers himself, before the fall. Riley was the coach, and seemed absolutely hell-bent on giving the finger to all those who'd slighted his Laker teams as finesse-driven and carried by superstars no matter the coach. And Patrick Ewing... ah, Ewing was something else in those days. The one member of the Knicks who seemed like a relatively stable, likeable guy; quiet, self-effacing, and possessing possibly the sweetest mid-range jump shot ever seen on a 7-footer. Before he became the subject of an overused and asinine "Theory" courtesy of Bill Simmons, Patrick Ewing was a force through and through. He also once changed the tire on my friend's mom's car, which didn't hurt in my eyes.
After a trip to the Finals in 1994--memorably interrupted by OJ Simpson's white Bronco chase--the Knicks continued to make noise in the East for the rest of the decade, even returning to the Finals in the 1998-99 lockout year as an improbable eight-seed in the East, a fun run until they were resoundingly trounced by the Duncan-Robinson Spurs. And then it all started coming apart. It's hard to tell exactly when the wheels started coming off, though many point to the laughable max contract they handed out to the supremely one-dimensional Allan Houston in 2001, a move in which they successfully outbid only themselves and ruined the team's financial situation for years to come. However, I prefer to think the downfall began in 2000, when in an act of supreme callousness the team traded Ewing to Seattle for a bunch of chump change rather than sign him to a short-term deal and let him retire a Knick like he should have. The front office seemed greedy, thoughtless and hopelessly out of touch, which is more or less a perfect transition to the Knicks of the present day.
The past few seasons the Knicks have vacillated between outrageously incompetent and laughably insane. It seems like almost every recent member of the team has been pounded in the media at some point, if not consistently: Eddy Curry for making too much money, Quentin Richardson for being a walking injury report, Nate Robinson for throwing punches and generally being a terrible basketball player, Steve Francis for quitting on life, Jerome James for simply being Jerome James. Of course, nobody gets it worse than Marbury, who is so widely hated that last week, when he stupidly defended Michael Vick, the media response was practically gleeful... check out Mitch Lawrence's typically idiotic and bizarrely mean-spirited response, in which Mitch goes so far as to belittle Marbury for his Starbury sneaker line, one of the few genuinely socially meaningful acts we've seen from an NBA star in recent years. Steph, it seems, truly can't win, whether on the court or off.
The widespread hatred of the players has been predictably (and for the most part rightfully) projected upon team president (and now coach) Isaiah Thomas, who in all fairness has done an exquisitely terrible job in his position. In fact, perhaps the most shocking Knicks-related move that's occurred during Thomas' tenure was the contract extension signed by Thomas himself last spring during a brief hot streak, an extension that merely confirmed the short-sighted lunacy of owner Dolan. Over the course of his presidency, Thomas has squandered a bottomless well of financial resources while assembling a team completely devoid of chemistry, running the team like an ADD-afflicted 12-year-old playing NBA Live in "Dynasty" mode. Much like the until-recent Danny Ainge, the only area in which Thomas has been successful is the draft, where he's snatched up talents such as Channing Frye, David Lee and even Renaldo Balkman, for whom Thomas was ridiculed on draft day last year but who now appears to be a keeper. In fact, it was Thomas' draft prowess that allowed him to make the Eastern Conference's most significant non-Garnett-related move, the acquisition of Zach Randolph from Portland, giving the Knicks one of the most offensively-talented frontcourts in the NBA.
So where do the Knicks go from here? Does the addition of Randolph plus the maturation of Lee, Curry, Balkman and the rest finally start paying dividends for New York? Or has Thomas merely repeated what's been a frustrating pattern in his time as an executive, the acquisition of talented but problematic players at exorbitant costs who are unwilling to co-exist with one another? Today we have discussed the recent past of the Knicks; in the second part of the Knickerbocker Chronicles, we will discuss their various potential futures. Stay tuned.