It’s finally here, Knick fans.
With the Boston Celtics’ upset of the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA’s eastern conference semifinals, the long-awaited LeBron James free agency watch is officially underway, and Knick fans’ dreams will be realized if James ultimately takes cues from Celtic fans and Celtics’ star forward Kevin Garnett.
As he shot free throws during the Cavaliers’ season ending 94-85 Game 6 loss on Thursday night, James was mocked with “New York Knicks!” chants from the home crowd in Boston.
Afterwards, Garnett told reporters, “Loyalty is something that hurts you at times because you can’t get youth back,” an obvious statement directed squarely at James, advising the most sought after free agent in NBA history to avoid letting the loyalty James has to his hometown Cavaliers get in the way of possibly winning an NBA championship with a new team.
Like an older brother giving sage advice, Garnett passed his wisdom on to James, recalling the twelve long Hall of Fame-worthy years he toiled as one of the best players in the league without winning an NBA title, while remaining loyal to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who drafted Garnett as a high school phenom (like James) with the fifth pick in the 1995 NBA draft, as the first NBA player plucked from high school in 20 years.
Despite his previous faithfulness to the Timberwolves however, there’s been no looking back for Garnett, who was a key piece in helping turn the 24-win Celtics of 2006-07 into an NBA title winner in Garnett’s first season in Boston a year later.
It remains to be seen whether or not James has played his final game as a Cavalier after he quickly and disgustedly removed his Cleveland road jersey immediately upon entering the locker room tunnel following the final buzzer on Thursday night.
However, one thing is certain for the Knicks while courting James and seeing the Celtics’ victory over the Cavaliers. Star power alone –- even in the Knicks’ ideal scenario of landing James along with either another big free agent star like Toronto forward Chris Bosh this summer, or perhaps Denver forward and New York native Carmelo Anthony next summer -– could leave James as unsatisfied in New York as Garnett was in Minnesota.
Look no further than Garnett’s time in Boston to see why that might be the case.
Minnesota tried in vain to do what the Knicks are attempting now. The Timberwolves already had their own James, in Garnett. They attempted to pair him with another star in former Knick guard Stephon Marbury. Later, it was forward Wally Szczerbiak, a former all-star with Minnesota; and, they tried talented swingman Latrell Sprewell (who earlier, helped lead the Knicks to their last NBA finals, in 1999) and playmaker and seasoned two-time NBA champion, guard Sam Cassell.
None of it worked. Only when Garnett made the jump to Boston, did he finally capture the NBA championship ring that he, like most players, so desperately coveted for years, leading the Celtics to their 17th world championship in 2008. And now, Garnett is telling James not to stick around in Cleveland only if doing so would give James his own ring sooner rather than later.
Granted, it wasn’t just a simple change of scenery that pushed Garnett to that point after failing to do so in Minnesota.
Talent, above all else, is needed to win in the NBA. The upgrade in Garnett’s supporting cast was significant, with a core like scoring machine forward Paul Pierce, sharpshooting guard Ray Allen, and ultra-talented point guard Rajon Rondo in Boston.
But, talent alone doesn’t win NBA titles, either. If it did, Garnett might have won a title in Minnesota, and James, the reigning two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, who led his Cavaliers to the NBA’s best regular season record last year, and again this year, would have at least reached the NBA finals last season, and would still be playing now.
No, it’s not all about talent. Defense — especially defense — heart, hustle, sound teamwork, sacrifice, everyone buying into a solid system, balance, and playing together as a true unit rather than a collection of talented individuals were the ingredients that produced Garnett’s first NBA title.
And, they were the keys that derailed James’ latest quest for an NBA title this year.
This year’s fourth-seeded Celtics were supposed to be too old, too slow, and unable to keep up with the 25-year-old James and his Cavaliers, winners of a staggering 127 regular season games over the past two seasons.
The consensus was that the Celtics had their moment two years ago, but surely the 34-year-old Allen (a fifth overall pick by Minnesota himself, one year after Garnett, who is now 32, the same age as Pierce), and the 35-year-old Rasheed Wallace, who joined Boston this year after winning an NBA title in Detroit (in 2004) with the type of same toughness and team concept exhibited by today’s Celtics, were all past their collective prime.
Yet, Boston proved that although there’s a “me” in “Ja-me–s,” that word doesn’t fit into “team.”
That’s not to say that James is a selfish player. He tries to involve his teammates and he knows he can’t win alone. And, with a healthy elbow against Boston, he might have carried the Cavaliers past the Celtics and perhaps to that elusive NBA championship this year.
However, Cleveland, despite having the league’s best record and one of the game’s two greatest players (along with the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant), became only the second team in NBA history to win at least 60 games in consecutive seasons and fail to reach the NBA finals in either year.
And James (27 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists in Game 6 on Thursday), became just the seventh player in NBA history to record a triple double while being eliminated from the playoffs, thanks in part to the Celtics’ relentless defense, forcing James into committing nine turnovers.
Cleveland reached triple digits twice in its two wins during the series, but the Celtics never allowed more than 87 points in their four wins. Over the final three games of the series, all Boston victories, James was held to a combined 18 field goals while committing 19 turnovers.
For now, the Celtics still know what it truly takes to win in the grueling NBA postseason.
Boston gets it. Even after winning the NBA title two years ago and upsetting Cleveland on Thursday, Pierce said that moving on to the eastern conference finals against second-seeded Orlando (seeking its second-straight NBA finals trip), was no moral victory, and that only hanging an 18th NBA championship banner would make this season meaningful for the Celtics.
That’s the lesson in all of this for the Knicks.
The hope is to not only of course get James, but to also give him a far greater sidekick than Garnett ever had in Minnesota. But, even if successful in accomplishing those two things, it still might not be enough to bring an NBA title to a city that’s waited more than three times as long as Garnett waited for one.
Acquiring that type of talent along with a solid (if not great) current young core, will make the Knicks instant contenders in the Eastern conference. But, to eventually take that next step, the one that James has been seeking for himself, the Knicks should very carefully examine what Garnett and the Celtics just accomplished in ending what might be James’ last season as a Cavalier.
While all of the buzz in New York is currently centering around acquiring James and his number two guy, the Knicks should also be reviewing the way they approach things on the court, particularly in evaluating a system preached by head coach Mike D’Antoni, which doesn’t often emphasize the type of defense and team play that just ended another underachieving season in disappointment for James and Cleveland.
Unless the Knicks also incorporate many of the same qualities that made Garnett and the Celtics champions, even landing King James and his prince might never bring an NBA crown to New York.