By the summer of 2010, amateurish Photoshop images of LeBron James donned in the orange and blue of the New York Knicks had become so commonplace as to make "The Decision" look like a forgone conclusion.
Two titles later, the stigma surrounding The Decision—the spectacle more so than the process—has largely vanished, replaced by a near-universal respect for a player fast scaling the legend’s ladder.
The Knicks, meanwhile, resigned themselves to a near future of cap-strapping consolation prizes—seasons that have distracted many a fan from a painful refrain:
What if LeBron had come to New York?
To answer that, it’s important to understand the peril and perspective from whence the Knicks had come.
Clearing the Decks
For owner James Dolan, the strategy had long been set in stone.
Once it became obvious that the Stephon Marbury-Isiah Thomas era was doomed to fly furiously off the rails, the Knicks hunkered down to reshuffle their house completely.
It started with the hiring of Donnie Walsh, the seasoned general manager who helped turn the small-market Indiana Pacers into a model of financial savvy and competitive consistency.
That was in April 2008, at the tail end of Isiah’s final season at the helm (the team finished 23-59).
Dolan and Walsh moved quickly to bring aboard Mike D’Antoni, architect of Seven Seconds or Less and outgoing coach of the Phoenix Suns. With D’Antoni, the Knicks were ushering in a new era of New York basketball, one predicated on a word that hadn’t exactly enjoyed much currency in recent years: fun.
First came the difficult part: a two-year purge designed to absorb and eventually rid the roster of bloated or otherwise undesirable contracts just in time for the bonanza of 2010.
Tracy McGrady, Anfernee Hardaway, Malik Rose, Chris Wilcox: From journeymen to one-time stars, the Knicks acquired them all, in a two-year salary-shifting operation that began to look like the basketball equivalent of a 15 puzzle.
That LeBron was first on the Knicks’ short list of targets was well known. In the end, though, they were forced to settle for a second fiddle: Amar’e Stoudemire, the talented but flawed power forward D’Antoni had helped turn into a star in Phoenix.
As for King James, opting not to take his talents to Midtown had as much to do with the Knicks’ financial status as it did how the two’s meetings played out.
In a story published on July 8, 2010, the New York Daily News’ Frank Isola reported that the Knicks had sent none other than Thomas to meet with James in a last-ditch attempt to steer the King to Manhattan.
In a bizarre twist to what has been a surreal eight days in the recruitment of James, the Knicks out-sourced the job of selling James on New York to a former president who was fired two years ago following a sexual harassment trial.
The News has learned that Dolan, the Chairman of Madison Square Garden, made the decision to send Thomas instead of head coach Mike D'Antoni. That move suggests that Dolan felt his team's initial presentation to James last Thursday fell flat. It also suggests that Thomas still has influence within the organization, and it raises questions about whether Dolan still has faith in team president Donnie Walsh and D'Antoni.
All of this naturally invited the question: What did the Knicks do to screw up so badly in the first place that sending in their much-maligned former coach and general manager suddenly seemed like a good idea?
According to ESPN’s Ian O’Connor, New York’s initial presentation—while ultimately unsuccessful—didn’t fail for want of trying.
James might decide to go with Cleveland, Chicago, New Jersey or Miami. He might pick up his cell and end the Knicks' quest in a New York minute. If that happens, if LeBron James rejects Tony Soprano's offer he could refuse, the Knicks wouldn't have lost the game because of their presentation.
They would have lost it because of their roster.
Talk about the irony of all ironies: Spend two-plus years frantically clearing out cap room and making amends for years of bad decisions, only to realize that you’d actually left the cupboards too bare.
Only the Knicks.
And yet, the what-ifs linger on, like the prom date from a league just out of reach.
Requiem for a Dream
Here’s what we know: Heading into the summer of 2010, the Knicks had cleaved open enough cap space to sign two max-contract players.
Because LeBron ultimately made his decision so early in the free-agency process, it stands to reason that the Knicks would’ve had to assure their prized catch that additional help was on the way.
At the time of his meeting with the Knicks, the only All-Star caliber player on the Knicks roster was David Lee, who, for all his obvious talent, probably wasn’t going to be enough to lure in the summer’s biggest catch.
What the Knicks should have done is traded Lee the season before. One possible target: Bosh, who, according to Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, had all but checked out:
Bosh said he is better equipped to handle the attention than the last time he was in the situation. He was a free agent with the Toronto Raptors after 2010 season before joining the Heat. He said the key is keeping focus on the current season.
“You think about it but I’m mature enough to know that if I really start to think about it, I’m going to start playing bad,” Bosh said. “Things aren’t going to go right. I’m just going to enjoy today. I’m looking forward to having a big year this year. That’s all I think about. In Toronto, it kind of messed me up. I was thinking, `What is going to happen [in the offseason]?”
Landing Bosh—in a hefty extend-and-trade involving Lee and Danilo Gallinari, for example—might’ve been an effective first step in helping convince James to try his hand on the Garden hardwood.
Here’s what the Knicks roster would’ve looked like heading into the summer of 2010 had that first domino fallen:
|Chris Bosh||~$14 million|
|Eddy Curry||$10.5 million|
|Wilson Chandler||$1.2 million|
|Toney Douglas||$1 million|
That would’ve left the Knicks approximately $29.5 million under the 2010-11 salary cap—enough to sign one and possibly two additional max players, depending on whether the Knicks had any other deals to make and Dolan’s willingness to tread into the luxury-tax territory.
Judging by his financial decisions before and since, it’s safe to say he would’ve been just fine with the latter proposition.
Stoudemire, Wade and Joe Johnson were also available. In the end, it was Wade who was able to convince James and Bosh to join him in Miami, so we’ll assume for the sake of argument that he remained there regardless.
Could the Knicks have landed LeBron and Joe Johnson? Doing so might have required both players to take a bit of a financial haircut, as James, Wade and Bosh all did when they joined forces in Miami.
We’ve made it this far down our primrose hypothetical—no sense in stopping now.
Here’s what the Knicks roster would’ve looked like if James and Johnson had taken salaries starting at $15 and $14 million, respectively.
|LeBron James||~$15 million|
|Chris Bosh||~$14 million|
|Joe Johnson||~14 million|
|Eddy Curry||$10.5 million|
|Wilson Chandler||$1.2 million|
|Tony Douglas||$1 million|
Sprinkle in a few additional savvy signings, you might’ve had the makings for an immediate contender.
The crippling X-factor is, of course, Eddy Curry, who wouldn’t play a single minute during the 2010-11 season and whose contract only ended up being unloaded in the Carmelo Anthony trade the following February.
The Weight of What-Ifs
What shape the Knicks could’ve taken as the years wound on would’ve depended on their success that first season.
Still, what James was forced to work with as the cornerstone of the Cleveland Cavaliers—a team he took to the Finals once and almost again twice more—it’s safe to say this kind of change of scenery would’ve been a welcome one.
Curry’s $10.5 million salary coming off the books following the 2011 season only adds more intrigue to the maddening might-have-been: With that money, the Knicks could’ve had a chance to sign… Tyson Chandler.
I’ll wait here while you readjust your brain.
That the Knicks might've managed to ride LeBron's otherworldly talents to the franchise's third championship banner goes without saying. He's the best player on the planet for a reason, and it's easy to imagine him having marshaled Madison Square Garden to its frenzied finest night in and night out.
In the end, the Knicks ended up navigating their way back to respectability anyway, though the financial underpinnings remain perpetually fragile.
Even if the Knicks had gotten closer to landing the game’s best player, too many things would’ve had to break perfectly.
Put bluntly, what Wade and Miami offered was always going to be more attractive: a proven franchise four years removed from an NBA title and with a top-10 player already at the helm.
New York might eventually find its way back to a similar stability, even as they deign to once again pursue the free-agent chase—which might well include LeBron himself—over the next two summers.
In the meantime, LeBron can rest assured that, while the ripple effects of The Decision might linger well into his twilight, none of them can supplant a single, overarching truth: It was the right one.