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Inside the NBA | Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Knicks to Stick With Quick Fix

January 11, 2004|Mark Heisler

Another instant rebuilding project hits Gotham, or kiss this decade goodbye too.

Showing the difference in how people do business in the big league of professional basketball (Western Conference), as opposed to the junior circuit (East), the Phoenix Suns, who had a better team than the New York Knicks, just melted it down to rebuild.

Meanwhile, the threadbare Knicks went for the usual theatrical gesture, bringing in Stephon Marbury, who is an All-Star as opposed to a franchise player, having led his last two franchises to one playoff appearance in five seasons.

The Knicks are now capped out through 2008, with only three No. 1 picks until then and three starters over 30. So rebuilding on the fly had better work better for Isiah Thomas than it did for Dave Checketts and Scott Layden.

West teams are built to win titles. East teams are built to compete against each other in an attempt to reach the Finals, where, in theory, anything can happen, but hasn't lately.

It can't be a coincidence that all the teams that have major salary cap room coming -- the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Clippers (for their own reasons, of course) and now the Suns -- are in the West, where pretty good doesn't cut it.

It isn't that no one in New York gets it. Spike Lee, a famed filmmaker but merely a fan in basketball, recently told the New York Times that the Knicks should start over, adding, "New York City fans aren't stupid. They're not going for okey-doke. They're not going to be hornswoggled or bamboozled."

Actually, New York City fans are like chickens in a pot who've had the heat turned up under them gently for years. Now they're beginning to notice it's kind of warm.

Even with the high-powered Marbury-Allan Houston backcourt, this team isn't a lock to make the playoffs, much less get past the first round. The front line of creaky Dikembe Mutombo, Kurt Thomas and Keith Van Horn has one 37-year-old player who was just given $20 million to take a hike by the Nets; one who can opt out this summer; and one who had problems with the temperamental Marbury.

The last is, of course, Van Horn, scorned openly by Marbury in their Net days. Van Horn has been the best Knick, but when they got him last summer, Marbury sneered, "You've got to be way tougher than Keith is to play in New York."

Nevertheless, with heads getting lopped off and big names coming and going, the supposedly rough, tough New York press swooned en masse, once more.

The New York Daily News' Mike Lupica, an old Knick loyalist who recently suggested a fan boycott, rushed back into the fold, assuring readers, "This one will work out. It is one Thomas had to make, the big deal Scott Layden never made."

Gee, where have we heard that before? How about 2001, when Lupica celebrated the departure of dour, controlling Coach Jeff Van Gundy, who was still making the playoffs annually, so Don Chaney could turn the players loose to unleash their creative potential?

Thomas, with his stature, with everyone telling him to tear this team apart, and with the fans, at least, reconciled to what had to be done, had the opportunity to finally change their ruinous course.

Of course, Madison Square Garden boss James Dolan didn't want to see the Garden empty out. The money was inconsequential in the vast Cablevision scheme, especially with his father running the corporation, but it would suggest Dolan didn't know what he was doing.

Thomas is sharp but also ambitious and impetuous, which explains all the career turns -- within six years, he was Toronto Raptor president, an NBC announcer, Continental Basketball Assn. owner, Indiana Pacer coach and Knick president. In the end, he talked himself into believing Marbury could bring a title.

As Newsday's Shaun Powell, one of the few media skeptics, wrote after Isiah's introductory news conference:

"... Thomas, after being in town for all of one weekend, said, 'This is a market that I think is insatiable about winning and wanting to win. This isn't a market about rebuilding.' "

It was the old Knick refrain: We can't rebuild. We're too profitable to rebuild. Everyone wants to play in New York so we can rebuild overnight.

In fact, until now, they'd rebuilt like everyone else. Draft picks Willis Reed and Walt Frazier preceded their '70s heyday after years of being a laughingstock. Their '90s teams were built on the second-to-last finish and lottery draw that brought Patrick Ewing.

They veered onto this detour in 1996 when Checketts, who was running out of moves in his effort to keep milking the cash cow to please his corporate bosses, gambled on Larry Johnson, who was no longer the player he'd been and had an eight-year, $84-million extension about to kick in.

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