Why the New York Knicks Had Better Have a LeBron James Contingency Plan
In what has become one of the most over-hyped story lines in sports, everyone is talking about where LeBron James will be signing come July 1.
Various teams around the NBA have been planning for possibly the best free-agent class in the league’s history for the last two years, and are feverishly trying to clear cap space by any means necessary.
Leading the charge in this cap-clearing bonanza is none other than the New York Knicks, who seem to have forgotten that the NBA didn’t cancel the 2009-10 regular season in order to prepare for the vaunted, “summer of 2010.”
In fact, the Knicks seem to have been under that impression for pretty much the entire decade, notching only one winning season (their 2000-01 campaign).
After that season, and thanks to a multitude of factors, including poor drafts, poor free agent signings, bad trades, bad coaching, and injury woes, the Knicks have put together an abysmal 279-459 record.
There’s no need to rehash old wounds for Knicks fans, but the past decade has been one of the toughest for New York basketball in a long, long time.
When current Knicks president Donnie Walsh got a hold of the team's roster in April 2008, he must have invested in some Pepto Bismol. That's because he was looking at a team fresh off a 23-59 season with a roster consisting of players such as Eddy Curry, Jerome James, Stephon Marbury, Quentin Richardson, and Zach Randolph— that's a roster that would give anyone indigestion.
Considering the state of disarray that the Knicks were in when Walsh arrived, he has done an admirable job of clearing enough cap space to allow the team to sign two max contracts from the 2010 free agent class.
But at what cost?
Granted, we have already established the house of horrors that Walsh walked into when accepting the Knicks job, but in order to clear all this space, Walsh has had to move bad players with even worse contracts, which is never an easy proposition.
Thanks to the Tracy McGrady trade, which helped the Knicks clear up more than $9 million in cap space, the Knicks traded away their 2009 first-round pick, Jordan Hill, and won’t have their first-round pick in 2012, unless it’s a top-five pick, and the Houston Rockets have the right to swap picks with the Knicks in 2011, as long as the Knicks don’t have the No. 1 selection.
The Knicks also don’t have a first round pick in the 2010 draft, thanks to the 2004 trade in which the they acquired Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway.
As fans have watched the Knicks organization turn the roster into a Frankenstein-like monstrosity of expiring contracts, it has been tolerated because of the light at the end of the tunnel, which is the summer of 2010, and more specifically, LeBron James.
Imagining King James in a Knicks jersey has been pretty much the only thing Knicks fans can do to numb the pain of the past few seasons, and the organization has made it clear that they have been wheeling-and-dealing with every intention of bringing James to the Big Apple.
But where James will land is anyone’s guess.
Maybe he will stay in his hometown of Cleveland to finish what he started, or maybe he will go to Chicago to team up with the Bulls' already impressive young talent, and turn them into an instant title contender. Or maybe he will go to New Jersey because of his relationship with Jay-Z, or hell, maybe he will go to Miami because he likes the uniform colors and South Beach.
The point being, no one knows where he’s going, and there are many teams that present compelling arguments as to why James should sign with them.
The only thing that is for sure in the James sweepstakes, is that only one team will be happy with his decision, while the rest will come up short.
Pretty much the only public comment James has made about his impending free agency is that he wants to win. If that’s truly the case, the Knicks are definitely not at the top of his list.
Yes, they can bring in another max contract free agent, but they will probably only have one first round draft pick in the next three seasons, and their current returning roster (while it has potential) doesn’t compare very favorably to teams like the Bulls, the Cavaliers, the Los Angeles Clippers, and even the Nets.
Even so, the Knicks might be one of the favorites to land James, and if they do all is good and well. It would also mean that in just about two seasons Walsh will have executed one of the best magic tricks in the history of the NBA, by turning a team with virtually no young talent and terrible contracts, into a team that will soon be challenging for a title.
But what if James decides to go somewhere else, where does that leave the Knicks?
After having placed almost all of their eggs in the proverbial free-agency basket, and not coming up with the summers biggest prize, they will still bring in two nice players, but none of whom will be able to immediately turn the Knicks into a title contender.
The problem is that there isn’t any way to undo a decade of bad moves in a couple of weeks. Unless the Knicks sign James, the franchises’ troubles aren’t going to go away because of one summer of free agent signings.
In the past decade, the Knicks have turned to players like Stephon Marbury, Antonio McDyess, Zach Randolph, and Eddy Curry to try and escape from having to rebuild only to have the team play like they were rebuilding, anyway.
After having traded away more draft picks to position themselves as one of the top players in the 2010 free agency class, it would seem that the Knicks are entering into a similar type of all-or-nothing scenario.
If they land James they’re set, but if they end up signing Joe Johnson and Carlos Boozer will the team really be that much better off this season than they were last year?
Given the fact that they could still be mired with bad contracts and aging veterans who are past their prime, the current Knicks situation looks a lot brighter than it has in recent years.
But if they don’t win the LeBron lottery, the Knicks better have a contingency plan in place, because the summer of 2010 is a one time only shot at redemption for this franchise. After that, they need to stop trading away their draft picks, stop signing questionable free agents, and continue developing young talent through the draft.
Look at the Boston Celtics. Yes, they made a huge splash in the summer of 2007 by acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to pair with Paul Pierce, which resulted in a championship.
But they also continued to develop the young talent on their roster. Players like Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis, and Tony Allen have been key performers in their somewhat surprising playoff run this year, and show just how important supporting players are.
At the end of this most recent NBA regular season, I decided to see how much Knicks tickets were going for, because I hadn’t been to a game all season, and hadn’t been to the Garden in a while, either.
In what was a microcosm of how far New York Knicks basketball has fallen this past decade, tickets against the Raptors and Wizards (granted two teams that aren’t big draws) were selling for $5 apiece on stubhub.
I’m all for affordable tickets to sporting events, but Knicks tickets at Madison Square Garden should never be $5, regardless of what time of the season it is or who they’re playing against.
Maybe the Knicks will get James this offseason, but maybe they won’t, in which case the organization needs to come up with a better plan than, “Let's just throw all our money at the next best guys,” because that’s the type of thinking that has the team where they are today.
This thinking is what has Knicks tickets at $5. And as nice as $5 Knicks tickets are, I’m pretty sure that any Knicks fan would gladly pay full price for a winner.
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