If you’re going to be terrible, at least be so in an interesting way. I’d say the Knicks have pulled that trick off nicely. Maybe I’m biased because I happen to be a New York basketball fan, but this whole James Dolan/Isiah Thomas/Larry Brown/David Stern/Stephon Marbury mess has been far more fascinating to me than wondering whether or not Shaq would be able to win a 5th ring. The NBA
playoffs were pretty exciting this year as Dwayne Wade showed that the successor to Michael Jordan may have arrived at long last, and perhaps he is not named Lebron James
after all. But if the return of Pat Riley’s slick hairdo and the ranting of Mark Cuban made the postseason an engaging soap opera, this Knicks fiasco has been an edge-of-your-seat thriller.
The beginning of the Larry Brown era as head coach of his hometown team held much promise. Brown came to the Knicks straight off of two consecutive appearances in the Finals with the Detroit Pistons. With an NBA championship added to his long list of credentials, Brown’s coaching status was upgraded from Hall of Fame caliber to legendary. Surely he was the man to turn the Knicks around after several floundering seasons in the post Patrick Ewing era. He seemed to be one of only a handful of coaches capable of taking the mismatched puzzle pieces assembled by Isiah Thomas and turning them into a cohesive, winning unit. After Phil Jackson rejected the Knicks offer, Brown was the obvious top candidate to come to the rescue. On paper, the Knicks had youth and athleticism and scorers aplenty on their side. Defensive prowess was in rather short supply, but this could presumably be either fixed or else worked around. It was reasonable to assume as many did that the Knicks would improve from woeful to no less than mediocre in year one under Brown’s leadership. After that, the sky was the limit. Obtaining a young, mobile big man like Eddy Curry for what seemed to be a bargain basement price at the time further bolstered the hopes of the Madison Square Garden faithful.
Then the season began and the Knicks proceeded to stink up the joint. The one big question mark that emerged after Larry Brown signed on the dotted line was whether or not he and Stephon Marbury could peacefully co-exist. They had unpleasant history working together as point guard and head coach of an underachieving Olympic team. As a former point guard himself, it was well known that Larry Brown asked a great deal from those he coached at this position, and these demands often created friction. He had not gotten along especially well with Allen Iverson in Philadelphia or Chauncey Billups in Detroit. Stephon Marbury’s game was blatantly the opposite of what Brown wants his point guards to play. A clash of egos seemed inevitable, and it did in fact come to pass sooner than later. But Brown did not merely choose to pick out Stephon Marbury or his back-up Nate Robinson, the slam dunking miniature sized dynamo, to criticize. Instead he proceeded to alienate just about every player on the team. One by one he turned on them, changing the rotation every other game in the process to further confuse matters, and they turned against him in response. By season’s end it was obvious that the Knicks players had tuned their coach out. Not only did their promise go unfulfilled, but it simultaneously imploded and exploded as they transformed from a pretty bad basketball team to a major embarrassment to a city with a small allowance of tolerance for ineptitude.
Things had to get better in season number two under Brown, because they certainly could not get much worse. Not only had they ended up with the second most pathetic record in the league, but they wouldn’t even be rewarded with a high first round draft pick as compensation because it had been traded to the Chicago Bulls in the deal for Eddy Curry. Monumental changes cried out to be made. When the rumor began to circulate that Knicks’ owner James Dolan was considering firing Brown with four years and forty millions dollars left on his contract, and replacing him Isiah Thomas who would be functioning in the dual role of General Manager and head coach, few were surprised. The one thing Dolan has never been accused of is a willingness to spend money recklessly, although paying a coach $50 million to work one season is excessive even by his standards. But Dolan did not have the luxury of standing pat and hoping for better days to come soon, because by publicly ridiculing his players and demanding immediate, unreasonable wholesale changes to the roster, Larry Brown made this impossible. In essence he was saying that the man who hired him had done a terrible job putting the team together. Dolan could either side with Brown or else with Isiah Thomas, but certainly not with both. There are plenty who feel that Dolan chose the wrong horse to back, that he should have fired Thomas and perhaps promoted Brown to a GM/coach position. Time will tell if the decision to can Brown was wisdom or folly, and Dolan was kind enough to let us know precisely how much time when he informed the media (and by the media I mean only the seven beat reporters who follow the Knicks, along with his own television station) that Isiah Thomas has just one season to fix the team he assembled. Unlike his predecessor on the sideline, Thomas cannot complain about the deficiencies of the roster because he is the one who brought each and every one of the players on board. He obviously liked what he saw in them before they wore Knicks uniforms, so now he must get them to produce. Dolan did not specify how much better the Knicks must get for Isiah Thomas to retain his jobs, whether they have to make the playoffs or win at least half their games or simply avoid last place. It is therefore with much interest that fans will watch to see if the team improves, and how much improvement is sufficient.
Based on his treatment of Larry Brown, there’s no telling how much mercy the Knicks owner will show towards Thomas. Once word was out that Dolan was thinking about firing or buying Larry Brown out of his contract, confirmation or else denial was anxiously awaited. What followed instead was a resounding silence that last approximately forty days and forty nights. During this period of biblical proportions it became increasingly clear that Brown was coaching on borrowed time, yet he was made to perform his duties for over a month without a single word of official endorsement or condemnation. Larry was banned from speaking on the subject that was on everyone’s mind, but being who he is and probably realizing that trying to reverse the tide of his fortune would be futile at this point, he did give a few brief roadside interviews to dogged reporters. His longtime agent Joe Glass did the rest of his speaking for him. But there was little to say other than that he was doing his job until told to do otherwise. Finally the axe fell, Larry Brown unpleasantly parted ways with his second employer in two years, and the dawn of a new day in Knicksville began. As for that forty millions dollars owed to him for the remainder of his contract, James Dolan claims that the Knicks former coach is in breach of it and therefore not owed a dime. In addition to all the complaining and ridiculing of players that Brown did publicly, Dolan says that he also undermined the team’s efforts to wheel and deal by independently making trade offers to other teams without any authority to do so. It was put into his contract that if a dispute was to arise over payment due to him, NBA commissioner David Stern would be the one to arbitrate. No one bothered to inform Stern at the time, but now that he has been made aware, he has agreed to determine how much Brown will enhance his bank account by at Dolan’s expense. It may make the $7 million that he pocketed from the Pistons in exchange for going away look like pocket change.
It’s near impossible to predict what the Knicks are capable of achieving on the court next season. Including their high profile acquisitions of Jalen Rose and Steve Francis last season, they have more talent on paper than is logical for a 23-win team to possess. Now that they’ll be playing for a coach who believes in them, even if for no better reason than he has no choice, perhaps they will gel and improve by leaps and bounds. Or perhaps they will verify Larry Brown’s assertions that they are an assembly of individuals ill fitted to play and win together as a team. In event of the latter case, the Knicks will once again have to start over from scratch with yet another new coach, yet another new General Manager, and if Dolan’s harshest critics who have a protest march planned for draft day get their wish, perhaps a new owner as well. Their immediate future could not be less stable or murky. But it certainly will not be boring, and if Knicks fans won’t be rewarded with success any time soon, at least they’ll have rumors, innuendoes, and vicious back page editorials to keep them entertained.