New York Knicks Must Give Up Fantasy of Luring LeBron James in Free Agency

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New York Knicks Must Give Up Fantasy of Luring LeBron James in Free Agency
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Don't look now, but the New York Knicks and LeBron James are being mentioned in the same breath again. 

All great NBA products start with a vision, a dream. But there comes a point when propensities for indulging fantasy warp reality beyond recognition. 

The Knicks are at that point, forever in limbo between the team they are and the one they want to be.

To them, cap space equals big names, and big names equal championships. There is no middle ground, no patience for a conventional rebuild. Draft picks are trade fodder. Young prospects are expendable. Established superstars are the end-all, be-all.

It's no surprise, then, that Knicks owner James Dolan invested a small fortune in Phil Jackson, according to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Chris Broussard, handing him $60 million over the next five years to rescue a once-prospering franchise from languishing in overpriced mediocrity.

It's also no surprise that it took all of five seconds for another big name to enter the conversation. Per the New York Daily News' Frank Isola, James, who the Knicks failed to sign in 2010, is now back in play with Jackson at the helm:

James can opt out this summer and unless he signs a one-year deal or waits until 2015 to opt out, the Knicks have little chance of landing him.

But Dolan and Jackson can dream big. Heat executives, according to a source, are not convinced that James will stay, though in their heart of hearts they believe he will re-sign. But Jackson’s arrival changes things.

'There’s no way LeBron would have gone to New York under the current climate,' said a James confidant. 'He had a falling-out with CAA (agency) and that was a problem as well. But with Phil there I think he will look at it.'

Though Isola doesn't provide any concrete evidence that New York is once again mortgaging its future and curbing its spending in anticipation of James' free agency, he's not reaching either.

Planning for a whimsical free-agency coup more than a year in advance is par for the course in New York, where the Knicks habitually sell pursuits of big names more than they do actual acquisitions. And with the Knicks slated to have valleys of financial flexibility in 2015—even if Carmelo Anthony is still in town—and Jackson now aboard, they have both the means and swanky insolence to make more promises they're unlikely to keep.

That doesn't make it acceptable. It's time for the Knicks to put on their pragmatic hats and distance themselves from the sullied reputation James once helped perpetuate and Jackson was hired to reverse.

 

What Change?

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Let's not pretend this is something to completely dismiss.

Twenty-nine other teams, including the Miami Heat, want James to "look at" them. If all works out and James becomes a free agent in 2015, then the Knicks can, and should, look back at him.

But that cannot be "the plan." Jackson cannot sit behind his presumably large desk, wipe his hands together and cackle diabolically as he scribbles an ill-conceived strategy on the back of a napkin. 

The old Knicks would have done this. They may have already done this. Steve Mills—the man who has ceded much of his organizational control to Jackson—may have a whole drawer full of napkins, bibs and moist towelettes on which he penned "LeBron James" inside tiny hearts.

Harping on other people's players (OPP) and droll futures can no longer be New York's primary source of hope, though. The Knicks already plan on using Jackson and the prospect of signing Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo or another superstar in 2015 to retain Anthony. They cannot add James, who may not even be available in 2015, to that flimsy sales pitch.

Truth be told, they shouldn't add Rondo, Love or anyone else either. They're not functional enough to guarantee the arrivals of players seeking stability and championships

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Jackson must reverse New York's culture before free-agency coups are talked about.

"Phil can help the Knicks because he gives them a face and credibility," a rival general manager told Isola. "But these big free agents are only going to a place where they feel they can win. Phil has to build something first."

Before the Knicks can start orchestrating free-agency coups, before Jackson can use his still-untested powers of persuasion, things need to change for good. 

Gone must be the days when draft picks and young prospects were dispensed like candy on Halloween. There can be no overpaid players who won't play up to their contractual standards. Creative Artists Agency cannot have their tentacles in everything the Knicks do. 

Change for the sake of reform must be implemented before they can dream of building a super team. Embracing past business models will only yield similar results.

It will only bring more of the same.

 

Past Danger

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

What happened when the Knicks whiffed on James the first time? Amar'e Stoudemire happened.

What happened after Chris Paul toasted to a future in New York? Tyson Chandler happened.

Historically, the Knicks don't get their guy. They settle. When they do get their guy, as was the case with Anthony, they sell their soul and mortgage their future to get him, effectively settling anyway.

Then again, maybe it's not the players themselves they're settling for. It's the names. It's the plan.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Scheming for other stars hasn't worked out for the Knicks before.

Nothing can take time in New York. Everything must be quick. Swift. The Knicks are in win-now mode, and Jackson was brought in to not expedite a rebuild, but avoid it entirely.

The thing about win-now mode is the Knicks have been there for some time. And it's left them ring-less for four decades, peddling empty futures and desperately investing $60 million in a 68-year-old Jackson.

The hire, in and of itself, was a smart move. Capitalizing on Jackson's championship ambience while they can is as slick a business decision as there is for the Knicks—use his coaching resume and organic Zen to reinvent perception and elude a full-fledged transition period.

But bringing in Jackson is more of the same, which we're supposed to believe will inevitably culminate in something different. Instead of a logical plan, the Knicks went after a prestigious name in hopes he could provide them with an actual direction.

Posting & Toasting's Seth Rosenthal penned a magnificent piece on New York's decision before it became official, in which he questioned New York's continued impulsion:

I've seen scant proof that a majestic aura trumps a sound plan, but maybe that's just because I wasn't looking at Phil Jackson. But then there's the kickback of the aura-- this absurd mythos around Jackson that's already seeping into reports before the guy's signed a contract or even said a word to anyone. All these peripheral Jackson acolytes are popping up to tell us about the man's feelings, his opinions, his health, his legacy, his relationship with his girlfriend, his favorite types of weather. Today I read several quotes from people speculating on the viability of a coach who has not yet been hired to replace a coach who has not yet been fired by an executive who has not yet been hired for a job opening that isn't clearly defined.

This instinctive act is largely accepted, because it's Jackson and because it's supposed to be the last one.

Jackson won't hide behind OPP. He won't be rebuilding through the draft—not at his age—but he won't use 2015 and 2016 (and 2038) free-agency classes to deflect immediate questions. He won't make James his Plan A.

Under his watch, the Knicks will be different. That's what we're led to believe. His reputation makes it easier for them to recruit, but it's his basketball savvy that allows them to start anew. 

Coveting James isn't new.

 

Time to Move On

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Chasing James (again) keeps in theme with the very stigma Jackson and the Knicks are trying to shed.

While the faces would change, the end-goal remains impractical. The Knicks have tried to actualize the improbable before, and each time they've been met by different levels of failure. 

Once more, there's no shame in simply acknowledging James is great or that he could hit free agency in 2015. The Knicks just cannot bank on it. 

Should the Knicks plan on making another run at LeBron James in 2015?

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That isn't to say this is Jackson's plan, just that it can't be. The Knicks have traversed this path before. Jackson himself is an extension of that path and will allegedly help the team deviate from its previous course of action and inadequacy.

James is a reminder of who the Knicks are no longer supposed to be.

"I'm a chess player. That was a power move right there," Anthony told reporters of the Jackson hire Saturday, via ESPN New York's Ian Begley. "So, now we're going to see what's the next move, but that was a great power move."

Pursuing James would put New York in a position of weakness again, reversing whatever power Jackson restores, proving that the Knicks won't ever change.

 

*Salary information via ShamSports.


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