In December of 2003 the New York Knicks decided to bring a Hall of Fame basketball player to the franchise. They signed Isiah Thomas to become the President of Basketball Operations.
His first big move was to trade for the hometown kid Stephon Marbury.
“Can Stephon and Isiah Save the East?” an ESPN the Magazine cover asked after the trade went down in 2004.
The team made it to the playoffs that season with Marbury at the point. They were swept.
But before their season ended in embarrassment at the hands of the New Jersey Nets, Thomas stepped onto the court of Madison Square Garden, with the lights of the “World’s Most Famous Arena” shining down on him, and 19,000 blue and orange die hards hanging on to his every word.
“Welcome to the playoffs,” he proclaimed. Zeke thought the Garden was his. Garden Chairman James Dolan was infatuated.
Unfortunately for Thomas and Dolan the Knicks couldn’t win a game. Their fans walked out of the arena after getting manhandled by Jason Kidd and his Nets, and the Knicks never made it to the playoffs again under Thomas. The Garden went dark.
THE KNICKS ARE BACK
Finally, after years of mediocrity the Knicks are back in the playoffs. They have two superstars. One is a hometown kid.
More importantly, they have a General Manager who is respected and doesn’t seek attention. Donnie Walsh won’t be at mid-court welcoming Knicks fans to the playoffs, when the club comes home next Friday for Game 3 of the series. Amar’e Stoudemire, the man who boldly signed with the Knicks when they were down, and famously announced to this city starving for a championship: “The Knicks are back,” will do the talking on the court.
Everybody knows that when free agency began last year, the Knicks and their fans had one player in mind: LeBron James. Instead, James famously announced to the huddled masses on national television that he was going to the Miami Heat.
Walsh had to get back to work. He needed to bring a superstar to this franchise after two season of dumping away players who couldn’t honestly say to someone: “I’m worth the money they’re paying me.”
The 70-year-old GM went to Plan B, and signed Stoudemire to a 5-year deal worth over $100 million dollars. Knicks fans said ‘OK’ we have a star. What they didn’t know was that the Knicks got a superstar. And another was on the way.
STAT AND MELO…AND CHAUNCEY
As the Feb. 24 trade deadline was approaching the Knicks were in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference. They were playing well, and only a massive collapse would leave them out of the playoffs.
But the Knicks weren’t satisfied and they made a blockbuster deal for Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, and among those that got sent to Denver in the trade, were three guys who helped get the Knicks in position to make it to the playoffs.
When they clinched a playoff spot at the Garden Stoudemire didn’t forget to thank the three guys who helped the Knicks regain some respect around the NBA.
With Anthony and Billups replacing Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari in the starting lineup (Timofey Mozgov also went to Denver) the Knicks struggled. They looked confused on offense and were soft on the other side of the ball. The term, defense, went out the window.
But just recently, Anthony has found his groove and Billups is comfortable leading the team at the point. Amar’e Stoudemire — who missed three games towards the end of the season — struggled along with the rest of his team when Anthony came on board, but he too, has played like he did in the first half of the season. The team even has a legitimate sixth man in Toney Douglas coming off the bench.
Even with the talent on offense, they are, however, an abysmal rebounding team that lacks size down low. It has also been comical at times to watch the Knicks play defense. They don’t have a true defensive stopper on the team and guys like Anthony and Stoudemire seem to pick and choose when they want to make a defensive stand.
For the Knicks to make a run they will have to try to outshoot their opponents, something that’s very difficult to do come playoff time.
BACK IN THE PLAYOFFS
The Knicks first playoff game since 2004, begins today. They will take on an NBA-title contender in the Boston Celtics, a team with its own trio of stars.
Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are the three names that everybody thinks of when the Celtics take the court, but they have a fourth superstar, in Rajon Rondo, whose starting to take leadership of the team.
With the young point guard running the show the Celtics are as dangerous as any team in the playoffs. They play strong defense, and when their old legs are sagging along at times, they pick up the intensity to compensate for the lack of youth among their star players.
This group of veterans already has a championship ring, and were in the finals last year, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers. Although the Knicks, as an organization will make its first appearance since 2004, Anthony, Billups and Stoudemire have plenty of playoff experience to go around.
Anthony has never missed the playoffs since he came into the league. Billups is a champion and a finals MVP, and Stoudemire has had successful runs with Steve Nash in Phoenix.
Coach Mike D’Antoni, the man who led Stoudemire and Nash in Phoenix, knows his team has a tough road. They will have to actually play defense instead of taking some nights off like they did during the season. They will need role players to step up, because their three stars can’t do all the work themselves. Guys like Douglas, Jared Jeffries, Shawne Williams, Bill Walker and Anthony Carter will have to make big shots when they get the chance.
The Knicks need a lot to go right.
But they do have shot. Anthony is playing as good as anyone in the league, and Stoudemire is rested after he was out with an ankle injury during the final week of the season.
There hasn’t been much trash talking prior to the playoff opener, but this series will be a battle. The third game between these two teams left players bloodied, and Anthony still has the scar by his left eye to prove it.
If the boys in orange and blue can somehow play with the same intensity that the Celtics do they can make this a series. They are a dangerous team going into the playoffs because with two superstars and a veteran point guard running the point, they can get hot, and possibly put a scare into Boston.
Nobody knows what will happen in this seven game series. Most think the Celtics will advance, and they’re probably right. But the Knicks have a shot to surprise a lot of people.
But one thing is very different from these playoffs and the show Thomas tried put on in 2004—there will be no years of mediocrity to follow. The Knicks are done waiting for the next superstar they can grab in free agency. They finally have the pieces to put together a team that will be a perennial playoff team. Whatever happens. Win. Lose. “The Knicks are back.”