On April 2, 2008, after seven terrible years in the wilderness, the New York Knicks, in most unKnicksian fashion, went full-stop on their parabolically accelerating shit show and shocked the world by implementing a complete gut rebuild. In the interest of transparency and, more importantly, to help manage expectations, Donnie Walsh steeled Gotham’s faithful fans, promising just two more seasons of frustration. With the mirage of a certain “King’s” Big Apple arrival as a backdrop, the fans signaled their weary approval, granting Walsh a long leash with the understanding that his navigation would ensure that they would never again be whipsawed by the harsh winds of James Dolan’s amoral wasteland.
And just as had been promised, by the summer of 2010 Walsh and the Knicks had cleared enough cap-space to be able to offer two max-level free agents an opportunity to join forces with the incumbent Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari — two young dynamos capable of playing multiple positions. As if that prospect wasn’t enticing enough, New York was then led by Mike D’Antoni – a revolutionary offensive mind, and by all accounts one of the most player-friendly coaches in the league – and his roster was comprised of a reasonable assortment of future assets. Not only that, the departure of Eddy Curry in a year’s time could potentially, have manifested into enough 2011 cap-space to enlist a third star-caliber player.
Alas, things didn’t exactly work out that way.
Don’t get me wrong, the Knicks have had a decent run over the past few seasons. After nearly a decade of futility, two seasons of .500 ball en route to last year’s 54-win campaign might be considered a rousing success to some young fans who never experienced the thrill of rooting for a winner, or old ones who forgot what it felt like. These folks might stand slack-jawed, enthralled with short-term gains like a prisoner freed from Plato’s allegorical cave.
And now, with these present-day Knicks struggling to get out of the gate at 2-4 – yes, this season is still extremely nascent, and narratives can change, but still – there’s an ominous vibe around here. As things spiral further and further out of control, I find myself wondering what might have been. In reality, there were three crucial decisions — all defensible at the time — that served to construct a low canopy constraining the ascension of the current team:
1. Signing Amar’e Stoudemire
Remember that time around 20 words ago when I mentioned that these decisions were defensible at the time? Well, boy, I sure did enjoy this one for a stretch. In fact, the first 54 games of the 2010 season were some of the most jovial I’ve experienced in my decades of ‘Bocker fandom. Whoever would have predicted that things would fall apart so quickly? Apparently, the Suns did, though, refusing to offer Stoudemire the years and guaranteed money that the Knicks desperately elected to. Now, as a wayward-knee’d Stoudemire gorges on 37% of New York’s current salary cap, the dire consequences of that desperation have come home to roost.
In retrospect, once it became clear that the Knicks were out of the LeBron James sweepstakes, would it have been better for them to preserve their cap space (or maybe retain David Lee), and live to fight another day? In retrospect, yes. Patience would have been preferable. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, but a theme was certainly developing.
2. Trading for Carmelo Anthony
Despite indications to the contrary I’m not a crazy person, but when I argue on the Twitter machine that the ‘Melo trade was ultimately a mistake, I am treated as if I’m tweeting from Creedmoore. “Dan, don’t you know that the Nuggets were going to cut their losses even if it meant trading Carmelo to the Nyets?!” “Dan, don’t you know that Carmelo would have never become a free agent despite his assurances that he only had eyes for New York?!” “What, Dan, you’d rather have Gallinari, Chandler, Mozgov and draft picks? LOL, you moron!”
First, I would not prefer a bunch of complimentary pieces over a legitimate star player. I would prefer to have a bunch of complimentary pieces AND a true star. Second, aren’t fans supposed to care about the name on the front of the jersey, not the back? (I could swear I’ve heard that before, probably while I was lamenting the loss of Jeremy Lin.) My point here is not hate on Carmelo Anthony. I am simply pointing out that the legitimate star that New York acquired didn’t have to be Carmelo Anthony.
Since the ‘Melo trade, Deron Williams, Chris Paul, James Harden and Dwight Howard (twice) have all changed teams. It is inarguable that the Knicks’ package for ‘Melo would have been competitive for any of those players. But if your heart was dead set on ‘Melo as the true franchise savior, as was written in the scripture, at least don’t let anyone tell you that CP3′s “Big Three” wedding toast was only a pipe dream. Had Anthony waited until free agency, the Knicks might have retained every asset (if ‘Melo had been willing to take a little less money) they exchanged for him, and in turn could have used those assets on Paul or another elite-level star. Making matters worse, New York would have also presumably retained its amnesty provision (more on that below), which they could really use right about now.
Legend has it that Walsh was steadfast in not wanting to cave to Denver’s onerous demands, the old GM viewing ‘Melo as but one entree among a diverse menu of superstars, but Dolan, impatient and impulsive as ever, pushed the deal through. Now, with Anthony sure to opt-out at the end of what may turn out to be a boggy year, the magnitude of that trade may actually end up growing if things do not go according to plan. And it would be foolish of Carmelo not to consider all of his options, especially as Gotham’s landscape remains parched and littered with the sun-bleached bones of competent general managers, and the Garden remains haunted by the ghosts of draft picks unmade.
3. Using the amnesty on Chauncey Billups
As part of the ‘Melo trade, then-Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri foisted an aging Chauncey Billups upon the Knicks, who soon after had to decide whether to pick up his option for the 2011-2012 season. Had the Knicks’ declined the option, they would still have owed him $3.7 million. On April 28, 2011, Walsh picked up the option on Billups’ final season for $14.2 million. It wasn’t an unreasonable decision, especially when you consider that New York had no other viable options at point guard to run Mike D’Antoni’s (or anyone’s) offense, and that Billups’ contract expired the following summer.
Unfortunately, however, the Knicks had no competent center either, but in a twist of fate, Tyson Chandler happened to be a free agent. Surely reasoning that championship-caliber defensive anchors do not come available very often, new GM Glen Grunwald’s first major post-lockout decision was to use the amnesty provision on Billups and offer the cap savings to Chandler, who received a four-year contract starting at $13.1 million. Whether creating roughly $14 million in cap space by picking up Billups’ option only to amnesty him was by design, or whether Walsh was set on one direction from which Grunwald pivoted matters not; the end-result was the same.
Granted, one would have a very difficult time finding a Knicks fan who is not a huge Tyson Chandler fan, but acquiring him may be New York’s most singular disastrous decision since 2010. As important and dynamic as Tyson has been, it’s relatively easy to spin alternate realities in which the Knicks would have been better off without him. For example, New York would still have ‘Melo today, but had they retained their amnesty provision, Billups would have walked at the end of the 2012 season and the amnesty provision could have been used on Stoudemire. Shockingly, that course of action would have freed up, at a minimum, some $25,959,289(!) for the Knicks to have played with that summer. Does anyone really think that Paul or Howard would have failed to take notice?! Alternatively, many lesser, but still terrific, young players changed teams in 2012. Surrounding ‘Melo with two or more youthful, dynamic, and developing second-tier players would have been forward-thinking and the team’s outlook would be a lot brighter right now.
Of course, Dolan’s lack of patience never permitted an alternate scenario to play itself out.
No one in their right mind can deny that Walsh and Grunwald delivered Knicks’ fans to a refreshing oasis after years of wandering the desert. What is fair to question, though, is whether this recent period of relative success was merely the eye of an unseen hurricane. From anointing ’Melo as franchise savior to bending to Ujiri’s opportunistic will, from Walsh’s unceremonious dispatch to using the amnesty provision on an expiring-contract player, from Grunwald’s “advisory” exile to granting a guaranteed contract to Chris Smith, from the inexplicable return of Steve Mills to the dreadful start to the 2013-14 season, history always seems to repeat itself at the World’s Most Famous Arena.
And with the return of mistrust and apprehension, wondering what might have been might actually be the calm before the storm.