I mentioned the other day that I would check in on some of the early coverage of the Knicks this season. But, it now seems to me like merely piling on. As Bill Simmons noted in his most recent column about the topsy-turvy sportsworld we now live, the Knicks are, along with the Celtics and Raiders, one of the three most “depressing” franchises in professional sports. The interest in the Knicks this season is, therefore, akin to that of a traffic accident – awful as it is, we just can’t look away and somewhere, deep down, we want to see with our own eyes what the bottom really looks like.
So, rather than scroll through all of the early-season pillorying of the Knicks, a.k.a – the Isiah firing-squad watch, I though I would just highlight a couple of especially good treatments.
First, there’s Phil Mushnick, long-time curmudgeon for the New York Post, giving tips to Knicks play-by-play announcer about how to continue saying nice things about a dreadful basketball team:
“Heck, by mid-December, Knicks' radio and TV man Gus Johnson, already an all-in adherent to the Dolan-ized mandate of saying only good things about Madison Square Gulag's bad teams, likely will have run out of nice things to say about the 2006-07 Knicks.
Gus, we guess, will need our help. And so we offer the following suggestions as on-air, go-to, up-beat phrases:
" . . . and the Knicks continue to successfully in-bound the ball after baskets!"
"The Knicks showing a lot of patience in letting the shot clock expire."
" . . . and the Knicks continue to pile up statistics!"
" . . . and the Knicks are back to within 10!"
"The Garden crowd isn't booing the Knicks, folks; they're all chanting, 'Mar-boo-ury!' "
"Mmmm, the hot dogs here at the Garden would be cheap at twice the price!"
"Say this about the Knicks: Game in, game out, they show up."
"And the final score, the Portland Trail Blazers 108, the New . . . hey, there's Spike Lee!"
Second, there’s Mike and the Mad Dog, earlier this week reviewing the Eddy Curry trade which, bad as it was at the time, gets worse by the day. A quick re-cap here. A year ago, the Knicks acquired the 23-year oldbig man from the Bulls, along with his $60 million contract in exchange for, among other things, giving the Bulls the right to switch first-round picks with the Knicks for the 2006 and 2007 drafts. Curry is a talented, though inconsistent offensive player. He’s also, according to the great John Hollinger over at ESPN.com, the worst rebounding center in the NBA. And, it’s not as if he’s a GREAT scorer, though he looks like one on some nights. He’s 15 point per game type player.
As Mike and the Dog, and everyone has pointed out, the trade has already cost the Knicks one lottery pick (which the Bulls used to draft the very talented LSU forward Tyrus Thomas). And, if the Knicks miss the playoffs again this season (a virtual certainty) then the Bulls will again have a lottery pick in 2007, when Greg Oden, perhaps the next great seven-footer in the league, will likely make himself available for the draft.
But, as bad as this trade is on its own, the worst part of it, and the part that gets the least mention, especially with the passage of time, is this fact: Curry had a heart condition in Chicago that kept him off the court in the final weeks of the 2004-05 season. That is well-known. But, here’s the incredible thing: as Bulls GM John Paxson acknowledged shortly after the trade, just prior to the start of last season, not a single team in the NBA would even discuss trading for Curry. The Bulls themselves had already decided that, given the seriousness of Curry’s condition, they would never again let him on the floor in a Bulls’ uniform.
Now, the Knicks’ medical people may have been right, and the Bulls may have over-reacted, but here’s the point: Paxson had no negotiating leverage whatsoever when he made this deal. If Isiah thought Curry was worth having, he almost surely could have had him for a far lower asking price. In essence, Isiah bid against himself, mortgaging the Knicks future for a player that his own team would not play and that no other team in the NBA would consider taking off the Bulls’ hands. Given the totality of the circumstances, I confess I cannot think of a more baffling trade in my life as a sports fan. Media types do criticize the trade, which looks especially bad after performances like the one Curry had last night. But, they never invoke what I consider to be its historic dimensions.
Finally, the New York Times’ Harvey Araton had a good column this week about one aspect of the Knicks’ dismal performance as a franchise over the past few years: its complete failure to cultivate international talent, at a time when that talent is completely transforming the NBA.
“The Knicks play in what New Yorkers have been conditioned to believe is the world’s most famous arena, but there are American cities, without intricate train lines tunneling underneath the building, that have more sophisticated basketball operations.
Deep in south Texas, the Spurs have won two championships since the French point guard Tony Parker and the Argentine pit bull Manu Ginóbili (they combined for 39 points and 17 assists last night, 5 more than the entire Knicks team) became the fruit of Coach Gregg Popovich’s longtime fascination with the international game. Dallas came close last season behind a German, Dirk Nowitzki.
Across the Hudson, in trendy East Rutherford, N.J., the Nets have a Serbian center, Nenad Krstic, whom they stole with the 24th pick of the 2002 draft and wouldn’t trade for any combination of Knicks. Utah may be one of the country’s most homogenous states, but the Jazz frontline features a Russian, Andrei Kirilenko, and a Turk, Mehmet Okur.
In sun-drenched, conservative Phoenix, Coach Mike D’Antoni brought his freewheeling offense and it became the N.B.A. rage, quarterbacked by a Canadian (Steve Nash), with a touch of France (Boris Diaw) and Brazil (Leandro Barbosa) on the wings. Bryan Colangelo, who hired D’Antoni away from the Italian team Benetton Treviso, became the front-office heavyweight in Toronto, brought in the respected Benetton executive Mauricio Gherardini as assistant general manager and sprinkled his roster with foreign-born flavor.
On and on the revolution reigns, except in rare places, Manhattan among them. Dozens of young men from afar have come to David Stern’s league of opportunity in the 21st century to realize their dreams while the Knicks have remained in an international scouting stupor, or sound asleep, having a recurring nightmare about Frédéric Weis.
Weis, a young French center, was the 15th pick of the N.B.A. draft in 1999 by the Knicks and was greeted with such skepticism and scorn when he arrived in New York for a summer rookie camp — the Knicks had passed on Ron Artest — that he went home, never to return.
As the Knicks general manager, Scott Layden dabbled in foreign currency, with a couple of second-round picks that amounted to nothing. Isiah Thomas’s reign has been marked by an insularity so thorough you have to wonder if it has been by design.”
I have said before that one thing Isiah has generally done well is draft collegians, both in Toronto and New York. But, as Araton notes, the complete lack of attention to foreign-born players is nothing short of a disaster:
“Forget Nowitzki, Yao or Gasol. Landing a great player is more often about the luck of the draft draw. But look around the league at how many useful players have come from abroad via the second round, or as veteran free agents. An Andres Nocioni (Chicago) here, a Beno Udrih (Spurs) there. Could there not have been five big men in Europe — perhaps even Weis — who would have come to the Knicks much cheaper and been more useful than Jerome James?
This isn’t a call for diversity or quotas. If you have one of the blessed American-born stars — a Dwyane Wade, a LeBron James— you don’t worry about what’s in vogue. But as Popovich, an Air Force Academy graduate with a degree in Russian studies and a Serbo-Croatian family background, said of basketball without borders: “This is not a trend in the sense of furniture or fashion. It’s a fact. And those who don’t understand that are going to be left behind.”
As with Rumsfeld, I think Isiah’s sheer incompetence alone ought to cost him his job. But, like Rumsfeld, Isiah is not, of course, the ultimate problem – his boss and organization are. James Dolan’s Garden continues to pull off an extraordinary feat – fielding teams that lead the league in payroll and are among the worst in their leagues. It’s an almost perfect measure of failure. (the Rangers last year were saved from themselves by the NHL’s new salary cap: if only the NBA’s salary cap were a serious one). Nothing much will change with Isiah gone as long as the man in charge, the insecure son of a high-profile father, continues to call the shots.
(Heavy-handed, I know, but I couldn’t resist).