NEW YORK — Nearly five months have passed since the New York Knicks' disappointing season ended, and virtually the same characters who were in uniform then will be present Tuesday when camp opens for the 1990-91 season. And that is not an indication that their current personnel is ready to challenge for the NBA championship.
The Knicks are still in desperate need of a reliable perimeter shooter who can relieve some of the scoring burden from all-star center Patrick Ewing.
"There's no question we need to add someone down the road. We're not destitute, but every year you need to improve your team," said General Manager Al Bianchi, whose job is just that.
But complications and then uncertainty about their salary cap position reduced Bianchi to a mere spectator as several other clubs made moves to bolster their rosters.
Now, however, the Knicks, as well as other teams that remain over the $11.8 million cap, have been granted "relief" by the league. That means Bianchi has some maneuverability, although limited, to acquire talent. "It takes two (to make a trade)," Bianchi said. "I had some conversations with teams. Some things were thrown at us. I haven't been just sitting here. I'm tuned in. But we're not going to do something stupid."
What Bianchi did Monday was sign four players, all of who will be at camp Tuesday. Inked to a two-year deal was second-year forward Brian Quinnett. Signed as free agents were 6-9 forward Earl Cureton, a nine-year NBA veteran who played in Italy last year; 5-7 guard Greg Grant, who played last season for Phoenix; 6-3 guard Tharon Mayes of Florida State, and 6-5 John Starks, who played last season with Cedar Rapids of the CBA.
Still unsigned is first-round draft choice Jerrod Mustaf of Maryland. Bianchi and Mustaf's representatives, including his father, are close to a deal that could be signed in time for Mustaf to make camp Tuesday.
Mustaf and the free-agent signees are among the new faces with the Knicks, while forward Johnny Newman has departed to Charlotte after the Knicks refused to match an offer sheet Newman signed with the Hornets in July.
The decision to not re-sign Newman has left the Knicks undermanned at small forward, where injury-prone Kiki Vandeweghe and recovering Kenny Walker will share the duties. "Losing Johnny was a business decision, but it was a big loss. He was a proven scorer," said Stu Jackson, who begins his second season as Knicks' coach. "I'm comfortable with Kiki and Kenny. But I'm also aware that it could be an area of exposure."
Vandeweghe, 32, played less basketball during the summer to rest the back that has given him troubles for most of his two seasons with the Knicks. Jackson said Vandeweghe has reported no pain in either the back or his tendinitis-plagued left foot. And he's gained some weight and strength.
"Right now, he looks good. But no one will really know how he's doing until he gets banged around some," Jackson said.
Walker has recuperated well from knee surgery in the summer. As for Mark Jackson, who endured a bad season during which he lost his starting job to 34-year-old Maurice Cheeks, the Knicks report that he "physically is ready to play," unlike the start of last season when he came into camp out of shape.
And although friends of the fourth-year player say he still wants out of New York, Bianchi said the approach right now is that he'll be with the club -- although sources around the league say the Knicks' general manager continues to shop Jackson. "Mark's a player," Bianchi said, "and I hope he's ready to play ball."
Said Coach Jackson: "Mark's very much a professional. He'll accept his role. If he plays the way he's capable, he'll be a great asset."
The Knicks expect some contributions from Mustaf. Reports came back that he had an impressive summer, including eye-catching performances at Pete Newell's Big Man Camp on the West Coast. But, at 20, Mustaf can hardly be expected to contribute immediately.
So, the fourth year under Bianchi kicks off Tuesday with more questions than answers.
"I don't know if this is a make-or-break year for us," Bianchi said. "But it's an important year. You look at our team as it is and it's a good one. If we stay this way, we'll win our share of games. The question is what we'll do in May or June.
"That's why you have to look to improve."