After trying for two years to build their entire franchise around LeBron James, the New York Knicks’ pursuit of the most coveted free agent in NBA history officially ended at exactly 9:27 p.m. on Thursday night, when the self-proclaimed king of basketball declared that he was “going to take his talents to South Beach” and join fellow superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Thanks to the calculated orchestration of former Knicks’ head coach and current Miami Heat president Pat Riley, along with some collusion on the part of the NBA’s newest Big Three, a line was immediately drawn in the South Beach sand for the NBA outside of Florida.
And, what could result for the suddenly improving Knicks is an eventual rebirth of their rivalry with the Heat, only next time, with bigger stars involved and possibly more at stake.
With all of the fanfare of James’ ego-driven, over-the-top, and completely unnecessary national television special to announce he’d be joining one of the Knicks’ biggest rivals, and with the Knicks finally making sound moves and now pointing in a much more promising direction since James’ “Decision,” Knicks-Heat II might be on the horizon with Riley leading a new cast of Miami villains for Knick fans to hate.
During James’ seven years as a Cavalier, Nike told us that we were all witnesses to James’ greatness. But, when the apparently too easily-influenced James was persuaded to cop out and join a trio the likes of which the NBA had never seen, what the sports world “witnessed” was an uncomfortable, shameless “LeBrand” promotion that reduced the former King to simply, Wade’s prince.
And, it was all staged from the Boys and Girls Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, by the equally unabashed facilitators, ESPN, using a charitable donation that James could have quietly given himself, as the excuse for invading millions of American homes with James’ egomaniacal nonsense.
What we “witnessed” during that debacle, was James, as quickly as he removed his Cleveland jersey for a final time upon entering the locker room tunnel in Boston, following his final game as a Cavalier on May 13th, going from the former face of the NBA to a league-wide scoundrel (sans Florida, of course) by teaming up with his band of Super Friends and creating a South Beach tidal wave for the NBA’s balance of power.
And, there’s an ironic twist in all of that.
Things are very different in today’s NBA. Many of the league’s stars on opposing teams are close friends. James was at Carmelo Anthony’s wedding in New York on Saturday. It was also attended by Chris Paul, who recently signed on with James’ marketing company, LMRM. Paul is also James’ closest friend in the league (so, with Riley pulling all of the strings, could an even more ridiculous Big Four be that far away via a future sign and trade deal?)
David Stern won’t admit it, but the NBA was at its best when it had its most intense rivalries and players would give up anything short of their families to beat their opposing fellow superstars.
Yes, those were the days… when Michael Jordan couldn’t stand Isaiah Thomas, and when no one outside of Michigan liked the Detroit Pistons’ Bad Boys. And, when no Knick liked anyone on the Chicago Bulls, the Indiana Pacers, or especially, the Heat.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics were entertaining in two of the three most recent NBA finals, but even with stars like Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Kevin Garnett, or Paul Pierce, it didn’t come close to how badly Larry Bird’s Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Lakers wanted to beat each other –- to the point that bragging rights over the other meant more than the Larry O’Brien trophy itself. Those teams would have played just as hard if they were playing pickup games at the local park, let alone for NBA titles. Because they respected, but despised, each other.
In those days, and in the decade that followed, NBA stars weren’t friends who wanted to play together.
They wanted to beat each other. More than anything.
Although only 25, James considers himself and astute historian of the game. Yet the player who scrapped his number 23 jersey with Cleveland in favor of number 6 with the Heat, in tribute to still arguably the game’s great player ever, after suggesting that no one in the NBA wear Jordan’s number 23, ultimately took the easy way out.
The number change is fitting. James wore 23 because at one time, he wanted to be the next Jordan. Now, he’ll wear 6 because he’s afraid to take that mantle –- at least, not without the help of not one, but two other top stars besides himself.
James said he didn’t want “end up 31 years old with bad knees and no rings.” Understandable, for sure. And, he had every right to leave Cleveland after seven years with a lack of a true championship caliber supporting cast around him (although Jordan would have relished the challenge to stay in Cleveland and patiently build a winner that would have beaten a Wade-Bosh combination or anyone else in his path).
It’s not so much that James left his hometown, but how he left, stringing other organizations (like the Knicks) along, and embarrassing his hometown team on national live television, causing the diehards in Cleveland to burn his jersey and inciting a scathing letter from Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert, who attacked James far more than James attacked the basket against Boston in May.
But, it’s the way that James continuously attempts to make himself bigger than the game which now makes him easy to hate. Especially for Knick fans.
James has always been a frontrunner. He’s the guy from Akron, Ohio who often wore a Yankees’ cap and openly rooted for the Dallas Cowboys in a city that’s suffered as much as any sports town, particularly with the Indians, Browns, and James’ former franchise, for decades.
So, it should come as no surprise that James once again, went with the frontrunners.
What Gilbert essentially said to James with much angrier and honest words was:
“Don’t build your hometown team into a title winner as Jordan, or even Bryant, would have. And, don’t risk lifting New York up or trying for as many titles as Jordan had in Chicago, with a very solid core already there. No, go with your buddies who you should have wanted to beat instead of joining.”
During the LeBronathon leading up to “The Decision,” Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, arguably the future face of the league in a few years, in contrast to James, very quietly re-upped with the Thunder because unlike James, Durant possesses class to compliment his immense talent.
James told us during his prime time spectacle that he “decided that morning.”
If you believe that, you’ll believe Miami is a better and more sophisticated basketball town than New York.
The truth is, the Miami Thrice idea was hatched in 2007 when James, Wade, and Bosh became good friends during the United States Olympic trials, and it was just a matter of which team could clear enough cap space to unite all three on the same roster.
It just so happened that it was Riley who could accomplish that best.
Riley can’t be blamed for wanting to do all he can to improve his organization. But, Knick fans still remember the way Riley disrespected their city the way James embarrassed Cleveland.
James quit on Cleveland the way Riley quit on New York. Neither wanted to keep trying to win when they were each pretty close to the ultimate goal. And then, true to the real character of each, they both selfishly cut ties in the most unprofessional of manners.
Gilbert learned of James “Decision” at 9:01 p.m. on Thursday night, via a phone call from a member of Team LeBron, without so much as any direct contact from the cowardly “King” himself.
It drew a striking similarity to how Riley bolted the Knicks for the Heat via a gutless, faxed resignation to the Knicks’ front office following the 1994-1995 season.
No wonder James and Riley ended up together in Miami, They deserve each other.
King? Not exactly, because a king leads, he doesn’t follow. And certainly, not to the free agent frontrunners in Miami.
Wade meanwhile, easily the most likable (not saying much) of the four between he, James, Bosh, and Riley, still has reason to be scorned simply for being part of this summer’s free agency charade. Not just for colluding with James and Bosh over the past three years, but for emulating James, Bosh, and Riley in acting as phony as a World Cup soccer player flopping around to draw a yellow or red card on an opponent.
Remember, Knick fans, it was Wade who only days ago, gave you false hope by saying he was “in a New York state of mind” after meeting with the Knicks. This was the same guy who made it appear that he was seriously considering returning to his home town of Chicago to be closer to his sons as he works his way through a bitter divorce, knowing full well, he’d never leave Miami.
And, as long as Riley could scheme it all well enough, James and Bosh were always going to join Wade’s team, no matter how much James’ inner circle tried to create needless drama and speculation, while fostering the attention that James always craves.
And Bosh, who Orlando head coach Stan Van Gundy said was “following Wade around like a lap dog,” filmed his free agent “tour” as part of a reality documentary –- probably to go pair with James’ reality TV special on Thursday night. Just pathetic.
There’s plenty of reason for Knick fans to despise them all. More than they hated Riley before (when he coached the Heat in the late 1990’s during a classic four-year rivalry with the Knicks). More than Tim Hardaway. More than Alonzo Mourning. And, more than P.J. Brown after he body slammed Charlie Ward, leading to several key Knicks getting suspended, costing the Knicks perhaps a real chance taking down Jordan’s Bulls, whom the Knicks were very even with during the 1997 regular season.
Pat The Rat knew what he was doing then. That was the only way he could get back in that eastern conference semifinal series, and win three straight games to beat the Knicks in seven games. And today, he has no shame in loading his roster to the point that the Heat are suddenly hated throughout the NBA, as he and Wade seek their second title for Miami, while hoping for a dynasty thereafter.
The Knicks meanwhile, have been a disaster since their earlier rivalry with the Heat, losing more games than any team in the NBA over the past nine seasons, while making just one playoff appearance and winning no playoff games over that time.
And, they hadn’t even had anything to show for all of that losing, having given away top ten lottery picks in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, and potentially, in 2011 and 2012, while gutting their roster in the hopes of landing free agents like the ones reeled in by Riley.
However, it appears that in only the past several days, the Knicks have finally started to put together a nice team.
Hours before James’ finally stopped teasing everyone, the Knicks made it official that they wouldn’t get shut out of the free agency sweepstakes (despite missing out on getting James, Wade, or Bosh), when they signed five-time all-star and 2002 NBA Rookie of the Year, Amar’e Stoudemire, who will turn 28 in November.
Stoudemire, who was also at Anthony’s wedding, expects Anthony to join the Knicks as a free agent after next season. After playing under Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix, Stoudemire should give New York its first legitimate star in a while, to build around as he tries to pull in a second, in Anthony.
What often makes Stoudemire flourish is a good point guard to set him up, such as when Stoudemire played with Steve Nash, in Phoenix. The Knicks have addressed that need as well, agreeing to a deal with Raymond Felton, the fifth overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft by the Charlotte Bobcats, for whom Felton averaged 13.3 points, 6.5 assists, and just 2.6 turnovers per game in five seasons.
Forced to deal perhaps their best player in recent years, forward David Lee, who would have left as a free agent, the Knicks very quietly acquired a good package of young talent from Golden State on Friday in the aftermath of James’ event rivaling the setup for a presidential state of the union address.
Coming to New York are 6-foot-5, 26 year-old former Kentucky star Kelenna Azubuike, who was injured most of last season, but who is a valuable double-digit scorer; 6-foot-10, 250-pound role player Rony Turiaf; and the prized player in the deal, Anthony Randolph, an athletic and versatile 6-foot-11 forward with a seemingly high upside, who plays both ends of the floor well. The 14th overall pick in the 2008 draft out of LSU, Randolph has been called a more athletic Lamar Odom, and was invited to the USA national team’s minicamp. In his second season last year, Randolph averaged 11.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks in just 22:41 per game.
As far as attracting other top free agents, Stoudemire isn’t the only one who believes Anthony might become a Knick. ESPN’s Chris Broussard said that Anthony, who was born in New York, and who spends a considerable amount of off-season time there, “is dying to get to New York” despite a big deal on the table from the Denver Nuggets and a possible work stoppage that could potentially cost Anthony money under a new collective bargaining agreement if he doesn’t accept Denver’s offer before next season is over.
Still, with Stoudemire in Anthony’s ear and the other young pieces like Bill Walker (who lost about 25 pounds to slim down in time for the 2010 summer league) and Knick draft picks Toney Douglas (a very capable backup to Felton), Wilson Chandler, and especially, Danilo Gallinari, who caught the attention of Anthony during a Knicks’ win over Anthony’s Nuggets at Madison Square Garden in late March.
Gallinari and Anthony were involved in a scoring duel while exchanging words during a third quarter in which Gallinari helped New York outscore Denver by 13 points en route to five-point win. The battle gained Anthony’s respect and with Stoudemire in Anthony’s ear, and the Knicks developing some talented, young supporting pieces, Anthony might very well be intrigued in becoming the Knicks’ answer to Riley’s acquisition of James.
By signing just the one superstar in Stoudemire, the Knicks retained cap flexibility over each of the next two seasons, especially with center Eddie Curry’s salary coming off the books after next season.
It’s enough cap space to continue the Knicks’ momentum forward, and with Stoudemire as a big-name draw, the Knicks could be on their way toward eventually challenging the Heat, even with the Miami monopoly of talent that Riley collected.
At the overdone South Beach party to welcome the Heat’s triumvirate on Friday, Wade said, “I used to look forward to matchups against LeBron.”
That’s how it should have remained.
Instead, what we get from Wade is:
“Now, I look forward to practices against him.”
That’s sad, very sad, for the NBA.
But, it’s now the reason that Knicks fans for the first time since the days of Jordan and Indiana’s Reggie Miller, have someone to hate again, besides Riley.
It’s been a long time since then, and it’s been just as long since the Knicks have been good enough to be anyone’s rival.
Although they’re not there yet, they’re certainly on that path for the first time in several years.
And, although James and Bosh wouldn’t accept it themselves, it’s a challenge that Stoudemire relishes, saying at his Knicks’ signing, that “the Knicks are back.”
Well, not yet, but much closer now, with all of general manager Donnie Walsh’s recent moves.
Meanwhile, although Riley believes he’s on the verge of a dynasty, nothing is guaranteed. Just after James’ announcement, computer projections predicted the Heat to finish 66-16, as the one seed in the Eastern conference next season. Funny, but that was the same record and seed for James’ Cavaliers this past season, before they bowed out of the Eastern conference semifinals in six games.
Now that Miami has pulled off its coup, Pat The Rat is back, with his new Knick villains in place.
And, it seems that, as Stoudemire says, the Knicks are at long last, on their own way back.
At the very least, they should once again be riled up by Riley and Miami, and all of the ingredients could soon be in place for the Knicks and Heat to renew their rivalry even more intensely than where it stood over a decade ago.
It’s up to the Knicks to finish the task and make that happen, and once again, put the heat back on the Heat.