I understand that the Knicks need to rebuild. Lord knows they’ve needed to rebuild since the day they traded Patrick Ewing for something like six bad contracts. And by trading Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford, New York got rid of a pair of bad contracts and players I didn’t love for the ability to open cap space in the Summer of 2010—the magical time when LeBron James, as well as other NBA stars, will be free.
But some line was crossed for me by the way the Knicks have handled this rebuild. They’ve managed to do more than just make the next two years about reconstructing the roster. They’ve made the next two years utterly irrelevant.
First of all, they’ve made it absolutely clear that 2008-09 and 2009-10 simply don’t matter. They don’t matter in terms of wins and losses, like any rebuild, but they also don’t even matter in terms of individual players. Apparently, anyone who is signed beyond 2010 is simply going to be dealt. Anyone signed through 2010? Don’t get too attached.
So Al Harrington goes out and scores 39? That’s great. It doesn’t matter. One can’t go about getting excited about Al Harrington (and to be honest, it’s probably not a good idea regardless of contract), because come 2010, he’s out the door. In all likelihood, the same is true for Nate Robinson—if they really want, they can get someone taller to take ill-advised shots. Even David Lee, the one player Knicks fans have enjoyed over the past five years, isn’t signed long-term—and you get the feeling there’s a reason for that.
But the other parts of the puzzle that could keep me interested aren’t present, either. During these moments in a franchise’s history, you can simply focus on the new draft pick. But the Knicks drafted, once again, a European with a bad back. It’s not clear why they saw the Frederic Weis debacle and exclaimed, “There’s our template!” but apparently, that’s what happened. So Danilo Gallinari is out until at least January, and here’s another person not to get too excited about—what is the history of guys in the NBA with bad backs who managed to play productively and for a long time?
They even had the chance to sign Patrick Ewing Jr., just to give the long-time fans a thrill. Instead, they let him go to the Developmental League, even when an open roster spot came up. That’s right, they replaced the retiring Cuttino Mobley with… no one. This isn’t a Federal judgeship—each member of a 12-man roster matters.
So the hopes from here on in appear to be wishing once more that the Knicks play poorly enough to get a high draft pick this June. I don’t even have the added bonus of hoping the Knicks lose enough that Isiah Thomas is fired. And come 2009-10, there isn’t even that hope—the Knicks don’t own their own pick, having dealt it in the Stephon Marbury deal. It’s not even lottery-protected.
I am a Knicks fan. I will not abandon my team. But if I’m really interested in following the future of the Knicks, it appears my best choice is to go watch the Cavs play. That’s not a rebuild. That’s the Knicks taking pro basketball away from me for the next two years. But I suppose I shouldn’t complain—at least this time it has a purpose, while for the last ten years, I was denied pro basketball simply because of incompetence.
Did the Knicks really do anything wrong by essentially admitting they are not planning on winning this season (or next) but are willing to do what it takes to enter the LeBron sweepstakes in two years? Not hardly.
The Knicks weren’t going anywhere this year; no one disputes that. But the moves that supposedly broke some sacred trust with the fans have in fact made the team better. They are competitive on nightly basis, at least, which is a far cry from the Isiah era. And who knows, maybe Mike D’Antoni can even return Eddy Curry to his past glory. OK, maybe not.
I guess we’re supposed to be aghast at the strategy of getting rid of some of the team’s best players and their accompanying contracts because it is throwing in the towel. But I would contend that being realistic about your team’s chances and re-upping for the future is a far wiser strategy than trying to field a team that will advance no further than the first round (which, incidentally, may be exactly what happens even sans Crawford and Randolph).
Building a basketball team is different than building a baseball or football team. One player can make an enormous difference. Two players can make a champion. And the route taken to acquire such an impact player should be judged by the reaction of the fans and its eventually efficacy.
In other words, the Knicks fans seem to be on board with what’s going on right now, especially if it eventually yields King James. Hell, it seems like more of a strategy than the Knickerbockers have had the last few season. And the fans’ willingness to accept the Walsh Plan should be the measure by which a team’s moves are evaluated, not some holier-than-thou decree from David Stern.
Charlotte doesn’t have this luxury. New York does. And I see nothing wrong with it.
Take the Celtics. Boston tanked in 2006-07, hoping to wind up with Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, only to see the ping-pong balls go the other way. This forced GM Danny Ainge to engineer the trades that brought Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett into the fold, and the end result is a championship squad playing some of the best basketball we’ve ever seen.
The lesson here is not that tanking — or otherwise sacrificing a season — is inherently bad because it didn’t have the initial desired effects of the Boston faithful. The lesson is that in a five-man game, teams can change in a hurry, and pursuing different routes should be acceptable to the extent that the fan base accepts them. And most Knicks fans acknowledge that the only way to become a contender again is to systematically erase nearly everything Isiah Thomas did as general manager.
Yes, this means the team isn’t going anywhere for two years — and maybe beyond that the way the Cavs are playing. But that seems inherently more honest than faking the funk (sup 90s) just to make it seem like they’re trying. No one but the Celtics or Cavs are winning the East for the next two seasons, and any trivial roster moves the Knicks make (or would have made) won’t change that.
They are rebuilding. Just not in a way we’re used to seeing.