I write this as the new-look New York Knicks take the court against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Already on a three-game losing streak, the Knicks were gored twice in two nights earlier this week by the Chicago Bulls to continue their slide out of play-off contention. These losses, along with all the other defeats I’ve watched this season, no longer matter. The struggling team that lost those games no longer exists. The team that replaces it will not be fully formed until later this year. But now we know that new team is coming. Thanks to Donnie Walsh, the promise of a new day dawning at Madison Square Garden this summer has become a reality.
Hands up, who actually thought Walsh had any hope of shedding the millstone contract of Jared Jeffries to free up enough cap space to potentially sign two max contract free agents after July 1? Be honest. Yep, me neither. But he did it. After this season, the Knicks will only have Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Toney Douglas and the immovable (in so many ways) Eddy Curry on their books. And cap space to woo the league’s best players to the mecca of basketball. Without ceremony or grandstanding, Walsh has delivered exactly what he promised when he took office at MSG almost two years ago, even if he had to surrender what hopefully won’t become crucial draft picks to get there.
In bringing Tracy McGrady and Sergio Rodriguez to New York in exchange for Jared Jeffries, Larry Hughes and Jordan Hill, Walsh also gave up an option to swap 1st round draft picks with Houston (the pick is top 1 protected) in 2011 and a 1st round pick (top 5 protected) the following year. It’s a gamble based on Walsh’s ability to woo the superstars he desires this summer. If he gets them, giving up the picks won’t hurt the Knicks.
Whether you regard the risk Walsh has taken as bold or foolish, his choice is in keeping with his grand masterplan. Walsh preached patience and his focus on the Summer of 2010 free agent sweepstakes. At no point has he wavered from this plan. Walsh has given the Knicks direction. All fans, whether they like it or not, know where they stand. Most teams in the NBA’s cellar make trades that conflict with previous moves as their respective braintrust’s flit from one desperate scheme to another and their problems are compounded.
Under Walsh’s watch, this will not happen again. I hope for Lebron and Bosh this summer. I accept I may end up watching Joe Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire. The key is that getting way, way under the cap ensures the Knicks can finally operate like a functional sports franchise for the first time in almost a decade. With that in place, the allure of Madison Square Garden and the oft-fabled New York market become legitimate tools to attract the players to lift the team out of the doldrums.
So, what of the players that left? I feel for Jared Jeffries. The man I refer to as Mr Intangible won me (and the MSG crowd) over with his hustle, heart and effort after starting the season as an offensive liability and on-court scapegoat. Leading the league in taking charges is the sort of stat that a Knick from the 1990s would be proud of. Houston, full of no-stat all stars like Shane Battier, might be the ideal spot for him. I’d take one JJ over 10 Chris Duhons any day of the week.
While nobody will miss Larry Hughes or Darko Milicic (traded to Minnesota for the hapless Brian Cardinal who was immediately waived by the Knicks), it will be interesting to see how Jordan Hill’s career develops. Thanks to Mike D’Antoni’s obsession with the eight-man rotation, Hill never really got a full run to show his worth as a Knick. The league consensus is that Hill is a ‘project’. If he develops his shooting and understanding of the game to the level where these skills match his obvious athleticism, a tinge of regret may creep into the front office. But, as a necessary chip to complete the trade, Hill had to go.
In what may well have been a present for his coach, Walsh also sent Nate Robinson, fresh from winning the worst slam dunk contest in living memory, to Boston in exchange for Eddie House and benchwarmers/makeweights JR Giddens and Bill Walker.
The little man’s tenure in New York will be remembered far more fondly by the Garden faithful he excited than the coaches he effortlessly seemed to infuri(N)ate. His block on Yao Ming in 2006 remains a favourite moment of mine. This season, his 41-point explosion against Atlanta after riding the pine for 14 games was nothing short of spectacular. On the surface, it seems like, as with Renaldo Balkman, the Knicks got rid of a player D’Antoni didn’t like. That said, the deal did save the Knicks more than one million dollars. House brings a consistent 3-point threat and should be a better offensive fit than Nate in D’Antoni’s system. Getting a draft pick from the Celtics would have made this one a little easier to take.
What about the other new Knicks? Every Knick fan has their fingers crossed that Rodriguez will displace the ever-more-depressing Duhon in the starting line-up within the month. But the real question surrounds McGrady. Are T-Mac’s claims that he’s put his injury woes behind him hot air or realistic?
Judging by the press conference he gave after arriving in New York, he at least knows how to talk the talk. McGrady talked of a fresh start, of having 29 games to show his worth and of his desire to play in New York (for the veteran’s minimum) next season alongside two superstars. There’s been enough big talk (Isiah, Marbury, Francis) that hasn’t come close to being backed up in recent years. This time around though, if McGrady flops, it doesn’t hurt the Knicks one bit. Hands up, who didn’t tune in tonight to see what, if anything, he had left?
As it turned out, McGrady’s MSG debut was better than anyone could have expected. Talk of him as a basketball corpse has been greatly exaggerated. Although he was restricted to limited minutes, McGrady poured in 26 points from all corners of the court against the Thunder, bringing the Garden crowd to its feet as he drained threes, nailed jumpers and attacked the rim. When he rested on the bench, chants of “We want T-Mac” echoed around the arena. His presence and performance created an atmosphere in MSG not felt since the days of Latrell Sprewell and Patrick Ewing.
Ultimately, McGrady’s efforts were wasted as the Knicks imploded in the final minute of regulation, blowing a six point lead when Jeff Green and Kevin Durant rattled in crucial threes to send the game to overtime. Running short of gas, McGrady himself missed two foul shots that would have put New York up by eight and probably iced the game.
McGrady played just 19 seconds in overtime, while Durant played all five minutes and won the game for the Zombie Sonics. After Eddie House hit a jumper off an in-bounds pass from McGrady to give the Knicks a 118-117 lead with 32 seconds remaining, Durant drained a pull-up jumper to give the Thunder a 119-118 edge. He added two foul shots for a 121-118 lead with 10 seconds left. The Knicks blew two chances to tie the game when House rushed a 3-pointer in the final seconds and Gallinari failed to hit a 3 from the corner.
Ordinarily, this loss, the Knicks sixth in a row and one that dropped their record to a dismal 19-35, would have felt like a body blow. After the potentially franchise-changing trades that preceded it, the loss doesn’t feel so bad. Knicks fans now know a new day is coming, that the years of suffering are almost at an end. For the players, the remaining 28 games of the season amount to a tryout for everyone bar the contracted Gallinari, Chandler and Douglas.