It’s hard for a New York sports team to become nearly invisible in the ubiquitous sports media and irrelevant to all but their most loyal fans, but that’s what the New York Knicks have accomplished this decade. They play on the grandest stage in basketball, Madison Square Garden, but via a remarkable sequence of horrible personnel moves first by Scott Layden then by Isiah Thomas the team has become so bad that mediocrity would merit a banner heading in the New York Times. However, the team’s current state of disarray, a roster littered with unproductive players on long-term contracts, probably suits Team President Donnie Walsh just fine. It gives him a chance to build a Knicks team that is squarely in the tradition of their past champions.
Recently, the team appeared to hit rock bottom. After starting the season with nine losses in ten games, it considered signing free agent guard Allen Iverson, a great player in his prime, but presently a cantankerous, ageing veteran that few other NBA teams regard as worth the trouble, then at the last minute, chose not to. The addition of Iverson would not have turned the Knicks into contenders, but he would have given them a pulse, something that seemed sadly lacking in the team’s efforts early this season as it suffered one double digit defeat after another.
The scenario of watching a lifeless team isn’t new to Knicks fans; during a four year stretch ‘04-’05 through ’07-’08, the team lost nearly two thirds of its games. Rudy Giuliani was still mayor and a rising star in the Republican Party when the team last had a winning season in ’00-‘01. But the Walsh era is supposed to be different. When he took over the team in April 2008, he announced that the team’s goals were to be competitive on the court and to get their payroll far enough under the league’s salary cap so that they could vie for players in the upcoming summer 2010 free agent market, when superstars like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will be available.
Selling the notoriously impatient New York City market on the concept of “wait till next year,” is considered a long shot, and Walsh’s concept was more like “wait till the year after next year.” Yet, it worked…for a while. New York basketball fans started dreaming of LeBron in a Knicks uniform like so many children hoping to find the latest cool toy under the Christmas tree. Fans shrugged off the fact that neither James nor Wade nor any other star players were likely to leave a championship contender to join the Knicks, a team that has not qualified for the postseason since 2004. In addition, as much as New Yorkers are proud of their bright lights, location matters less than it used to. NFL star quarterback Peyton Manning, one of the professional athletes with the most endorsement deals, plays in Indianapolis.
Last season those concerns seemed far away as the Knicks played solid basketball for much of the season. New coach Mike D’Antoni installed his uptempo system and the team played with urgency and passion, something not seen in a Knickerbocker jersey in many years. Meanwhile Walsh dramatically overhauled the roster. Almost weekly, players from the Thomas era were sent packing in favor of replacements whose contracts expired before the great summer of 2010. This led to a wellspring of optimism amongst the fan base. It seemed that the plan would work. The Knicks would be an improving team and with that plus the lure of New York City, a superstar would find Gotham irresistible. The giddiness led people to ignore that the final edition of the Knicks roster, wasn’t very good. Last season’s squad went 8-18 in their final 26 games, and it turns out that was merely a prelude to this season’s dreadful first month.
The slow start panicked fans as it effectively puts an end “the plan,” their dreams of a superstar in blue and orange, but it probably doesn’t faze Walsh at all. Although he certainly would like to have a superstar choose to come play for his team, Walsh’s reputation as a leading NBA team executive owes to two decades with the Indiana Pacers where he consistently put winning teams on the floor without following the superstar-and-supporting-cast model of roster construction. Instead, his teams were balanced units of solid contributors.
Walsh, who is 68, was born and raised in New York; he probably has vivid memories of the Knicks title era in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Those teams were also “ensemble” teams rather than superstar plus supporting players. Back in the early ‘70s, New Yorkers took great pride in that fact. Rival teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks had superstars, bur the Knicks won with a cohesive, ego-less unit.
Now, as what will probably be his final act in the workplace, Walsh is set to try and build a winner in New York that is squarely in the model of the teams that still cast a long shadow today. It would explain Walsh’s draft strategy, which has avoided high risk/high reward players like Brandon Jennings, a rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks who scored 55 points in only his seventh game in the league. And, it is why he would choose against signing Iverson. He understands that the Garden has had its fill of players who are superstars in their own minds like Stephon Marbury, Stevie Francis, and Zach Randolph. The Knicks of 2010-’11 are far from set, but what little we’ve seen indicates that Walsh is going to pursue players who are stars in the very best Knicks tradition. It’s an ambitious plan, but under these dire circumstances, it’s probably the only one that can work.