With LeBron James a Long Shot, a Realistic NYC Basketball Plan

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With LeBron James a Long Shot, a Realistic NYC Basketball Plan
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Another lost season for the New York Knicks concluded Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, as the home team cared more in the NBA regular-season finale than the listless New Jersey Nets and cruised to a meaningless 102-73 victory.

David Lee led the team with his league-leading 65th double-double (12 points, 12 rebounds), while four other Knicks scored in double figures, but the game’s final buzzer signaled the end of New York’s eighth-straight losing season.

The Knicks fell short of the playoffs for a league-leading fifth-consecutive year and haven’t won a postseason game since the spring of 2001. The Minnesota Timberwolves are the only other NBA team to miss the playoffs for five-straight seasons. Yes, the Knicks now share company with the lowly Wolves. 

Sure, team president Donnie Walsh and coach Mike D’Antoni have only been in New York for one season, and cleaning up the horrendous mess Isiah Thomas left behind wasn’t going to be completed overnight, but the numbers are the numbers. Walsh and D’Antoni brought a renewed hope and a commitment to rebuilding to New York City, but the Knicks still finished at 32-50, the NBA’s eighth-worst record.

It was the fourth time in the last eight years New York totaled 50 or more losses. The Knicks have a .381 winning percentage since 2001. That’s a lot of losing this decade for a team that was accustomed to winning the decade before. In the 1990's, the Knicks registered a .567 winning percentage, made the playoffs every year, and twice advanced to the NBA Finals.

The days of Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, John Starks, Pat Riley, Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson, and Jeff Van Gundy are well in the back of Knicks’ fans minds.

While Commissioner David Stern has to be pleased with the success of tradition-rich and big-market teams like the Celtics and Lakers, New York’s basketball franchise has taken up an almost permanent residence in the NBA cellar.

The question is, after years of watching apathetic coaches (see: Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown) and overpaid and overrated payers (see: Stephon Marbury, Eddy Curry, Zach Randolph) fail, can Walsh and D’Antoni turn the Knicks around so the 2010's are more like the 1990's?

The answer, clearly, won’t come until the summer of 2010 and beyond, when the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Dirk Nowitzki can potentially test the free-agent waters. Walsh’s primary goal this past year, other than making sure Isiah stayed as far away from the franchise as possible, was to clear enough salary cap space so the Knicks could be major players come 2010.

With Marbury now mercifully off the Knicks’ books and Zach Randolph (owed more than $33 million the next two seasons) and Jamal Crawford (owed more than $19 million the next two seasons) traded, the Knicks’ longest contract belongs to rookie Danilo Gallinari. The only players the Knicks have signed after next season are Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Jared Jeffries, and Curry, who could be traded because his contract expires in 2011.

If I’m Walsh, looking at the Knicks’ roster today, I make signing Lee to a long-term deal the first priority. At 25, he finished third in the league in rebounding with almost 12 a game, adding 16 points a night while shooting 55 percent. Lee works hard and has some of that Oakley grit New York fans love.

The Knicks are lottery bound yet again, but this year’s draft pick takes on greater importance because Utah owns New York’s first rounder in 2010. Walsh of course has Isiah to thank for that move.

If the Knicks land the No. 8 pick, they’d be in a position to take a swingman like Earl Clark of Louisville, Duke’s Gerald Henderson, or Wayne Ellington of North Carolina (though Ellington hasn’t yet declared). Any of those three would likely flourish in D’Antoni’s run-and-gun system.

Walsh should make a strong play this summer for restricted free agent point guard Raymond Felton. Felton, who will be 25 at the start of next season, has averaged 14 points and seven assists the last three years with the Charlotte Bobcats and would likely see a bump in his production under D’Antoni. Chris Duhon, who wore down as the season progressed for the Knicks, would move to a backup role.

It’s looking more and more like LeBron will stay in Cleveland and D-Wade will remain in South Beach, as their teams are improving and can offer the superstars the most money. Consolation prizes in 2010 for the Knicks could come in the form of Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, and possibly Steve Nash if the Knicks can’t sign Felton this summer.

Going into the 2010 season then, D’Antoni could work with a lineup of Raymond Felton, Joe Johnson, Earl Clark, Chris Bosh, and David Lee, with the likes of Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari coming off the bench. A playoff series win—the Knicks’ first since 2000—wouldn’t be out of the question.

It might be long-term and wishful thinking for New York City basketball fans, but after another lost Knicks’ season, it’s all they have.

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