Sports Nut

Doubting Thomas

Isiah destroyed the Knicks. Can anyone save them?

The Knicks’ Steve Francis

During Saturday night’s game against the Washington Wizards, newly acquired New York Knicks guard Steve Francis was about to inbound the ball when a heckler shouted, “Hey, Stevie, where you going next?” As the Washington Post described it, the well-traveled Francis looked back at the fan casually and shot back, “To the bank.” And in a single moment, everything awful about today’s New York Knicks had been encapsulated. Or maybe that happened when Francis, who has three years and almost $50 million remaining on his contract, finished the night with nine points, two assists, and three turnovers.

After a long and consistent reign as one of the NBA’s best teams, the Knicks are now perhaps the worst. (They are just one loss ahead of the Charlotte Bobcats in the competition for that bleak distinction.) At 15-41, these Knicks have a fine chance of outdoing the team’s all-time worst record of 21-59—set no less than 43 years ago. The opening minutes of Friday night’s home game against New Jersey, which found them down 20-4, may have been the single most pathetic stretch of Knicks basketball since characters like Ken “The Animal” Bannister and Truck Robinson roamed the Garden floor in the early 1980s.

Losing wouldn’t be so painful if the Knicks didn’t do it in such loathsome fashion. Bumblers can be lovable—think of the Chicago Cubs. But not this incoherent mess of overpaid, underperforming, trigger-happy egomaniacs. As a Knicks fan, it’s all I can do not to root against the likes of Francis, Stephon Marbury, Jalen Rose, and Jamal Crawford—particularly when their contracts have pushed the team’s payroll to a league-high $120 million and Madison Square Garden ticket prices keep inflating. Compounding it all is the bizarre judgment of GM Isiah Thomas, whose acquisition of Francis almost seemed like a prank—the work of some stoned teenager with a PlayStation trying to construct the most ridiculous team possible just for laughs. 

Surely no one feels the pain like head coach Larry Brown, who has gone from coaching the Pistons to the anti-Pistons. Brown’s Detroit teams were (and remain) everything the Knicks are not. Defensive-minded. Hard-working. Humble. But on the sidelines these days, Brown looks like a man who’s been forced to wear his wife’s clothing in public. This week, he declared his team’s performance “embarrassing.”

But it’s been hardest of all for us Knicks fans. We were hopelessly spoiled by a golden era which began soon after New York landed Patrick Ewing in the 1985 draft lottery and lasted for well over a decade. While there was no championship, the Knicks made the playoffs 13 times and the NBA Finals twice during the 15-year Ewing era. But the 2000 trade that sent Ewing to Seattle—condemning him to end his career in humiliating, journeyman fashion—was a karmic turning point. The Knicks went from an incubator of raw talent (John Starks, Anthony Mason, Marcus Camby) to the exact opposite—a tar pit from which no good basketball can escape. Allan Houston looked like a potential Hall of Famer for a brief moment, then turned into a $100 million Reggie Theus before injuries retired him. Keith Van Horn and Tim Thomas both hung around just long enough to confirm that, yes, they were as unimpressive as we’d feared they would be.

And the team’s newest projects are going nowhere fast. On paper, today’s Knicks have plenty of firepower. But since Crawford arrived from Chicago in 2004, he’s proved far more likely to shoot the team out of a game than to win one. In Phoenix, Quentin Richardson was considered an underrated scorer; as a Knick he’s averaging eight points a game. Eddy Curry would finally give the Knicks a post presence, right? Well, he’s averaging about six rebounds per game. And Marbury, often entertaining and occasionally good, is permanently sealing his can’t-win reputation.

It remains a mystery why Thomas would introduce Steve Francis into a mix already overloaded with guards. It takes a ball hog to know a ball hog. So, trust Tracy McGrady when he said of Francis and Marbury, “I just don’t see how the two of them are going to play together. Both of them got to have the ball in their hands all the time.” This also leads to the question of whether the Knicks will be able to develop Curry and the promising Channing Frye. Before the Magic sent Francis packing, Shaquille O’Neal opined that Orlando’s young big man, Dwight Howard, “won’t get any better” with a selfish, shoot-first guard leading the team. “Any young, potentially dominant big man should get the ball every time,” says Shaq.

What the Knicks have needed to do, almost since the day Ewing left, is to become bad and cheap rather than bad and expensive. The only way this team will improve in the long term is to dump contracts, even if it means suffering through a couple of hapless—and drama-free—years on the court. Doesn’t Isiah Thomas understand this? Perhaps. But New York is an extremely impatient place, and the unrelenting pressure—not least from the blaring back pages of the Post and the Daily News—to keep things exciting may be enough to warp a man’s judgment.

And so the Knicks press on into a future roughly as promising as the fate of Iraq. In the near-term, it’s hard to foresee anything but a slide further into anarchy. And no one—not Brown, not Thomas, and not Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan, who marched into the team’s locker room on Tuesday night and demanded that they start winning (now, there’s a strategy!)—seems to have a plausible exit strategy.

There is one theory now circulating that offers Knicks fans some glimmer of hope. It holds that even Brown, Thomas, and Dolan understand how preposterous their team has become and that they have stopped trying to assemble a logical roster. Instead, they’re hoarding as many players as they can in preparation for a massive package deal to land Kevin Garnett or Jermaine O’Neal. But that strategy supposes that other teams will actually want the players the Knicks are stockpiling. And the more these Knicks make fools of themselves on the court, the less anyone’s going to want to claim them as their own. (Maybe the thing to do is stow those “valuable” players on the injured list before their stock plummets any further.) Which is why, for Knicks fans, “wait ‘til next year” sounds less like something hopeful than a truly depressing prospect.