The 2003–04 season was filled with turmoil for the Knicks, including multiple trades, the rise of Isiah Thomas, and a playoff appearance.
For the next few weeks, I’ll be looking back on individual seasons of Knicks “lore.” First up: 2003–04, when the Knicks fielded an ill-conceived roster of overpaid veterans, shook up the roster, coach, and front office midseason, somehow made the playoffs, then fired Marv Albert. All in all, it was possibly the Knickiest season of all time. Let’s revisit what the hell happened.
- 39-43, 3rd in Atlantic Division, no. 7 seed in an historically despicable Eastern Conference
- Swept by the New Jersey Nets (0-4) in the first round
- Coach(es): Don Chaney (15-24), Herb Williams (1-0), Lenny Wilkens (23-19)
How It Came Together
The Knicks entered the summer of 2003 coming off a 37-45 campaign in Don Chaney’s first full season in charge. Knee surgery held newly acquired Antonio McDyess out for the year.
In the June draft, embattled general manager Scott Layden selected sluggish Georgetown power forward Michael Sweetney with the no. 9 overall pick, then Poland’s Maciej Lampe at no. 30. Sweetney started 29 games in two seasons in New York. Lampe never suited up for the Knicks.
On July 23rd, Layden sent Latrell Sprewell—who had been fined for showing up to ‘02 camp with an unreported broken hand—to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a four-team exchange that brought Keith Van Horn to New York from the Philadelphia 76ers. Van Horn, a former no. 2 overall pick and perennial underachiever, was owed $43 million through 2005–06, yet the Knicks acquired him with the intention of playing him out of position at small forward.
Before camp, Layden scooped up 37-year-old Dikembe Mutombo, who was bought out by the New Jersey Nets after an injury-riddled 2002–03 campaign.
Going into the season, they sported the league’s highest payroll and most confounding roster. Allan Houston ($15.9 million), McDyess ($13.5 million), Van Horn ($13 million), Shandon Anderson ($6.7 million), Howard Eisley ($5.8 million), and Clarence Weatherspoon ($5.4 million) were set to soak up nearly all their cap space for the next three years.
The 2019–20 Knicks may have gone overboard with bigs, but the initial 2003–04 roster Layden put together was a serious doozy, featuring Kurt Thomas, Van Horn, Dikembe, Sweetney, Weatherspoon, Othella Harrington, Michael Doleac, and McDyess.
As a whole, this roster was an absolute trip of early-to-mid-‘70s babies: Anderson, Doleac, Eisley, Harrington, McDyess, Weatherspoon, Dikembe, Kurt, Allan, Van Horn, Charlie Ward, Penny Hardaway, Nazr Mohammed, Moochie Norris(!), Tim Thomas and Vin Baker all got screen time at some point. Add in the neophytes (Sweetney, DerMarr Johnson, Bruno Sundov, Frank Williams, Cezary Trybanski) and Stephon Marbury, and you end up with 22 guys who took the floor for the Knicks.
Pressure on Layden was at a boiling point coming off consecutive lottery seasons and a slew of unpopular transactions, and fans loudly clamored for a regime change.
The team started by dropping seven of nine, and the fans successfully chanted “Fire Layden” into existence.
But the grass didn’t get greener. Two days before Christmas, with the team at 10-18, James Dolan gifted New York the present they never asked for and named his pal Isiah Thomas—who ran an entire league (and nearly the Raptors) into the ground—as team president and general manager (the news broken by Mike Francesa, according to The Pope).
At the time, the hire wasn’t derided; after all, he couldn’t be more incompetent than Layden. “It’s got to be painful coming to games, seeing that we have probably the least athletic team, the oldest team, the highest payroll, the most expensive seats in sports…It’s a good day today,” Spike Lee said.
Thomas’ tenure started well, with a four-game winning streak that included road dubs in Memphis on December 26th, a 100-80 victory in Miami, a 114-86 win in Orlando, and a blowout (102-73) over Miami at the Garden.
Thomas said his job was to “calm the waters,” however, he did anything but. On December 30th, he wet his beak by dealing Weatherspoon to the Houston Rockets for John Amaechi’s contract and post-Afro Moochie Norris. Amaechi was waived, while Norris ended up behind Williams on the depth chart.
On January 5th, Thomas fully dove in, sending McDyess, Ward, Eisley, Lampe, the rights to Milos Vujanic, and two first-round picks (one became Gordon Hayward) for Marbury, Hardaway, and Trybanski. McDyess had made his long-awaited Knicks debut on December 1st, and Layden’s big acquisition (for Marcus Camby) netted just 0.6 Win Shares in 18 appearances for the Knicks.
In the moment, the move was defensible. McDyess’s prime was over, while Marbury was a 26-year-old All-Star and hometown kid. The Knicks needed playmaking, especially from the point guard spot (some things never change). However, the Knicks had to take on Stephon’s $76 million extension, set to take effect before the 2005–06 season. Marbury had also clashed with Van Horn in New Jersey, for what it’s worth, though apologized upon his homecoming.
When Marbury made his Knicks debut on January 7th, the team had limped to a 14-21 record. He dropped 38 points and 14 assists on Dallas in his third game, only to be out-dueled in the clutch by Steve Nash. Marbury followed that up with 26 points and 10 assists in a 120-110 win over the Orlando Magic. The Brooklyn-native averaged 19.8 points and 9.3 assists after coming over, and the team went 25-22—a slight improvement—and just enough to make the postseason: Thomas’ short-term goal.
Thomas’ hiring proved to be a death sentence for Chaney, who had gone 72-112 after taking over for Jeff Van Gundy in 2001. Ten days after the Marbury trade and immediately following their two highest-scoring games of the season (versus Dallas and Orlando), Thomas hired Lenny Wilkens, the 66-year-old Hall of Famer and fellow Brooklyn native who had won and lost more games than any coach in history at the time.
On January 21st, Thomas signed 23-year-old Bruno Sundov, whose most notable NBA play is getting his ankles broken by Kwame Brown. On Febuary 4th, they took a flyer on draft bust DerMarr Johnson, who averaged 5.4 points in 21 games for the Knicks.
At the trade deadline, Thomas, always the chemist, shook things up again. He traded Van Horn to the Milwaukee Bucks, Doleac and a second-rounder to the Atlanta Hawks, and brought in Nazr Mohammed and Tim Thomas. Van Horn was having a decent year, putting up 16.4 points and 7.3 rebounds, but Isiah—evidently unaware of the concept of redundancy—preferred two overpaid bigs to one. “The only reason we made the trade was because we got both players…it makes us a much more athletic team.”
Thomas, at 27, was a 6’10″ underachiever à la Van Horn (fittingly swapped for each other in 1997, too). He belatedly (*Marv voice*) showed some signs for Milwaukee, peaking at 14.1 points per game in 2003–04 pre-trade. Thomas and Mohammed each had 2.5 years remaining on their deals—originally worth $60 million and $25 million, respectively.
To cap it off, Isiah signed Vin Baker on March 11—you know, for the playoff run—again reasoning that adding more frontcourt players will make it easier to settle on a rotation. Baker had recently had his $86 million contract terminated by the Boston Celtics after struggles with alcoholism.
You know, calming the waters.
Clearly, Thomas’s priority was to dismantle Layden’s roster. That’s not a bad idea in theory, but his feel for team-building was profoundly misguided. This became disturbingly apparent when he said he “wanted to put together a team that was exciting for the fans to come and watch, a team that had some character…but also a team that you can grab a box of popcorn and grab a soda and enjoy the game…you want a team that people want to see. I think this is a team that when everyone is healthy and playing well, it can be an exciting team that people will want to see and talk about.” In his defense, the team was never healthy. On the other hand, lmao.
The stew of injuries and transactions led to constant lineup juggling. But, regardless of personnel, the team was steadily mediocre to below-average.
They essentially had three teams: Pre-Marbury, Marbury-to-Deadline, then Post-Deadline. The team went 14-21 before Marbury, 11-8 with him before the deadline, and 14-18 after the fact (including playoffs). Marbury increased the team’s scoring from 89.6 points per game to 93.7, but the assists, field goal percentage, and general offensive efficiency (or lack thereof) remained the same.
Among all the commotion, this squad was ravaged by injuries—though the roster was predictably creaky. A 31-year-old Kurt Thomas led the team in minutes by nearly 600(!), followed by…Shandon Anderson, seen here getting torched by Brian Scalabrine. Anderson and Thomas were the only two players to appear in 80 games, and only one other player, Mutombo, appeared in over 60 contests wearing orange and blue. Allan Houston’s repeated absences also reshuffled the team’s identity a few times midseason. A few other tidbits:
- Of the team’s five top scorers, two were acquired midseason (Marbury, T. Thomas), one was dealt away (Van Horn), one missed 36 games including playoffs (Houston), and the other was…Kurt Thomas (11.1 points per game).
- Houston was limited to 50 games (and missed the playoffs) post-knee surgery, though he shot a career-high percentage from downtown (41.1%) to go with 18.5 points per game.
- They deployed 23 different starting lineups, and none more than 12 times. The most common starting five of Marbury, Anderson, Mohammed, and the Thomases outscored opponents by 2.4 points per game.
- The starting five for regular season game one: Ward, Houston, Van Horn, K. Thomas, Mutombo
- The starting five for playoffs game one: Marbury, Anderson, T. Thomas, K. Thomas, Mohammed
- Their most effective lineup (min. 100 minutes) was Eisley, Houston, Mutombo, Thomas, and Van Horn. The Knicks five best three-man combos featured Van Horn—so Isaiah had to send him packing.
- On the positive side, a roster flooded with bigs wasn’t entirely ludicrous during the sluggish mid-aughts NBA. The Knicks ranked eighth in eFG% allowed (46.1) and defensive rebound rate (72.8%), and fifth in defensive rebounds per game (31.0).
- They shot the ball decently, but a slow pace limited their volume. They had the 13th-best field goal percentage (44.2), and shot an excellent 79.3% from the line—an extreme Knicks rarity this century. They ended up fourth in three-point percentage (36.4%), but dealt away two of their best snipers, Van Horn and Ward, leading to fewer threes as the year progressed. They finished 20th in three-point attempt rate and three-point attempts per game (13.6).
- Besides that, they were decidedly mediocre across the board, by league rankings: 20th in Offensive Rating (101.7), 15th in Defensive Rating (103.3), 16th in points per game (92.0…lol 2004 NBA), 13th in opponent points per game (93.5), 14th-19th in total rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, and turnovers per game.
You can also divide the season into pre-Wilkens and post-Wilkens, though the differences aren’t drastic, despite all the lineup fluctuation on top of the coaching changes:
- Pre-Wilkens, they played at a pace of 89.8, scored 91.2 points with a .205 three-point attempt rate and an eFG% of 48.1 with a 59.9% assist rate.
- Post-Wilkens (not including playoffs): they played at a slower pace (88.2), shot fewer threes (.139 three-point attempt rate), had a slightly worse eFG% (46.6) and assist rate (57.8%)…yet scored slightly more points per game (92.8).
- Marbury provided the best individual performance of the season in a 110-104 February win over the Los Angeles Clippers. He dropped 42 points (15-20 FG, 4-5 3PT, 8-9 FT) with eight assists and two steals to punctuate the Knicks lone five-game winning streak of the season. They would promptly lose eight of their next nine.
- In Sprewell’s first game back at the Garden, Spree and Houston had an enjoyable duel. Houston had 26, while Sprewell dropped 31 and blatantly trashed Dolan the entire game—much to the delight of the Garden faithful. (Dolan, of course, tried to steal spotlight from the game by firing Layden a day before).
- Ben Gordon hit this insane floater with 0.1 seconds left to win.
MVP: Kurt Thomas
Kurt Thomas on the ’04 Knicks is like the one person in the batshit cult documentary that projects some semblance of normalcy. Thomas started 75 games, averaged 11.1 points and 8.3 boards while providing his reliable interior defense and sowed absolutely zero chaos. His 5.0 Win Shares was second on the team to Marbury (5.5).
The East’s playoff teams had so few wins that the final standings truly seem like a mathematical impossibility. The Nets were the no. 2 seed at 47 wins, the Miami Heat (42-40) earned the four spot. The Celtics won 36 games and qualified.
In the “Lincoln Tunnel” series, the Knicks were expectedly demolished by a Nets team coming off consecutive Finals appearances—long rid of under-performers like Marbury, Mutombo, and Van Horn (who would want those guys?). New Jersey entered the series having won 12 of 14 versus their crosstown rivals, and took the season series 3-1, with the only Knicks victory coming sans Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin.
In Game 1 in the Meadowlands, the Nets ran the Knicks back over state lines in their franchises’ most lopsided postseason win ever. New Jersey took Game 2 by 18 points. The Knicks kept it respectably close at the Garden, falling 81-78 in Game 3 and 100-94 in the closer.
Marbury jacked his way to 21.3 points in nearly 44 minutes per game on 37.3/30.0/68.0 shooting splits. The frontcourt combo of the Thomases, Mohammed, and Baker shockingly struggled to contain prime K-Mart, who went for 23.3 and 14.0 per game in the sweep. Before Game 4, Tim Thomas, injured from a Jason Collins foul in Game 1, called Martin a “fugazy” while expressing disappointment in his teammates for not backing him up in Game 1—precisely what you want to hear before an elimination game. Martin went for 36 points and 13 rebounds in Game 4. Thomas did not play.
One more note: after taking 9.7 shots per game since coming over from Phoenix, Washed Penny let it fly in the last playoff games of his career. He hoisted 15.8 attempts per game at 36.5%, averaging 16.5 points, 5.8 assists, and 4.5 boards per game in the series. Respect.
The Knicks would never again make the postseason with Marbury, and not again until 2010–11.
In the ensuing summer, Isiah Thomas traded Mutombo, Harrington, Trybanski and Williams to the Chicago Bulls for Jamal Crawford and Junkyard Dog Jerome Williams. The next fall, Anderson was waived and Baker, Norris, and Mohammed were traded. The Knicks went 33-49 in 2004–05 and Wilkens resigned midseason. Allan Houston collected one more round of checks before retiring.
In June, Dolan pettily chose not to retain Marv Albert—the voice of the Knicks since the 1960’s. Apparently, that 1997 thing was fine, but criticizing the team was not. Dolan tried to pin the split on Marv’s greed and for not attending enough practices (hilarious—though, as I’ve been saying, who wants to go to Tarrytown?). Fortunately, this kind of stuff wouldn’t come back to bite the franchise in the ass.
Thomas and Marbury…well that’s a whole different story.