Knicks Buy Ticket for "LeBron Lottery"By making a pair of deals that shipped out leading scorer/rebounder Zach Randolph and second leading scorer Jamal Crawford while bringing in the expiring contracts of Al Harrington, Cuttino Mobley and Tim Thomas, the New York Knicks officially bought their ticket for the 2010 "LeBron Lottery." In fact, the Knicks could be so far under the salary cap in two years that they could theoretically offer maximum contract deals to two players.
Although there has been some talk that these trades signify that the Knicks are essentially writing off this season, the three new players are well suited to the uptempo style that Coach Mike D'Antoni favors. It is easy to picture Harrington averaging 20 ppg if he gets enough minutes, Mobley could score in the mid-teens and Thomas--who played for D'Antoni in Phoenix--could be a solid contributor off of the bench. The Knicks are currently tied for the sixth-eighth spots in the East with a 7-6 record and it is certainly possible that they could continue to hover around .500 with their current roster. A major factor in New York's improvement is that D'Antoni banished Stephon Marbury, a move that I've advocated for years.
However, while I disagree with the idea that the Knicks have abandoned all hope until 2010, I think that a few cautionary notes should be considered about what may happen when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and several other top players become free agents.
1) Whenever a max contract player's deal nears completion there is often feverish talk about him leaving his old team for greener pastures but in most cases these players end up re-signing with their original teams.
2) Now that the Knicks will theoretically be able to sign two max contract players in 2010 there is speculation that they will try to pair LeBron James with Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. Either of those combos certainly looks like a great dynamic duo--but history shows that NBA championships are not won merely by putting together two great players. In fact, sometimes even having three great players is not enough: Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor never won a championship together, though Chamberlain and West teamed up with Gail Goodrich to capture the 1972 crown right after Baylor retired. Oscar Robertson/Jerry Lucas, Wes Unseld/Earl Monroe and Karl Malone/John Stockton are three examples of pairings of members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List who played together in their primes and did not win titles together. You have to have all of the pieces in place to win a championship, not just a couple great players; Robertson later won a championship with Top 50 player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks, Lucas and Monroe won a ring with the 1973 New York Knicks (who also had Top 50 players Walt Frazier and Willis Reed) and Unseld teamed up with Top 50 player Elvin Hayes to lead the Bullets to the 1978 championship.
It is true that having one or two star players who can take over a game is usually part of the recipe of building a championship team but a championship team also must have a well rounded roster of lesser players who make important contributions. More importantly, a championship team also must have the mentality--and ability--to play consistently good defense. Just look at the teams that have won championships in recent years: the Celtics, Spurs and Pistons were great defensive teams, the Heat was a very good defensive team and the Lakers were a very good defensive team that could be great when it counted, though Shaquille O'Neal's lack of conditioning/effort resulted in inconsistent performances at times. Since 1990, every championship team except the 1991 and 1993 Bulls and the 2001 Lakers ranked in the top ten in defensive field goal percentage--and the relatively low regular season rankings for the Bulls and Lakers are deceptive because those teams proved to be excellent defensive squads during the playoffs.
3) Turning to more recent history, the combination of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming has yet to lead to a single playoff series win, much less a championship. This year the Rockets added Ron Artest to the mix but so far the most notable thing that they have accomplished--if that is the right word--is the remarkable feat of all three of those players getting injured in the same game. Yes, it's way too soon to write off the Rockets but is also way too soon to assume that they will even make it out of the first round, much less win a championship. Another cautionary tale is the pairing of McGrady and Grant Hill in Orlando. Hill was coming off of the best season of his career and McGrady was a rising young talent when the Magic acquired them in separate deals prior to the 2001 season. McGrady won the Most Improved Player Award for Orlando that year and emerged as a superstar but Hill was hobbled by an ankle injury that he suffered in the previous year's playoffs and never again played at his previous level. Meanwhile, Detroit obtained undrafted free agent Ben Wallace in the Hill deal and Wallace became the rebounding and defensive cornerstone for the Pistons as they made it to the NBA Finals twice, winning the 2004 title by defeating the star laden L.A. Lakers, who had four future Hall of Famers on the roster (Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, an ailing Karl Malone and the shadow of the Glove--call him the Mitten--Gary Payton).
Literally half of the league's teams have cleared salary cap space in the hope of landing James, Wade, Bosh or another star in 2010. Obviously, most if not all of these teams will fail in these efforts--and history suggests that even if a team manages to wrestle a star player away from his old team this does not guarantee winning a championship.
Am I suggesting that teams should not try to sign James, Wade and/or some of the other big name players who will be on the market in 2010? Of course not. What I am saying is that fans--and front office executives--should understand that without the right infrastructure in place a team cannot win a championship. Remember that in 2007, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen each watched the playoffs at home--and their 2008 title run with the Celtics was fueled not only by putting them together on the same team but also by surrounding them with good role players who all understood the critical importance of playing tough, physical, relentless defense.
This means that the Knicks--and anyone else who has bought or will buy a ticket for the "LeBron Lottery--should spend the next two years putting together the foundation for a winning a championship by hiring a defensive minded coach and signing tough minded, unselfish role players. Mike D'Antoni has a great basketball mind and he has been a successful NBA coach but I wonder if his approach can lead a team to an NBA title. LeBron James has already been a part of one defensive minded championship team--the 2008 U.S. Olympic team--and he has seen how a defensive minded approach has helped the Cavaliers become an elite team even without a second star player. I would not be so quick to assume that James is going to leave Cleveland unless the team that is wooing him has a better infrastructure in place to win a championship than the Cavs do; James is going to make tons of endorsement money no matter where he lives and he is smart enough to understand that his ultimate basketball legacy will be based in large part on how many titles he wins.
So much can happen between now and 2010 that it is impossible to say what these players and teams will decide to do when the moment of truth arrives. Injuries and the emergence of new stars and/or new contending teams are just some of the factors that could influence the decision making processes of both the free agent players and their suitors.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:43 PM