New York — For two riveting weeks last spring, the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers were equals again, reinvigorated rivals wrestling for control of the Eastern Conference, matching talent and hubris and ambition.
The power shifted, symbolically and effectively, in one dramatic moment.
Carmelo Anthony rose from the baseline, ball in hand, eyes fixed on the basket. Roy Hibbert met him in midair, his left hand outstretched, his timing perfect.
The block was instantly immortalized on newsstands and canonized in Indiana lore. The Pacers claimed the victory on that May evening, taking out the Knicks in Game 6 of the conference semifinals.
Looking back, that might be the last time we view these teams on equal terms.
Six months later, the Pacers are still rising, lording over the East with a 10-1 record. The Knicks are dragging at 3-8, with a stunning 1-6 mark at Madison Square Garden, where they fell to the Pacers 103-96 in overtime Wednesday night.
The Knicks played respectably enough and showed admirable resilience for a team missing its starting center and point guard. But their foundation is cracking, and their future is murky.
Carmelo Anthony, their franchise star, is bounding toward free agency. Few could blame him if he left town next July. The Knicks have no complementary stars, no prospects with All-Star potential and no first-round draft pick in 2014. They are capped out until July 2015, when the contracts of Tyson Chandler, Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani expire. By then, Anthony will be 31 years old, entering his 13th season, with a lot of mileage on his legs and a cap-constraining $129 million contract.
The Pacers, by contrast, are young, versatile and balanced, with two All-Stars—Paul George and Hibbert—who are just entering their prime. George, just 23, is already an elite defender and has a rapidly improving offensive game that may soon rival Anthony’s. Hibbert, who turns 27 next month, is arguably the second-best center in the league and, like George, a two-way player.
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George spent much of Wednesday’s game harassing Anthony into tough shots, then outdueled him in crunch time, scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, to Anthony’s 12.
“He’s gotten a lot better, especially offensively,” Anthony said afterward. “All it takes is confidence in this league. With George, that’s what he has right now, and it's growing day by day, game by game.”
The Pacers, too, are blossoming before our eyes—from an eighth seed in 2011 to an Eastern Conference finalist last spring, when they stretched the Miami Heat to seven games.
The Knicks? They may have already peaked with last season’s 54-win campaign. They are firmly behind the Pacers, Heat, Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets in talent, and a longshot to make the conference finals.
Unlike the Pacers, the Knicks have little room for internal growth.
This contrast in fortunes is not coincidental, nor a product of happenstance. It’s a reflection of how these two franchises operate, a manifestation of dueling philosophies.
New York is guided, unfailingly, by the glitzy transaction—the headline-grabbing trade, the superstar signing, the quick fixes and home-run swings. Draft picks and youth are readily and repeatedly sacrificed. The Knicks are addicted to instant gratification. Tomorrow doesn’t exist.
Indiana, on the other hand, is reliably methodical, a portrait of patience, masters of the slow build. The Pacers were forced to dismantle a potential title contender after the Malice at the Palace in 2004; their recovery has been gradual, even subtle, but impressive.
The Pacers built another contender without splashy trades or free-agent spending binges, without tanking for ping-pong balls and without a single top-five draft pick.
George was taken with the 10th pick in the 2010 draft. Hibbert, the 17th pick in 2008, was acquired in a draft-night trade for Jermaine O’Neal. Lance Stephenson, the Pacers’ mercurial-but-talented shooting guard, was the 40th pick in 2010. George Hill, the starting point guard, was acquired from San Antonio, in a draft-night swap for Kawhi Leonard (the Pacers’ 15th pick).
The splashiest the Pacers got in free agency was in 2010, when they signed David West to a two-year, $20 million deal. Their biggest acquisition this past summer was to acquire another rugged forward, Luis Scola, in a trade with Phoenix.
“We know that we have to build the team, and it’s going to take a period of time if you have to rebuild,” said Donnie Walsh who, along with owner Herb Simon, has set the Pacers’ agenda for 30 years (minus the four seasons Walsh spent with the Knicks).
The Pacers’ most recent rebuild was largely engineered by Larry Bird, while Walsh was in New York. But Bird followed the blueprint left by Walsh, who returned to the club in 2012 and is now a team consultant.
Indianapolis is a small market, constrained by modest television revenue and a (real or perceived) inability to lure marquee stars.
“We don’t get panicked into trying to go into free agency and get people or trade people for draft choices,” Walsh said. “I think the philosophy is that we might not be able to get the max-type guys that were at the top of the league. But we feel like if we can get good enough players that we can beat them, or have a chance to compete with them.”
The Pacers, who have long avoided the luxury tax, will face a challenge next summer in trying to retain Stephenson and Danny Granger, who will be free agents. But their foundation is solid, sustainable. George is under contract through 2018 and Hibbert through 2015 (with a player option for 2015-16).
None of this is accidental. More than two decades ago, Walsh built the Pacers into a contender by plucking Reggie Miller with the 11th pick of the 1987 draft, then surrounding him with high-value picks such as Antonio Davis (45th in 1990) and Dale Davis (13th in 1991). The only high lottery pick of that era was Rik Smits (No. 2, in 1988).
“I look at this team, and it’s the same exact thing,” Walsh said, praising Bird’s work. “Hibbert was 17, but was a really good pick at 17—if you knew he’s going to work, he’s a good guy and he’s got skill. I think Larry had the patience to stay with Paul George. … Then, this year, he went out and got Luis Scola, he got (C.J.) Watson.”
In New York, under a more impulsive and erratic owner—Garden chairman James L. Dolan—Walsh charted a different path. Having inherited a bloated payroll, filled with ill-fitting stars, Walsh initiated a teardown, positioning the Knicks for the free-agent class of 2010. They landed Stoudemire, then traded for Anthony a few months later.
Walsh clearly prefers the Pacer Way, the methodical build—“the right way to do it,” he said—though he acknowledged, “It’s obviously hard to do in a big city, where there’s bigger expectations and more scrutiny, and people say, `Hey, I’m paying whatever and the teams aren’t that good.’ ”
The Knicks’ win-now mandate and the lust for big, shiny things has cost the franchise repeatedly. The last star the Knicks drafted, developed and kept for any meaningful period was Mark Jackson, taken 18th in 1987. Their best picks of the last decade—Danilo Gallinari and David Lee—were dealt away as soon as they showed promise.
The Knicks traded their first-round picks in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2010 and 2012. Their 2014 pick was sent to Denver in the Anthony trade. Their 2016 pick was sent to Toronto for Bargnani.
While the Pacers are enjoying the fruits of their patience, the Knicks already seem to be contemplating the next panic move—a trade of Iman Shumpert or maybe another coaching change. You can practically hear rival executives lining up to poach the next first-round pick.
For now, the Pacers and Knicks will enjoy their renewed rivalry, perhaps even add another chapter next spring. But it likely will not last.
The Pacers are a rising force, sustainably built, and a likely title contender for years to come. The Knicks—like that ball Hibbert swatted in May—are careering in the wrong direction.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.