Out of Options
The Knicks are old and undersized, but rebuilding them could cost a G.M. his job
No job in basketball is harder than general manager of the Knicks. While other G.M.'s might be permitted to dismantle their aging teams and absorb a losing season or two while they rebuild with young talent, New York has a sellout streak to keep intact (395 games at week's end) and the most expensive tickets in the NBA to unload (average price: $91.15). Because of the pressures of the here and now the team's future is bleak.
After a 99-86 loss to the Clippers on Sunday, the Knicks were 4-7 (including 0-6 on the road), their worst start since 1985-86. Last year they ranked No. 1 in defensive field goal percentage and No. 2 in defensive rebounds; through Sunday's games they had dropped to 14th and 24th, respectively, in those high-effort categories. Over the past decade the Knicks had gained a reputation for overcoming all obstacles. Not anymore. "We're worn out mentally," said coach Jeff Van Gundy after a 109-83 loss at New Jersey last Friday, during which he tore up his play sheets in frustration.
The signal move for the Knicks came in April 1999, when Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts fired G.M. Ernie Grunfeld for daring to rebuild the team. Grunfeld's unforgivable sin: trading Charles Oakley, who was 34 at the time, for 6'11" Marcus Camby. Next to the acquisition of Latrell Sprewell seven months later, the swap turned out to be the Knicks' best move in recent years. The 27-year-old Camby—who has been sidelined all season with plantar fasciitis in his left foot but is expected to return this weekend—helped lead them to the Finals in '99 and has become their only inside force. Grunfeld moved to Milwaukee and quickly shaped the Bucks into contenders.
For Grunfeld's successor, Scott Layden, the mandate from the Madison Square Garden corporate boardroom was clear: If he wanted to keep his job, he could not do anything to diminish the Knicks' chances of winning immediately. Layden won't confirm that; he has become the most tight-lipped G.M. in the league, a consequence of the pressures he has felt since leaving the Jazz to come to New York two years ago. He nearly executed a masterstroke in the summer of 2000, when he arranged to deal Patrick Ewing for 6'11" Vin Baker, a former All-Star who was 28 at the time. After that four-team trade collapsed—the Pistons pulled out—Layden broke a cardinal rule: He exchanged big for small by dealing the 7-foot Ewing for 6'8" Glen Rice. After a disappointing season in New York, Rice was dealt last summer for 6'6" swingman Shandon Anderson and point guard Howard Eisley.
Even if Layden had kept Ewing so that his $14 million could fall off the Knicks' salary cap after 2000-2001, they still would have endured several disastrous years before freeing any cap room, and by then Layden would have been out of work. With the exception of Camby, New York's league-high $85 million payroll is bloated with over-compensated players who have already peaked. At an average age of 30.02 years the Knicks have the oldest roster in the NBA.
It's also one of the smallest. In the preseason Sprewell criticized management for failing to acquire a big man. Layden's only move up front was to replace Larry Johnson with another undersized power forward, 6'7" Clarence Weatherspoon. Though he has drawn fire for supposedly providing teammates with a ready-made excuse for losing, Sprewell says, "I stand by what I said."
In a league filled with young, explosive talent, the Knicks are plodding and listless, as the mounting no-shows at Madison Square Garden attest. "The nature of this sport is that it's cyclical," says Van Gundy. "We've been trying to defy that for a long time."
Pacers' Jamaal Tinsley
Older Rookie Pays Dividends
Because last year's rookie class was so unproductive, it became fashionable to note that the draft had become a futures market dominated by high school players and college underclassmen who might take years to establish their value. That thinking is not so trendy this season. A couple of kids from overseas are already starting in San Antonio (19-year-old point guard Tony Parker) and Memphis (21-year-old forward Pau Gasol), and two other teams have starters who were college seniors a year ago: Grizzlies forward Shane Battier and the Pacers' surprising point guard, Jamaal Tinsley.