The Knicks have endured a decade of losing just to get to this Thursday, and the future of their franchise now hangs in the balance as a small handful of rich, powerful, immensely talented young men ponder their next career moves. What happens if they all spurn the Big Apple?
New York, New York. Frank Sinatra sang, "Start spreading the news, I'm leaving today, I want to be a part of it." Jay-Z called it a "concrete jungle where dreams are made."
But what will LeBron James say?
What about Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson and the rest of the free agents that hold the future of professional basketball in their hands this July? If one or two of them land in New York, the decade of misery will be over for the Knicks and their legions of fans. But if not, then team president Donnie Walsh has some serious thinking to do.
For the latter half of this decade, the Knicks have sworn off winning in the present as they geared up for 2010. All the personnel moves they've made since Walsh took over two years ago have been aimed at freeing up salary cap space for LeBron and his brethren — but if the plan doesn't work, the city that never sleeps will remain the city that never wins.
Not every New York team can dominate with its big-market swagger. The Yankees can splash the cash around every winter with no repercussions; the Knicks have a salary cap in their way. Not since the summer of 1996, when they signed free agents Allan Houston and Chris Childs, have they had one iota of wiggle room under the cap. LeBron was in fifth grade.
Back in the summer of '08, when Walsh took over for Isiah Thomas and the Knicks became singularly obsessed with the chase for LeBron, the Knicks thought they were the only team that had thought of this. Cap space for 2010 was a novel idea back then — but that was before the Bulls, Heat, Clippers, Nets and God knows who else began selling off every asset in sight in an effort to pile up expiring contracts. The Knicks were the first ones to throw the party, but a whole lot of other teams crashed it.
The Bulls now look like the front-runners — they've unloaded the contracts of John Salmons and Kirk Hinrich this spring, and they've now got room for LeBron and Bosh. The New York Times' Jonathan Abrams reported this weekend that Chicago is a clear favorite, with one NBA executive telling him it's a "done deal."
The Heat have cleared out practically their entire roster, and they're on the verge of having three max spots that they could fill with LeBron, D-Wade and a third banana of either Bosh or Amare Stoudemire. How can anyone say no to that? Stephen A. Smith announced Monday that LeBron wouldn't — he called the the LBJ-to-Miami rumor "highly likely."
You don't hear a lot of high-profile basketball people talking about the Knicks as a realistic destination for the game's biggest stars, and with good reason: People are starting to figure out that there's a lot more to this free agency thing than the fame and fortune that comes with a big city like New York. At the end of the day, it's about basketball, and after seven years of their careers, these superstar-caliber players are feeling the itch to win. Of all the high-profile free agents, only Wade has a ring. The rest are still starving.
It's not about being a marketing icon anymore — not for LeBron, not for anyone else. It's about surrounding yourself with the best teammates possible, and building a nucleus that can win multiple titles. If three superstars land in the same locker room, that means game over. Hand them their rings now.
It's all about winning. And no one's doing much of it in New York.
So what if the Knicks fail? Do they squander all their cap space now, just because it's there, blowing all their money on overpaying Carlos Boozer and Rudy Gay? Do they save it a year, and wait for a big star like Carmelo Anthony to hit the open market in 2011?
Or maybe, they decide to start building a basketball team the sensible way.
Maybe they decide not to dump every draft pick they can get their hands on, just for salary relief. Maybe they stop mortgaging their future. Maybe they start making small, modest, sensible deals to slowly build their team back to respectability.
Swinging for the fences can be fun, but when you've struck out as many times as the Knicks have in recent years, you're long overdue for a few routine seeing-eye singles.
The Knicks have come too far to turn back now. They're going to give everything they've got to luring LeBron James and the other big names to New York. But if they fail, they'll have a long summer of soul searching ahead of them. Perhaps some day they'll figure things out.