For essentially the entire 21st century, a strange, sad problem has bedeviled the NBA: the franchise in its biggest, highest-profile market has been consistently awful. For nine straight seasons, from 2001–02 to 2009–10, the New York Knicks failed to finish above .500. No other NBA team matched that level of futility.
How did this happen? After all, self-centered New Yorkers like to claim, what star free agent wouldn’t want to play with the Knicks in Madison Square Garden, the overrated, outdated building dubbed the World’s Most Famous Arena? Yet the Knicks, thanks mostly to the mismanagement of former general manager Isiah Thomas, could not afford to sign the best free agents since they wasted so much money and salary-cap space on long-term contracts for ineffective players like Jerome James and Eddy Curry. And when the Knicks shed enough bad contracts to try to sign LeBron James as a free agent in 2010, James spurned the streets of New York for the beaches of Miami.
All that was supposed to change on Feb. 21, 2011, when the Knicks completed a trade for four-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony, one of the most prodigious scorers in the league, point guard Chauncey Billups and some spare parts. New York sent Danilo Gallinari, a promising young player from Italy, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, Wilson Chandler and the team’s first-round pick in 2014 to the Denver Nuggets. At the time, the Knicks were 28-26 and Denver was 32-25.
But since that trade, the Knicks have a 21-25 regular-season record, while Denver, thanks in large part to the play of Gallinari, has gone 31-12. This year the Nuggets are 13-5, in second place in the Northwest division. The Knicks finished last season 42-40, and the Boston Celtics swept them in the first round of the playoffs. But 2011–12 has been a disaster for New York, which faces James and the Miami Heat, who are 13-5, on Friday night, Jan. 27. The Knicks are just 7-11 on the year and have lost seven of their past eight games.
So what went wrong this time? You can directly trace New York’s current problems back to James’ decision. After the Knicks lost out on the high-stakes courtship, they signed Amar’e Stoudemire, an explosive offense player with a history of aching knees, to a five-year, $100 million contract in 2010. But to team owner Jim Dolan, a pariah in the eyes of Knicks fans, that consolation prize was not enough. Still stinging over LeBron’s rejection, Dolan craved a marquee player to pack in the fans at MSG. Former Knicks president and general manager Donnie Walsh reportedly did not want to make the Anthony trade, preferring to develop his younger talent. But Dolan insisted that Walsh pull the trigger.
And there, in a nutshell, you have the Knicks’ problem: one of the smartest guys in pro basketball over the past few decades was overruled by a clueless team owner. Stoudemire had been outstanding on his own, but Walsh realized what Dolan chose to ignore — that he and Anthony are scoring forwards with redundant, rather than complementary, roles. Sure, James and Dwyane Wade are both guards who like to slash and score. But they mesh because James is one of the best passers in the league. Anthony is a gunner, and he hasn’t been a good one this year: he’s shooting a career-low 39.4% from the field.
Under coach Mike D’Antoni, the Knicks have never been a stellar defensive team. (The high-octane Phoenix Suns teams D’Antoni coached from 2003 to 2008 also neglected to guard.) To strengthen their defensive muscle, the Knicks traded for Dallas Mavericks center Tyson Chandler, whose grunt work under the boards helped the Mavs take the 2011 title, after the lockout ended in December. The Knicks gave Chandler a four-year, $56 million contract; in order to clear salary-cap space for him, however, the Knicks waived their point guard, Billups, under the one-time amnesty clause included in the new collective-bargaining agreement. Billups’ $14.2 million salary for this season no longer counts under the cap, though the Knicks are paying $12.2 million to Billups while his new team, the Los Angeles Clippers, picks up the rest.
So the Knicks are paying $12.2 million to the point guard they so desperately need. Go ahead, pull your hair out, Knicks fans. Without Billups, the team is asking Toney Douglas, who ideally is a shooter from off the bench, to play point guard. With Carmelo and Anthony in the lineup, Landry Fields, ideally a small forward, was shifted to shooting guard — where he is shooting a horrible 21% from three-point range. So for a starting lineup, the Knicks have two guys playing out of position and two All-Stars who have trouble playing with each other.
And it gets worse. When Anthony joined the team, most observers figured offense would be easy and defense the main challenge. Yet in order to compensate for their point-guard deficiencies, the Knicks have asked Anthony to initiate the offense. When he has the ball in his hands, defenses can focus on him. He’s better off coming off screens, catching the ball and either quickly shooting or exploding to the basket. “The bottom line is that Carmelo has to think on the floor,” says former Knicks point guard Greg Anthony, an NBA TV analyst. “And athletes are at their best when they are comfortable and playing off instinct. If Chauncey was still there, everyone could go back to their natural positions. When you’re asking guys to do things that they don’t do well, that’s a recipe for disaster.”
The Knicks signed Baron Davis to help at point guard, but he is recovering from a back injury. Even if he comes back healthy, Davis is not known as a pure passer who keeps an offense in rhythm. New York also signed Mike Bibby as a backup point guard. But at this point in the aging Bibby’s career, he might not be the best player in your weekend-warrior pickup game.
As if Knicks fans haven’t suffered enough, Anthony’s former team, Denver, marched into the Garden on Jan. 21 and defeated the Knicks in double overtime, 119-114. Stoudemire did not attempt a shot in the fourth quarter or the first overtime. Anthony took 30 shots, hitting 10 of them; he started the game 3 for 17. Gallinari, the former Knick, had a career-high 37 points; on Jan. 25, the Nuggets signed him to a four-year, $42 million contract extension.
The NBA labor fight was framed as a big-market-vs.-small-market battle. The system needed repairing, the owners said, to give the little guys a chance to make money and compete. But the Anthony debacle shows that not all big-market teams are created equal.
Take the Heat and the Knicks. Miami cleared the cap room to catch the big free-agent prize and got him. The Knicks missed out, but instead of staying patient and developing homegrown talent, they made moves to scramble for the second-tier stars. To date, these decisions haven’t produced the expected victories. Instead, they’ve just produced more suffering. And the NBA, which thirsts for a marquee team in its marquee market, and New York fans have seen enough of that.