Some people awoke today sad to see 2005 gone. None of them are employed by the New York Knicks. Only a Friday night Nets victory over the Atlanta Hawks kept the Knicks from having the worst record in the NBA when the calendars changed. Of course, their record is still putrid enough to require a heck of a lot of deodorant. 7-21. Not exactly what everyone expected when Larry Brown came to town.
In fact, the only person who's thriving on the Knicks appears to be the Post's Peter Vescey, who appears more than happy to fiddle while Rome burns. While his latest column focuses on the recent (on-court) misdeeds of Kobe Bryant, he still finds time and space to belittle the Knicks brand of "casketball," a rather apt description.
And there really isn't any reason to think it'll get better in '06. Stephon Marbury and Brown allegedly hate each other (a feud which the local media is more than happy to fan the flames of), their certain lottery pick belongs to the Chicago Bulls, and two months into the season Brown STILL hasn't settled on a starting lineup. If it wasn't for his flashy resume (and his $10 million per deal) he would have been fired already. The Knicks aren't just losing, they're losing badly, with late collapses (didn't Don Chaney's teams do this too?) and hanging heads. Confidence is essentially nonexistent, and the playoffs are almost certainly out of reach.
It's Isiah Thomas who assembled this capped-out mess, of course, and even the timely retirement of Allan Houston didn't provide much relief to the bloated payroll or the crowded backcourt. It did mark the official end of the Layden era, as every player currently on the roster was acquired by Thomas. Their record is his legacy thus far.
What we have is failure. Two overweight and undertough centers, a few talented rookies who don't know from one day to the next if they're starting or being put on the inactive list, three point-guard sized shooting guards, a shooting-guard size small forward (and no real small forward), and all of one player with a sense of pride—37-year-old Antonio Davis, who didn't even want to play for the Knicks in the first place. The Knicks' player with the most passion, Kurt Thomas, was traded for a player without a position, Quentin Richardson.
The Knicks may have a slightly better record than the Hawks, but at least the Hawks have a future. They're laden with young talent—Josh Smith, Josh Childress, Al Harrington, Zaza Pachulia, Marvin Williams—that can either be allowed to develop, or be traded for other pieces. They're also well below the salary cap. The Knicks, on the other hand, have overpaid cast-offs whose former teams improved upon their leaving. Ask the Suns and the Nets about Marbury, or the Bulls about Jamal Crawford.
There's a reason Brown has used 19 different starting lineups, and it's not just because he's lost his mind. He's trying to assemble a puzzle with pieces from different boxes, with some duplicated and others missing altogether. The lineup that would seem to make the most sense—Marbury, Crawford, Richardson, Channing Frye and Eddy Curry—is short on leadership, rebounding and playmaking, not necessarily in that order. It also makes for a lame second unit, with only sparkplugs Nate Robinson and Trevor Ariza bringing any bounce. AD has fire, but at 37 he can only burn so brightly for so long. At least he doesn't give up the lane.
Some of these mismatched parts would be tradeable if they weren't being overpaid. Surely a team could use Jamal Crawford, but not at $55 million. Or Jerome James, but not at $30 mill. Penny Hardaway's expiring contract may be attractive to someone, but they'd have to take another poison contract in return. They could simply let it expire themselves, but given the mega-dollar presence of Marbury, Curry, James and Crawford (and Richardson), they'd still be above the cap. It's unlikely Antonio Davis will return for another season, and if he doesn't, who'll pick up the leadership slack?
It doesn't look like it'll be Marbury. His game is still fluid and dynamic—he can score with the best of them when he gets on a roll—but his personality is still caustic and damaging. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and too often it's broken. Rather than try to pick his teammates up when things get bad, he leads the sulking, which is every bit as contagious as enthusiasm, and far more harmful. Despite his considerable talents, it's hard to believe the Knicks will ever win anything with Marbury at the helm. And with $80-something million remaining on his contract, it's equally hard to believe that the Knicks will be able to trade him until his final year.
This, of course, is Isiah's problem. Acquiring Marbury was his boldest move, taking on tons of salary and a player with well-documented teammate troubles. It got him (and the Knicks) positive headlines almost immediately, as the first step towards building a contender. Every step since then, though, has seemingly been a backwards one. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the way Isiah built a team around Marbury—players were acquired simply because they could be, with little or no regard as to how they would fit into a system, or with the point guard. Instead of building a team AROUND Marbury, and trying to avoid the missteps that had led to his departures from New Jersey and Phoenix, Thomas basically set Stephon up to fail. Vilified in the past for his score-first mentality, Steph found himself again the best scoring option on a losing team. And there's not much that can be done. In purging the roster of all remnants of things Layden, Isiah built a roster with little—if any—flexibility.
Maybe things will get better in, say, 2008.