It is disturbing enough for the National Basketball Association that their marquee franchise, the New York Knicks, look to be struggling through another terrible, playoff-free year.
But the truly upsetting reality for both the N.B.A. and Knicks fans is that there is no quick fix in sight. The Knicks renaissance, due to the series of short-term moves made by General Manager Isiah Thomas, will be a long time coming.
The only good news, in fact, is that the Knicks are so bad that a true and comprehensive reconstruction of the team is inevitable.
What can be done immediately? Well, a new coach and general manager would be helpful. (Isiah Thomas, inexplicably, fills both roles.) A full rebuild will call for a new leader to plan a coherent collection of talent, rather than Thomas’ unfortunate assemblage of individual scoring talent and weak defense.
Firing Thomas, after the team’s 4-9 start, would not only send a message about management’s tolerance for yet another hideous season. It would also help the team past the ugly chapter leading up to this fall’s sexual harassment judgment against the team, during which Thomas and team owner Jim Dolan conducted themselves classlessly enough for league president David Stern to reprimand the organization publicly.
But even with new leadership, the rebuilding process will take years: It will take until at least 2011 for the damage caused by the compound incompetence of Isiah Thomas and his predecessor, Scott Layden, to disappear.
In 2008, only current backup center Randolph Morris will become a free agent. That frees up $800,000 from the Knicks’ league-high salary of about $90 million. Morris was signed as a project, and he has received just five minutes of playing time all season. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear he can be developed in New York, and the Knicks would be wise to deal him this year for a draft pick. It is unclear what he can become—his upside is quite limited by the remaining roster.
In 2009, all-star-malcontent point guard Stephon Marbury’s $21 million-per-season contract comes to an end. In the N.B.A., where the salary cap is king, a max salary off the books is a tremendous boon to a team hoping to bring in another star. (Conveniently enough, noted Yankees fan LeBron James’ contract is set to expire just a year later.)
Other contracts set to expire in 2009 include Malik Rose’s seven-year, $42 million deal, Fred Jones’ three-year, $11 million package and the low-cost deals of Nate Robinson and David Lee. Of these four players, it is hard to imagine the Knicks keeping any of them besides Lee, whose rebounding and defense make him an underutilized part of every Knicks team he’s played for. In a league filled with GMs dying to add David Lee, it is hard to imagine Thomas’s successor misusing this asset as badly.
The following year provides relief from Jerome James’ five-year, $30 million contract, for which the Knicks have gotten large amounts of fouls and injuries. Forward Quentin Richardson’s six-year, $43 million deal also ends in 2010. The oft-injured Richardson proved once again that taking chances on N.B.A. players with bad backs is not advisable.
Relief from a pair of expensive problems, Eddy Curry and Jamal Crawford, arrives in 2011. While a new coach might be able to convince Curry to play defense and rebound consistently, the career returns so far don’t make that prospect likely. As much as it might pain the Knicks to let Curry go, or trade him as his contract expires, the fact that the team paid entirely too much for a one-dimensional center is not reason enough to hold onto him. Jamal Crawford is similar: One needs consistent shooting from a starting shooting guard no less than one needs consistent rebounding from a starting center. He will make a fine sixth man at a much more affordable rate. Curry’s expiring contract is for six years at $60 million; Crawford’s checks in at seven years, $55.44 million.
And the Knicks will be at liberty to do what they will after 2011 with Jared Jeffries if he doesn’t develop an offensive game, with rookie Wilson Chandler if he doesn’t develop, and with Zach Randolph if, for whatever reason, he’s not part of their new plans.
Somewhat uncharacteristically, the Knicks didn’t trade away their first-round pick in 2008, offering them the opportunity to select in the lottery for the first time since 2005. So that’s something.
Of course, such a top-to-bottom rebuilding process will mean several years of bad, barely watchable basketball. The only question is whether Knicks fans will even notice.